In 2003, the objectives of our intervention in Iraq were flimsy. Today, the clear objective is to help the Iraqi government protect innocent civilians from atrocities.
Photograph: Ahmed Jallah/Reuters
On 6 April 1994, Hutu extremists began a shocking genocide of ethnic minorities in Rwanda. The world condemned it, but took no action. Just 100 days later, 800,000 people had been senselessly slaughtered.
Now, 20 years on, we grapple with the evil of Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria. But this time, I am hopeful that as an international community we won’t look back and say we did nothing in the face of mass atrocity crimes.
There are confirmed instances of IS engaging in widespread ethnic and religious cleansing, targeted killings, forced conversions, abductions, human trafficking, slavery, sexual abuse, and the besieging of entire communities. There are reports of thousands of Iraqi civilian deaths, thousands injured and almost two million people who have fled their homes. These reports are so serious that the United Nations Human Rights Council has authorised an investigation into mass atrocity crimes in Iraq.
The horror of Rwanda and similar tragedies have caused the world to consider what our responsibility is to protect civilians where their own government is unwilling or unable to. What emerged was a new international doctrine: the “responsibility to protect”.
Former Labor foreign minister, Gareth Evans, championed this idea,and its acceptance by the UN. He uses a set of criteria to judge when “responsibility to protect” should apply. On the current question of Iraq, these principles provide Labor a very useful framework to help guide whether we support Australian involvement – both now and into the future.
The criteria include whether there is just cause, the right intention, whether it’s a last resort, the action has legitimate authority, is proportionate, and has a reasonable prospect of success. On the current information, Labor’s assessment is that these criteria have been met for Iraq. Australia and the world have a responsibility to protect and an obligation to act.
When Australians hear their government talk of involvement in Iraq, they have good reason to be cautious. The disaster of the 2003 invasion colours every debate. And we should never forget its lessons.
As I said in a letter presented to then US secretary of state Condoleeza Rice back in 2003 – the Bush administration, the Blair administration, and our own Howard administration rushed in. They went in on the basis of false claims about weapons of mass destruction, and before weapons inspectors had time to complete their work.
The result? Nearly a decade of conflict, hundreds of thousands dead, and significant instability in the region. In the context of this history, it is right that people urge caution now.
But while history should inform our actions, it should not cloud a sober assessment of the facts of the current situation. The situation today is very different from 2003.
In 2003, Australia was one of four countries to take action in Iraq. Today, we’re one of about 40, including many countries from the Middle East, and countries that did not sign up to the 2003 invasion.
In 2003 we went in against the wishes of the government of Iraq and against the wishes of many Iraqis. Today, we’ve been asked by the democratically elected government of Iraq to help fight off an immediate threat to its citizens – and action has the backing of the UN secretary-general.
In 2003, the objectives of our intervention in Iraq were flimsy. Today, the clear objective is to help the Iraqi government protect innocent civilians from mass atrocity crimes.
Labor has supported Australia’s involvement so far. But that support comes with important considerations.
We’ve been clear that we do not support the deployment of Australian ground combat units to directly engage in fighting IS. We believe Australia’s military involvement in Iraq should continue only as long as is necessary to place the Iraqi government and its forces in a position to take full and effective responsibility for their own security.
We believe that if the Iraqi government and its forces adopt policies or engage in actions that are unacceptable to Australia, or if our involvement is ineffective – our support should cease.
And as an important accountability, if Australia’s engagement was to continue beyond a matter of weeks, Labor will ask the prime minister to formally update the parliament at least every three months. Each update should detail what our efforts have achieved and what progress we have made towards the conclusion of our involvement.
And there’s of course, the broader geopolitical context. The conflict in Syria has fed the rise of IS. Around 200,000 people have been killed in Syria. The scale of the humanitarian disaster has seen the impacts spill over into the region. More than 9m displaced Syrians have to go somewhere, and that has seen neighbours such as Lebanon and Jordan take in millions of refugees.
Photograph: Khalid Mohammed/AP
But Labor does not support taking action in Syria similar to that being taken in Iraq. There is no clear evidence that such Australian involvement could successfully provide relief to the humanitarian crisis that is occurring in Syria. It’s not clear which of the forces on the ground we could support. And there is no clear international support or authority for that kind of action.
Our immediate efforts in Syria should focus on increased humanitarian assistance, and the international community should continue to work, including through the Security Council, to end the fighting in Syria.
The UN has called for $6.5bn in aid for the Syria crisis, the largest ever appeal for funds. Australia, under the Coalition, has pledged just $30m or so in aid – a sadly inadequate response to an enormous humanitarian need. And we have agreed to take just 2,200 refugees from Syria and 2,200 from Iraq (as part of our regular intake) when millions are displaced from their homes.
Labor believes Australia should be doing more. We can give greater financial support. We can take more refugees from the region. In government, Labor increased the humanitarian refugee program to 20,000 places.
The Abbott government took a backward step and cut our humanitarian program to 13,750 places. This limits Australia’s ability as a good global citizen in times like this to be able to assist people fleeing violence and persecution. Certainly, Labor believes the intake of 4,400 refugees from Iraq and Syria announced by the government should be in addition to the existing 13,750 places in its scaled back humanitarian program.
As a party of social justice and compassion, Labor believes there are circumstances where Australia has a responsibility to protect. The current situation in Iraq is one such circumstance.Labor will work constructively with the government, but as an opposition we also have a responsibility to question – to carefully scrutinise the approach put forward by the government. We’ll look at the facts and make sensible judgments at every step. Labor’s shadow national security committee is meeting regularly to carefully work through these complex, difficult issues.
National security is above politics, but such important decisions are never beyond question, interrogation, or criticism. We have supported debate in the parliament and will continue to do so. We have also requested the government keep the Australian people abreast of the circumstances and the effectiveness of our involvement.
The decision to send Australian men and women into harm’s way should never be taken lightly, and Labor never will. Our responsibility to the people of Iraq is to ensure any action Australia is involved in leaves the place better, not worse. On the current facts, Labor sees no option but to act. To do otherwise could condemn innocent Iraqis to the same fate as the 800,000 Rwandans brutally murdered in just 100 days, two decades ago.
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