Senate debates

Tuesday, 2 September 2014


Iraq and Syria

7:13 pm

Photo of Christopher BackChristopher Back (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise this evening to lend my support to the decision of the government led by Mr Abbott to involve this country along with others in supporting the government of Iraq in the terrible circumstances that are playing out in that country at the moment. I place on record my appreciation for the support offered by Mr Shorten and the Labor opposition for the position taken. We are all aware of the shocking activities being perpetrated by ISIL and their associates in Syria and Iraq. They are indeed a major threat, not just to the region but internationally. I intend to address that in my contribution this evening. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, spelt out just some of the atrocities that these people have perpetrated in those countries. To use her words:

Grave, horrific human rights violations are being committed daily …

These include targeted killings, forced conversions to Islam, abductions, trafficking, slavery, sexual abuse and other atrocities that are, regrettably, too horrific to be spelt out in the public arena. Amongst those targeted have been Shia Muslims, Christians, Yazidis, Shabaks, Turkmen and others. Hundreds—if not thousands—of Yazidi individuals have either been killed, kidnapped or, in the case of women, sold into slavery.

Australia has joined France, Italy, Canada, the United Kingdom and the US in humanitarian and related logistical support activity. I place on record my support for these actions. They had to be taken at the time they were. Had they not been, we were at risk of seeing some indigenous populations in that country completely removed. We are providing humanitarian aid to those people who have been in positions where they were at great risk of losing their lives and in fact their populations. The logistical support that we are providing—as we know from statements from the Prime Minister and, in this place, from the defence minister and others—is for the Kurdish Peshmerga forces who are opposing the Islamic State forces. They have defeated them in the past and, with support, we hope that they will be able to do so again.

In my view, Australia and other free countries have a strong obligation to involve ourselves in these activities. I make the point that the Australian government, as it always does, is taking its action in full compliance with international law and the international community. The government is supporting the Iraqi government at a time when the Iraqi government is in a state of transition from the previous Prime Minister, al-Maliki, to the new Prime Minister, who has not yet taken up his position.

Reasonable questions that are being asked in the wider community are, 'Where is the threat to Australia?' and, 'Why are we involving ourselves at all in this activity?' The answer is very clear. In the past young Australians, for whatever perverted reason, have travelled to these regions, including Afghanistan, to join forces with groups like the Taliban. Upon their return to our country, up to two-thirds of them have posed a severe and serious risk to this country—and we have evidence of that. It will now fall to our intelligence agencies and others to protect our citizens and others residing in Australia. I understand from information available that there are at least 50 young Australians fighting with ISIL forces in Iraq and/or Syria at the moment and about another 100 are supporting them—150 personnel that are known about. If that figure of two-thirds is valid, when the crisis in Iraq is finished—and indeed it will finish—we could reasonably expect up to 100 young people whose minds are perverted as a result of what they have seen or participated in in Iraq or Syria wanting to return to Australia. Anybody who thinks these young people, having been activated and motivated as they will have been and having seen and participated in these activities, are not likely to pose a threat to this country upon their return is in a land that I do not wish to be in.

In my view, anybody returning to Australia who is not an Australian citizen and who it can be shown has participated in this sort of activity should not be allowed to come into Australia. They should be turned around and sent back to their country of their origin. If they are Australian citizens, if they have passports of this country, then, if it can be demonstrated that they have in fact engaged with terrorists in terrorist activities, they must be dealt with—with the full force of the law. In my view, we cannot allow these people to move immediately back into the wider community to corrupt others who might be of a like mind to themselves.

I refer to a statement on Iraq made by the Prime Minister yesterday in the other place. He started out with:

Many Australians are understandably apprehensive about the risk of becoming involved in another long and costly conflict in the Middle East.

That resonated with me, because 'apprehension' was the right term. In 2003, our youngest son, then a lieutenant with the Royal Australian Armoured Corps, was directed with his troop into Baghdad at what was believed to be the conclusion of hostilities. Their role was to protect members of the Australian diplomatic corps based in Baghdad. He was there for some six months. They were very trying times; we obviously had little communication with him. That term 'apprehension' resonated simply because, as you can understand, our family was incredibly apprehensive about the role that we understood him to be undertaking along with his associates. I am very proud and pleased to say that they all arrived home safely, although one young fellow did regrettably pass away on training exercises at Mount Bundey in the Northern Territory some months after they returned from Iraq. I am equally proud to say that, as a result of his efforts, as a young lieutenant at the age of 23 years he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for his work in Iraq. Indeed, he was the first lieutenant so honoured since Vietnam. He then went back into Afghanistan in 2006, this time as a captain, again as a combat officer.

I think it is incumbent on all of us to have a very clear understanding of the separation between the decisions of government, the decisions that are made in this place, and those who are sent to undertake these roles. Again, I think we learnt lessons from Vietnam, because unfortunately there was a confusion of roles and responsibilities post Vietnam, and regrettably those coming back from the active theatres seemed to be joined with the parliamentarians of the time, and criticism was levelled at them. I am very pleased to say, as a result of our own personal experience, I never saw at any time criticism of troops returning from those theatres. If people had criticisms—as indeed they had, and I have heard them in this place—people in a democracy have got the right to express those criticisms. But, indeed, they have not been directed at those who were sent to serve.

We of course at this moment have mainly aerial services in support of the activities being undertaken. There is no indication from the Prime Minister that they will be elevated to any other further level. In my concluding comments I would urge the Australian people to always separate the decision making about the roles of our soldiers, our airmen, our sailors and others from the actions that they undertake. They are prepared and well trained for the roles and responsibilities given to them as young people; be under no illusion about that. In this case, as in others, we should always give great accord, as we do in this place, to those who are entrusted to undertake the role that the cabinet, the ExCo and the parliament ultimately require them to undertake.