Senate debates

Tuesday, 3 March 2015


Middle East

9:02 pm

Photo of Concetta Fierravanti-WellsConcetta Fierravanti-Wells (NSW, Liberal Party, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the plight of the Assyrians in the Middle East but most especially in some of the recent atrocities that we have seen in the Mosul district. Soon we will be celebrating the Assyrian New Year—the year 6765—and I will be joining those celebrations, as I have for the last nine years. But it will be against the background of some very terrible events that are now happening in the Middle East—in particular, in the area of Mosul.

I remind the Senate, and I have spoken about this on various occasions, that the Assyrians have a culture that is embedded with the evolution of humanity and has helped to influence many forms of modern Christianity. Their language of Aramaic was the language of Lord Jesus Christ. Regrettably, the oppression of the Assyrians, often because of their faith, is also testament to their resilience. Understandably, this persecution has meant that increasingly, in past decades, thousands have sought refuge elsewhere.

I would remind the Senate that the Iraqis are one of the largest national groups that have been resettled under our humanitarian program over the last 10 years. They include quite a number of Christians of Assyrian background. According to the 2011 census, there were almost 22,000 people living in Australia who claimed Assyrian descent. Reflecting their persecution, Christian minorities from Iraq form the largest group of Iraqis that have been settled here in Australia. They suffered greatly after the 2003 invasion and have faced kidnappings, threats and even death due to their ethnicity and religious beliefs.

The foreign minister has recently used her powers, under the criminal code, to declare the district of Mosul in the Nineveh province, in Iraq, as an area where listed terrorist organisation Daesh is engaging in hostile activities. The declaration will make it an offence for a person to enter or remain in Mosul district without a legitimate purpose, and it carries a maximum penalty of 10 years. Mosul city, the largest city in Iraq controlled by Daesh, is the central location for foreign extremists to form networks and train. Daesh has carried out massive atrocities in the Mosul district, including public beheadings, crucifixions and summary executions as well as destroying numerous historical and religious sites.

Most recently, the dire situation facing the Assyrians occurred only in the recent week, with 35 Assyrian villages and towns on the banks of the Khabur river in Syria being attacked by Daesh. Most of the towns are now under their control. They have killed many people and taken hostages of a large number of families, including women and children. This has been reported in the press. I refer to a report by Al Jazeera on 1 March this year. It is a direct report from an observer. It said that fighters seized Syrian villages from Kurdish forces in Hassakeh last week, where entire residential areas were ransacked and houses were burned to the ground. Those who were not able to flee were either killed or kidnapped, according to their relatives.

Activists in the Assyrian community in Beirut have put the number of kidnapped Assyrians at around 240, but relatives say the number is much higher. Again, in The Daily Mail, an article on 3 March has some very graphic photographs in relation to this.

What we have seen as part of Daesh's assault on Mosul is the destruction—the absolutely appalling ransacking—of Mosul's central museum, where they have destroyed priceless artefacts that are thousands of years old—statues and artefacts that date from the Assyrian and Akkadian empires, some dating back to the ninth century BC. Some were sculptures from the Roman-period city of Hatra, situated in the desert south of Mosul, and there were Assyrian artefacts from Nineveh and surrounding cities.

As we know, UNESCO has been founded on the belief that peace must be established on the basis of humanity's moral and intellectual solidarity. In July last year, UNESCO launched an action plan to safeguard Iraq's cultural heritage. Indeed, in September last year UNESCO called for saving Iraq's cultural heritage following reports of massive destruction of books in museums, libraries and universities. According to the Director-General of UNESCO:

Islamic, Christian, Kurdish and Jewish heritage, among others, is being intentionally destroyed or attacked in what is clearly a form of cultural cleansing. We are gravely concerned about scale of traffic in cultural goods, from which Iraq has already greatly suffered over the past decade.

In November last year a conference was held on the endangered heritage and cultural diversity of Iraq and Syria.

Of course, on 26 February, Daesh destroyed these ancient artefacts. They actually posted a five-minute video which showed the destruction—men using hammers and drills to smash several statues in the museum. The militants have destroyed priceless collections of statues and sculptures. What they have done is absolutely atrocious in this wilful destruction. This is billions of dollars' worth of artefacts which have been destroyed with hammers. You can see from the video how they did this.

A Syrian writer from one of the activist groups in the area is quoted in The Guardian:

When you watch the footage, you feel visceral pain and outrage, like you do when you see human beings hurt.

As we know, under the Rome statute of the International Criminal Court, the deliberate destruction of cultural heritage is a war crime. Indeed, action is being taken, as I understand it, at various levels according to the Director-General of UNESCO, to stop what she describes as 'cultural cleansing'. She stated at a press conference on 27 February:

… the “deliberate destruction” of cultural heritage is a war crime …

It is a similar process in relation to the attacks that we saw on the mausoleums in Timbuktu by al-Qaeda

On 27 February the United Nations Security Council issued a press statement on this destruction of the religious and cultural artefacts in Mosul. The statement condemns the ongoing barbaric activities of Daesh:

… targeted destruction of religious sites and objects, and noted with concern that ISIL and other individuals, groups, undertakings and entities associated with Al-Qaida are generating income from engaging directly or indirectly in the looting and smuggling of cultural heritage items from archaeological sites, museums, libraries, archives, and other sites in Iraq and Syria, which is being used to support their recruitment efforts and strengthen their operational capability to organize and carry out terrorist attacks.

I conclude by saying that there is no way that Iraq should have to face this alone. Australia, as we know, is part of a coalition of 60 countries that are seeking to defeat Daesh. (Time expired)