Human Rights Day, recently observed, is a very significant day, commemorating the UN General Assembly endorsement on 10 December 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the right to seek asylum. Human Rights Day is an important time to highlight that that wars create and exacerbate humanitarian crises and the conditions that lead to refugees, which raises critical issues about Australia’s continued involvement in U.S. wars.
Australia is blessed by a remarkably defensible geography, and faces no credible threat of major attack, let alone invasion. Our military forces, however, have been deployed in US wars of choice in Asia, the Middle East and Afghanistan for decades, which has come at great cost to our soldiers, our economy and international reputation; and to the civilians, infrastructure and the economy in those countries where the wars have occurred.
Since the end of World War Two, Australia has followed the US into a number of wars.
- The Korean War between 1950 – 1953
- The Vietnam War of the 1960-70s, which was never constitutionally declared war under Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution. This war led to mass displacement and escalating poverty as Vietnamese refugees fled the region; and impacted neighbouring nations like Laos and Cambodia, with waves of refugees going across the Thailand border
- The 1991 Gulf War led by the U.S. against Iraq in response to Iraq’s invasion and annexation of Kuwait.
- The Afghanistan War which followed the 2001 United States invasion of Afghanistan, and continues still
- The 2003 Iraq War that began with the invasion of Iraqby a United States-led coalition that overthrew the government of Saddam Hussein, and continued for much of the next decade as an insurgency emerged to oppose the occupying forces and the post-invasion Iraqi government. It is estimated that as many as 600,000 Iraqis were killed in the first 3–4 years of conflict. In addition to the number of refugees who have fled Iraq, by the end of 2015, 4 million Iraqis had been internally displaced, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
- The US-led military action in Syria, where around 470,000 Syrians have lost their lives in the six years of armed conflict, began with anti-government protests before escalating into a full-scale civil war as forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and those opposed to his rule battle each other It has developed into more than just a battle between those for or against the President with the rise of the Jihadist group Islamic State, as well as an affiliate group of Al Qaeda, and their gradual dominance of the other opposition groups, adding a further dimension.
The violence in Syria has caused millions to flee their homes – nearly 11 million Syrian people have been displaced, with 3.8 million made refugees. While there are internal forces at play (independent of the international military responses) which have been a major cause of the exodus of refugees – a critical examination of Australia’s military role in Syria is critical.
Rather than assisting in military operations in Syria, IPAN urges the Australian Government to work for a diplomatic resolution. Air strikes lead to more death and misery for Syrians and have the potential to trigger a major world war engulfing many countries – and clearly bombing has not worked to deal with this six-year long conflict.
Australia has made a commitment to resettle 12,000 Syrian Refugees, and has committed $44 million for cash, food, water and blankets to 240,000 refugees in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan – and this should be its focus, delivering as much assistance as possible on the ground, or in nearby refugee camps, rather than aiding the conflict.
IPAN is fundamentally concerned that wars create and exacerbate humanitarian crises and the conditions that lead to refugees. Many of the refugees on Manus Island come from war torn areas – including from Syria, Iraq, Sudan, Bangladesh and Burma (including Rohingyan refugees) and Sri Lanka. We must work to address the underlying reasons why people have to flee their own countries to find safety. In addition, wars lead to extensive environmental damage contributing to “environmental refugees”, as global climate change and desertification have threatened the livelihoods of millions of people around the globe.
An independent Australia could position itself to advise other Governments to seek diplomatic solutions to conflict, rather than using military force. At the moment this is not possible, in large part due to Australia being hardwired into American wars because of the presence of joint Defence facilities and military activities on Australian land – such as the U.S. marines in Darwin; joint military exercises with U.S. troops in Queensland; the hosting of the U.S. spy base at Pine Gap, which contributes to the targeting of assassination drones and gathers intelligence for use in wars; and the North West Cape base in West Australia, which is heavily involved in preparations for space warfare.
Australia is involved in U.S. wars and/or military build ups in the Middle East and the Asia–Pacific, in places where the invaded country has never been a threat to Australia or the Australian people. In international forums, Australia echoes U.S. policies opposing Nuclear Disarmament. IPAN believes that it is time that our nation asserts our sovereignty and takes control of our foreign policies, which should involve a review of the presence of U.S. bases and troops in Australia. It is time we started promoting genuine peace and security, human rights, a sustainable environment and our independence.
Trillions of dollars are spent on weapons each year globally. Australia has committed almost $450 billion dollars, over the next ten years, for defence forces and military bases, mainly to support the U.S. in its wars. Rather than investing in war, we should be investing instead in health, education, training and infrastructure in war torn and developing countries and in alternative industries to arms manufacturing. In addition, in our own country we should be investing in public and community needs such as health, education, income security for all, affordable housing, creating sustainable and socially useful local industries and jobs and addressing climate change.
This is an edited version of a presentation given at SOS Manus: Human Rights Day in Alice Springs, on 10 December 2017
Jonathan Pilbrow is a policy consultant living and working in Alice Springs, active in social justice and peace issues, and a member of the national Coordinating Committee of the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network (IPAN); and the Alice Springs Peace Action Think Tank (ASPATT).
IPAN is a network of organisations around Australia – community, faith and peace groups, trade unions and concerned individuals – aiming to build public dialogue and pressure for change around the need for an Independent and Peaceful Australia. For more information on the mission and objectives of IPAN https://ipan.org.au/constitution/