From Workersonline, the official organ of Labornet, No. 172, 28 March 2003.
Four Labor elders – Michael Costello, Michael Easson, Bob Hogg and Jim Nolan – have asked for this statement to be circulated around the labour movement for comment.
When the war in Iraqi is over – and for the sake of the Iraqi people we must all hope that is soon – new political and policy challenges will be thrown up for Labor.
Consistent with Labor’s traditions of nation building, peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance, we must commit the party to supporting the Iraqi people. Just as Australia, regardless of our reservations, would have participated in their liberation we must be willingly involved in the hard job of reconstruction.
There are a number of major issues that have emerged in the lead up to the coalition of the willing’s war on Iraq that over time must be considered by Labor such as the UN’s impotence in tackling major human rights abuses and the nature of the Australian/US alliance.
However, there are three immediate considerations that, in our judgment must inform Australia’s reaction to the war.
First, an unambiguous commitment to the peace – and a constructive diplomatic and practical role in securing it; secondly, a foreign policy for Australia which gives primacy to human rights in the context of our national interests; and thirdly, a renewed effort to develop international legal rules which are underpinned by an irreducible commitment to the protection of human rights.
Having made the commitment to the war, Australia cannot be indifferent to the peace.
Because of our attitude to war, especially, neither can Labor.
In his final pitch on the war, [Prime Minister] Howard has tried to swing attention to the humanitarian arguments, which we have argued all along, remain the most compelling justification for intervention. Likewise, humanitarian concerns were the most credible of the reasons advanced against intervention.
The defeat of Bush Snr in 1992 despite the successful prosecution of the 1991 Gulf war is a reminder of the manner in which even dramatic history making events are soon eclipsed. Labor’s chance to defeat Howard in 2004 may, in all probability, depend upon issues which have yet to emerge. But the need to develop a thoughtful and principled response to the peace in Iraq will nevertheless be an important marker of Labor’s credibility.
Humanitarian concerns make it imperative that Australia makes an unambiguous commitment to peace in Iraq. That is a commitment which Labor should be proud to champion. So far, Howard has committed a nominal amount of $47 million – even Australia’s access to Iraq’s wheat markets would more than justify that – and Howard has ruled out a peacekeeping role in Iraq.
Labor should insist on a significant peacekeeping commitment, but one tied to tangible results.
There is a ready and obvious way in which Australia can make this contribution.
Australia’s special forces have won the admiration of the world’s professional soldiers but that is not the limit of our international regard. Australia, as well, has a justifiable reputation as a peacemaker and as a supplier of expert peacekeepers.
Cyprus, Cambodia, East Timor are three powerful examples of Australia’s commitment to peace and reconstruction.
Australia’s energies must be devoted to making all available diplomatic and practical efforts to see that the peace is won – from the Iraqi peoples’ perspective.
Progressive, secular democratic elements in the Iraq opposition can be assisted in this cause. Labor can promote the cause of reconstruction and democracy with conviction. The threat – tentatively made by France – that the Iraqi people might now become the victims of international ostracism because the coalition’s intervention should be strongly resisted.
Prime Minister Blair has been insistent that this intervention in Iraq cannot be viewed in isolation. It must mark a step – undeniably important in itself – but a step on the way to an enduring Middle East settlement.
Tony Blair has made the obvious but nonetheless correct point that the reversal, since September 2000, in the apparent progress towards a settlement of the Arab/Israeli conflict, continuing injustice, terrorism and violence, cast a huge shadow across the world. He reminds us that this is “a shadow which all of us in power have a duty to remove.” Labor must demand that Australia throw its diplomatic efforts behind Blair’s support for a comprehensive settlement by 2005 of the Israeli/Arab conflict, including a permanent two state solution, the end to illegal settlements on the West Bank and Arab attempts to deligitimise and destroy Israel.
In the past, too many efforts such as Former Israeli Prime Minister Barak’s plan for a just Middle East peace has been shoved into a bottom drawer after the disappointment of rejection. Labor should be ready to throw its weight behind renewed initiatives like this and through our links with Blair and UK Labour must lend strong support to see it through. Australia’s foreign policy must be re-defined to place human rights in the foreground. We do not agree that there is a clean separation between human rights and the national interest.
The support of freedom and liberal humanitarianism everywhere is in our national interest. The concept of ‘linkage’ of human rights to full participation in the international community – long disparaged by Kissingerite ‘realists’ – must be re-asserted in the context of gross abuse of human rights. Genocide within a State’s borders is not ‘ok’, so long as it doesn’t cross that country’s borders. Respect for basic human rights must be the irreducible minimum for recognition by, and full participation in, the world community.
We argue that the failure of the UN to deal with Iraq and act seriously on the terms of resolution 1441 is a symptom of a wider malaise in international diplomacy. The Security Council long ago failed to deal in a credible manner with Iraq and the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf war. It did nothing in the face of the extraordinary human rights abuses in Iraq – most notably the Iraqi genocide of the Kurds and Marsh Arabs. This should come as no surprise notwithstanding the view, which emerged that the international community could achieve more in the post cold war era. Yet the Security Council failed to address two other major significant human rights crises since the end of the cold war – Kosovo and Rwanda. A full debate has yet to take place, which fully appreciates the extent to which the human rights dimension should inform international relations.
Again, Blair’s powerful idea of having an ‘ethical dimension’ to foreign policy should not be cynically dismissed, but remain the standard by which foreign policy is to be measured. It is no cliché to re-assert that the national interest of democracies is promoted, not hindered, by a commitment to human rights and that democratically accountable governments will be more reliable partners for peace.
While this may be a new ‘dimension’ in foreign policy, there are worthwhile precedents for its operation. For example, the European Union has made some headway in securing concessions as a condition of EU membership and foreign aid is often tied to human rights.
We contend that the necessity for a new debate on human rights and strategies for securing them has been underlined by the tragic case of the sanctions imposed on Iraq since 1991. Iraq, Burma and more recently, Zimbabwe, demonstrate that sanctions often mean little to unaccountable, despotic, governments.
Ordinary people are first the victims of their despotic rulers only to have their predicament cruelly compounded by the actions of a well-intentioned international community. Renewed efforts must be directed to the development of international legal rules which incorporate a commitment to the protection of human rights and have real traction.
The ultimate test of Australia’s strength of commitment to the new human rights agenda in Iraq will surely come if the ‘coalition of the willing’ falters in its stated commitment to Iraqi democracy. Importantly, Labor should be vigilant in its insistence that the America’s feet (and our own) are held to the fire on the promise of both Iraqi freedom and reconstruction as well as a just settlement of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. This was a solemn commitment given repeatedly by Tony Blair which we believe was given with conviction. It deserves Labor’s strong support.
Australian Labor should promote a new debate on these vital topics of human rights, the international legal order and in so doing address the real and urgent issues which will need to be addressed after the immediate drama of the Iraq intervention recedes.
We put these views forward to our colleagues in the party knowing that they may be controversial and likely to spark a debate – especially about what might happen next. If so, we can be proud that the party we love will be engaged in debate at the heart and soul of what it means to be Labor. In international affairs, as everywhere else, the principles of liberal humanitarianism, of practical social justice, are a light to the world.
We four are all long-standing members of the party. Consistent with the last national Conference of the party to encourage debate and greater attention to policy development, we offer these thoughts to our colleagues on the implications of the present debate.
– Michael Costello, former secretary of Department of Foreign Affairs
– Michael Easson, former secretary, Labor Council of NSW
– Bob Hogg, former secretary Australian Labor Party
– Jim Nolan, former NSW Ombudsman
This letter was circulated to all members of the parliamentary Labor Party in Canberra and more widely.
At least this missive, written with misplaced confidence that weapons of mass destruction would be found in Iraq, stressed the importance, post military victory, of nation-building, of what happens next. The lack of thought given to the latter by the Coalition was catastrophic in the aftermath of the Iraqi invasion.
I trusted Tony Blair’s judgement that chemical and other weapons were being hidden, that Saddam Hussein was a significant threat to the region and to the West.
It seems that, in part, what everyone got wrong was an inventory issue. In the first Gulf war there were UN inspections and a reckoning of those weapons held by the Ba’athist regime. Most of the caches of illegal weapons were destroyed by the government and their destruction was accounted for by the UN inspectors – though this had been protracted and not always comprehensively documented. Thirteen years after the first Gulf war was a long time to destroy what the Iraqis had agreed to abandon. There was great paranoia about what was the real situation. I read that some intelligence eves-dropping picked up Iraqi generals commenting to each other about hidden weapons. Former UN arms inspector Richard Butler, the Australian diplomat, had publicly and privately voiced his alarm as to what really might be the true story.
In retrospect, given that nothing of significance was discovered, it seems like the auditing of what was destroyed was poor. The chatter picked up through the spying was probably separately recorded too by the Iranians. Perhaps Iraqi generals wanted to plant disinformation with their Iranian counterparts. Perhaps, also, in the weird imperial court of the Hussein family, Generals wanted to drop hints to the supreme leader that not everything had been destroyed and that recovery of weapons in well hidden locations was one day possible. I cannot imagine any other explanation for the conflicting stories.
We now know much of the intelligence available to US and UK political leaders was more mixed and uncertain than previously known. Secretary of State Colin Powell famously excoriated “pre-masticated” evidence presented to him. Yet despite such reservations he did go before the UN and state that there was sufficient evidence of Iraqi bad intentions and the need to take tough action.
Powell also warned the President that “if you break it you fix it” – a suggestion that nation building and a protracted occupation would be necessary. The notion that garlands of flowers would greet Allied soldiers from a grateful nation seems incredibly naïve today, not that anyone serious thought in exactly those terms at the time.
Today a myth has grown that the intelligence was fabricated, not just masticated, and that the neo-conservatives wanted to finish off the job they believed should have been done in the first Gulf War.
Certainly, the evidence now strongly points to faulty assessments of data, a cavalier review of risk, and poor post-war planning, including a lack of deep understanding of Iraqi society, in its tribal, religious, and sectarian manifestations.
As the consequences include the rise of Al Qaeda, ISIL, and an increasing Iranian presence and influence over the nation, it would seem obvious that the outcome is worse.
That, of course, must be an uncertain conclusion. We do not know whether the Hussein family and the Iraqi government might have done in the ensuing dozen years. Plus, the conclusion downplays what might now be the position if a considered intense winning of the peace had of been attempted. But the balance of the argument is now very much in favour of the non-interventionists, what might also be called the realist position.
There is still the question of what do civilised nations do when tyrants are in power. Turfing them all out is clearly impractical and needs careful assessment. Usually, I suspect, where there is a coincidence of national interest and morality does intervention occur, with the latter more of a prop to the former.
Where gross violations of human rights happen, genocide and ethnic cleansing for example, there is the case for international intervention, hopefully with the support of the UN. But that might not always be possible, where great power rivalries are at stake.
The late journalist and columnist, human rights champion, feminist and author, Pamela Bone (1940-2008) wrote one of her most controversial columns titled ‘Why I Still Support This War’, The Age, 5 April 2003. Therein she referred to our letter, commenting that:
…not all the left have abandoned the principle of justice. Four longstanding Labor figures – Michael Costello, Bob Hogg, Jim Nolan and Michael Easson, all of whom have argued the humanitarian case for the use of force to oust Saddam – have issued a statement calling for a new foreign policy for Australia that gives primacy to human rights, and for a renewed effort to develop international legal rules which are underpinned by an irreducible commitment to the protection of human rights.
She noted our claim that: “Genocide within a state’s borders is not OK so long as it doesn’t cross that country’s borders”. Like us she thought that this was what the war was about.