5 September 2022

Senate Motion – Afghanistan

I rise to also speak in support of the motion noting the first anniversary of the fall of Kabul, a motion which I am pleased to co-sponsor with the Leader of the Government in the Senate and Senator Payman, for whom this motion brings extremely personal reflections. I thank the government for the opportunity to co-sponsor this motion.

It is with a degree of great sadness and disappointment for so many people that through this motion we acknowledge that, on 15 August this year, it was one year since the fall of Kabul to the Taliban. We acknowledge all the consequences the last year has brought to the people of Afghanistan and to the Afghan diaspora here in Australia and around the world. Many still feel, quite understandably, for loved ones in Afghanistan. As we speak to this motion, we also note that we are just four days away from the 21st anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks that so shook the world at that time and which sparked the military engagement to come in Afghanistan.

The return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan was a major blow to all those who fought for peace, for freedom and for human rights in Afghanistan over those long 20 years. That disappointment, no doubt, is felt most acutely by the many Afghan people, alongside those who sacrificed so much in pursuit of peace and stability. Today we honour the 41 Australian soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice during their service in Afghanistan. We honour those from other nations who served alongside them and those within Afghanistan—Afghans—who equally sacrificed. We honour the many more Australians who were wounded and those who continue to experience the trauma of what they faced and endured, including those whose lives have been lost since returning home. This anniversary, I’m sure, is felt intensely by the more than 39,000 Australian Defence Force personnel and civilians who served in Afghanistan; felt intensely by their family, friends and loved ones; and felt intensely by those from all nations who served during those conflicts. We honour them, we acknowledge their pain and we thank them for their service.

The images we all saw on 15 August last year and in the days surrounding that—of people crushing to get to flights to evacuate out of Kabul, of the desperation to flee—are a haunting reminder of the fall of Kabul. Australia, through the work of the Australian Defence Force and other agencies, facilitated the departure of 4,100 people out of Kabul on dozens of flights. I acknowledge and thank all of those involved in those operations. Eighty thousand people were evacuated in those few days, thanks to the combined efforts of nations around the world.

There are many stories of those who managed to escape, of those who made connections with people in this place, with people throughout our systems of government and with those in other nations that helped them to be able to escape. There was a day-and-night effort put in by Australian officials and by those of like-minded countries to help as many as possible. Sadly, of course, there are many more who were not able to undertake that journey or to have that opportunity. As this motion notes, Australia remains committed to the resettlement of Afghans in Australia, especially of those who assisted Australian operations in Afghanistan, as we should. On behalf of the coalition, I reaffirm our strong bipartisan support for this important and ongoing resettlement effort.

Most importantly, despite the withdrawal from Afghanistan, we, like those friends and allies around the world who value democracy, freedom and human rights, especially the rights of women and girls, remain committed to working in a bipartisan way with the government here in Australia and with the international community to respond to the humanitarian needs of the people of Afghanistan. This continuing effort is critical.

As this motion notes, the Taliban has stripped freedoms from the citizens of Afghanistan. It has clawed back the educational opportunities for young girls and women. The Taliban has stripped away 20 years of progress as it engages in violence and repression. The United Nations, in its report Human rights in Afghanistan, released in July this year, noted that in the first 10 months after the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban ‘the erosion of women’s rights has been one of the most notable aspects of the de facto administration’. The United Nations Acting Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, Markus Potzel, said:

The relegation of women and girls to the home denies Afghanistan the benefit of the significant contributions they have to offer.

During the period of time in which peace, stability, freedoms and democracy were sought to be achieved in Afghanistan, the advances made and the opportunities created for young women and girls across Afghanistan were perhaps the greatest achievements of many, and to see those advances now so eroded, the hopes and opportunities of those women and girls so crushed, is unquestionably one of the most depressing aspects of all we have seen in the last 12 months. Despite all the promises made by the Taliban in August last year, we have seen the end of so many gains that came to be held dearly by the Afghan people, including the right, the freedom, of peaceful assembly, freedom of expression and freedom of opinion. Dissent has been curtailed through crackdowns on protest and by the curbing of media freedoms. These are freedoms we in Australia are fortunate enough to be able to take for granted. However, the events we’ve seen unfold in Afghanistan since 15 August 2021 are a reminder that such freedoms can never be taken for granted by those who enjoy them. Extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests and detention, torture and ill-treatment, along with human rights abuses, have, as the UN has noted, sadly become the norm in Afghanistan over the past year.

The Amnesty International report Death in slow motion, released in July this year, reported that 95 per cent of the Afghan population does not have enough food to eat. It is appropriate therefore that Australia implement the United Nations Security Council Taliban sanctions regime into Australian law and apply those sanctions in efforts to promote peace, stability and security of Afghanistan. It is appropriate that Australia rightly be a significant contributor to the humanitarian aid effort in Afghanistan.

In April this year, the then Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator Payne, announced an additional $40 million in aid in 2022. This was in addition to $100 million announced in September 2021. This was announced just after the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban. It was following and alongside the implementation of those UN sanctions. This aid is crucial and ongoing support to ensure that we deliver aid and assistance to where it is needed and that we deliver the humanitarian support and assistance across the wide range—the almost insurmountable range—of needs faced by the Afghan people.

Through this motion today, we also recognise the important role of the Afghan diaspora in Australia. We’re all, in this place, well aware, I’m sure, that connections between Australia and Afghanistan go back a long, long way—to the 1860s, when the first Afghan cameleers arrived in Australia, playing their role in the development of our remote inland. Today, more than 40,000 people born in Afghanistan, most of whom have arrived since the war in their homeland began, are part of a community which makes a significant contribution to Australia. That community is growing, with more than 31,500 visa places being made available over four years to Afghan nationals through our humanitarian program and family stream. That was a decision announced by the coalition government in the last budget. It’s one which I note, and I encourage the current government to maintain their efforts to ensure full delivery of those places.

This motion is a tangible demonstration that we should never give up in standing up for the rights of Afghans, that we should never forget the battles they face and the challenges they face, that we should not grow apathetic or tired of focusing on those needs and pressures. We must continue to work to uphold the rights of all Afghans, especially women and girls and minorities groups who have suffered so much over the past year with little hope in sight for the future. We must call on the Taliban to honour the commitments they made and to be true to the words they gave in relation to the rights of Afghans and, in particular, Afghan women and girls. We must be strong in our own position and urge all other nations of the world to apply the same pressure to the Taliban to reverse the type of erosion of rights they have undertaken. We must not allow Afghanistan to become once more a safe haven for terrorists and their support networks. We have seen all too starkly what can happen when the Taliban believes it can act with impunity.

In speaking to this motion, I want to reiterate the words of the Leader of the Opposition, who said on the anniversary date:

The tragedy of August 2021 does not detract from 20 years of service and sacrifice which denied al-Qaeda a safe haven, inhibited the terrorist organisation’s ability to plan operations, and prevented attacks being conducted on Australian soil or elsewhere around the world.

It is important to reiterate that point because, for those who may feel that what was undertaken through those years in Afghanistan was wasted effort, it is important to remember the achievements that did occur and were made and what we continue to fight for.

With this motion today, we stand with Afghanistan. We stand with the people of Afghanistan. We must and will remain steadfast in our determination to see the people of Afghanistan achieve their hopes for a peaceful, free future of opportunity and equality.