Transcript Statement to the Senate: Afghanistan
Mr President, next month we will mark and commemorate the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States. Those attacks and their aftermath changed global security and politics. Through our collective efforts as part of a coalition of nations we helped to protect the world from repeats of those atrocities and blunted the attacks of al-Qaeda terrorists who had established bases in Afghanistan to train and to plot.
The disappointment and pain felt by so many at the return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan after these 20 difficult years is absolutely understandable, not least for the Afghani people and among those who have sacrificed so much to try to improve the lives of Afghans. I acknowledge the more than 40,000 Australian Defence personnel and civilians who served in Afghanistan, honour the 41 soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice, and the many Australians wounded in attacks who continue to feel the effects of their service, both mentally and physically.
Right now there is no immediate answer or evaluation that will change this disappointment. There will be time for reflection and to incorporate all of the successes and the failures into our understanding of how the world should deal with states that harbour terrorists and regimes that brutalise their own people. For the moment, however, we are dealing with what has happened and looking beyond that disappointment because we have ongoing work ahead of us.
Our immediate mission is to rescue Australians, Australian visa holders and their families and vulnerable Afghans. They include Afghans who are at risk of harm due to their work for Australia. That is our focus. We are making progress, but it is difficult and complex, as all of the countries involved in the same operation are finding.
Since the 18th of August we have brought more than 1,000 people out of Kabul so far, and we will continue this mission as long as we are able. We are working with all of our partners in country, here from Canberra and in relevant posts in close cooperation. That consultation and cooperation is vital to the ongoing evacuation efforts. Conditions near the airport in Kabul are very dangerous and changing rapidly.
The wellbeing of the Afghan people is also a priority. The Afghan people have suffered through 40 years of conflict. It is devastating to see and hear of the situation there now. I fear for Afghan women and girls, their rights to education, work and freedom of movement. I fear for the many women I have met over the years of my visits to their country.
As for all Afghan people, women and girls deserve to live in safety, security and dignity. Any form of discrimination and abuse should be prevented and their voices must continue to be heard. Australia will continue to support the Afghan people through our development program, working with trusted international partners. We are focusing our $50 million bilateral program on humanitarian priorities, those occurring as a result of these events but also including in response to the drought, internal displacement, Covid-19 and economic instability, working through existing humanitarian partners, including UN agencies.
We have committed to bringing an initial 3,000 Afghans under our humanitarian program to Australia. We work closely with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and will provide support to UNHCR's efforts to manage internal and external refugee movements.
Australia will support international efforts to maintain pressure on the Taliban and on any future Afghan administration to meet its responsibilities to its people, its region and the wider world. The United Nations Security Council's call for an immediate end to the violence against civilians, the restoration of security, civil and constitutional order and urgent talks to resolve the crisis and to arrive at a peaceful settlement is endorsed by Australia.
I understand, Mr President, why a return of the Taliban, especially so quickly, suggests that the achievements of the last years enabled by the hard work and sacrifice of so many Afghanis and the many Australians and international partners who have contributed so much will be undone.
As we look at this now, many Afghan people have received years of experience of improved education, of health care, of women's rights. School enrolments have increased tenfold since 2002, and access to health care rose from 9 per cent to 57 per cent between 2002 and 2020. The maternal mortality rate has fallen from 1,100 deaths to 396 deaths per hundred thousand live births between 2000 and 2015. Women's representation in politics increased from zero in 2001 to 27 per cent in 2020.
There is great anxiety that our commitment to Afghanistan has been in vain. I know that from many of my own friends who have served and worked in Afghanistan, both military and civilian, including colleagues here in this Parliament. To ensure it is not in vain we will look for every opportunity to sustain the benefits to the Afghan people that the international presence has brought. We must not lose sight of the fact that many Afghans have seen what a better alternative looks like.
One thing of which I am certain, Mr President, is that our ADF personnel and veterans, our diplomats and other civilians who have also served must know that their efforts have not been in vain. Australians did the job that we as a nation asked of them, and they served overwhelmingly with great distinction. Nothing will change that.
We must also consider how we combat terrorism from here. Our international networks of cooperation are now more synchronised and networked than ever before. Australia's major concerns today and for much of the past two decades have been with our immediate region – South East Asia – where violent extremism has taken hold before in pockets of Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia. We've worked with those countries to fight and disempower those violent extremists. We thank those countries for their ongoing efforts on this and recommit ourselves to that task. There is a real risk of which we are acutely cognisant that if terrorist bases are once again established in Afghanistan this will morally energise and materially support terrorists closer to our shores.
Finally, we are clear in relation to the Taliban. The extreme ideology they have long projected blighted lives and produced conflict. The world is watching now to see how they will behave. They say they want the trust of the international community. With a request for trust comes an expectation that that trust will be earned. That should start with ending all violence against civilians, ensuring the participation of different political actors in Afghanistan, upholding rights particularly the rights of women and minorities, allowing journalists to report freely, and opposing violent extremists.
We make no premature commitments to engage with an Afghan administration that is Taliban led. Any new Afghan administration will be judged on its conduct. The international community will continue these discussions. We are also very clear that the Taliban has seized power by force, not through the support of the Afghan people.
Mr President, the links between our two peoples began in the 1860s when Afghan cameleers helped develop our remote inland regions. They have so strengthened in the decades since. In recent years with further immigration, including under Australia's humanitarian program. Afghan Australians will continue to make a rich contribution to our society here. A stable Afghanistan that prevents violent extremism would contribute to security in Central and South Asia and inhibit terrorism further afield, including in our region.
I'm told by my post in the UAE and by the ADF that the first person literally off the first Australian plane from Kabul a few days ago was a little Afghani boy and that he skipped down the ramp when it was lowered. It was a compelling and important sign for those seeking to help and those working on this evacuation.
I know the desperation and fear that is all-pervasive right now. I know it is difficult beyond our imaginings for so many brave and proud people in Afghanistan right now. And for many here who grieve for the country and the people they love, perhaps as their birthplace or perhaps for other connections, it is very difficult right now.
Australia and our partners, governments, non-government, humanitarian, academics, countless others, all have an enduring commitment to the people of Afghanistan. That will not change.
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