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Christine Milne Senate Speech on Afghanistan

Christine Milne 25 Feb 2013


Senator MILNE:  I seek leave to move a motion to take note of the ministerial statement regarding Afghanistan.

Leave granted.

Senator MILNE: I move: 

That the Senate take note of the document. 

I note with interest that the minister says: 

Australia must continue to be clear-sighted about our objective in Afghanistan. 

But that is the problem: Australia has not been clearsighted about our objective in Afghanistan for quite some time. 

There is no more grave responsibility or decision by any country's leader than to choose to send young men and women to war to risk their lives for our country. As Major-General Cantwell said in his book, which was published last year: 

We need to have a crystal clear understanding of why we're getting into the fight, how long for, what we hope to achieve, how we will leave, and what conditions might prompt us to change strategy-this has let us down in Afghanistan. Human beings die as a result of warfare. 

I want to come to the Australian government's decision to now be engaged in the transition out of Afghanistan. In particular, the minister said in his statement: 

Our objective is to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a safe haven for terrorists.

He then went on to talk about the transition and said:

Australia will continue to remain firm in our support to Afghan security forces and firm in our commitment to the transition strategy that Australia and the international community, acting under a United Nations mandate, have agreed to implement.

The point that I wanted to discuss tonight in particular is the situation of women in Afghanistan. As one such woman said recently:

You can't have a secure Afghanistan unless Afghan women are safe. The knowledge that there is a comprehensive plan to secure women's safety is what will enable Afghani women to actively participate in public life and shape their country's future.

Unfortunately, the Australian government has no such comprehensive plan. In Minister Smith's latest statement to the parliament, women are mentioned three times and only in relation to Australia's service men and women.

Not once are the women of Afghanistan mentioned in the government's statement of transition out of Afghanistan. Of course I support the references to supporting Australia's service men and women with as much capacity as we have, particularly servicing their physical and mental health needs on their return. But the women of Afghanistan deserve our consideration.

Not once in the seven statements made to parliament or two speeches to NATO and ISAF has the minister ever talked about the vital importance of securing women's rights during the transition for the future prosperity of Afghanistan. And this is despite the fact that his department has signed up to the Australian National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security 2012-2018 to support, and I quote, 'capacity building for women in fragile conflict or post-conflict settings', and for 'putting in place specific strategies to promote the participation and protection of women and girls'. There is no sign of any concrete implementation.

The minister's latest statement is focused on improvements in Afghanistan. For an honest assessment, it is just as important as discussing the data that shows deterioration. Violence against women is one of these crucial indices of progress, but it is not mentioned. The Afghanistan Independent Humans Rights Commission recorded 4,010 cases of violence against women in 2012, up from 2,299 in 2011. Perversely, this may be a sign of empowerment because more women are finding their voice to publicly register their humiliation. But what its absence from the minister's statement highlights is that women's rights are not seen as a guiding priority of Australia's involvement. The Greens find that shameful. We must make women's rights in Afghanistan a key component of Australia's contribution during this transition.

The Afghan Australian Development Organisation, a fantastic NGO established through the hard work and dedication of Nouria Salehi, empowers women in Afghanistan through funds raised in Australia. They provide vocational training and literacy programs for women and young people in Kabul and nearby villages, as well as accredited formal training programs for science teachers. Back in Australia they assist Afghanis to settle into Australia and overcome the trauma experienced both in their home country and in our detention centres. They are a member of ACFID and have a local office in Afghanistan to support local community development.

Last month, a delegation of 50 eminent Afghan MPs and Afghani Australian civil society leaders came together to develop recommendations for the Australian government. They then briefed both the government and the opposition spokeswoman, in that case Julie Bishop, on the overarching recommendations. The first one was that Australia use its place on the UN Security Council to ensure that women, peace and security provisions are entrenched in all resolutions dealing with Afghanistan.

Most importantly for the purposes of the minister's statements is the upcoming mandate for NATO ISAF in October 2013. I would like to put the government on notice. It is essential that Australia use its place on the Security Council to highlight the role of women and to make sure that they are there in the peace and security provisions.

Secondly, make Afghanistan a priority country for national action plans for women, peace and security, with each government department implementing and monitoring a plan accompanied by a budget measure starting this May. You cannot say that you are serious as a government on national action plans for women, peace and security if you are not prepared to put a figure against it in the case of women in Afghanistan. Thirdly, the recommendation was that AusAID make gender equality the priority for their new country strategy, particularly focusing on the development within Afghan institutions and women's organisations.

Certainly, the Greens support those recommendations. Why would we not provide support to Afghanistan to achieve 25 per cent representation of women at elected bodies as per the Afghanistan Constitution, as well as achieve 30 per cent representation of women in leadership in all government bodies as per Afghanistan's commitment to the Millennium Development Goals by 2020? Why would we not provide direct technical and capacity building support to women to facilitate their involvement at the table in the peace and reconciliation process? Women's presence is not enough to meaningfully participate; women need an enabling environment and capacity building support both at the national and at the provincial levels.

When we ensure the exit of combat troops, we need to make sure that that is matched by increased support to gender sensitivity training and mentoring of the Afghan National Army, in particular the Afghan National Police. The Australian security sector training and mentoring should specifically focus on Afghan laws that protect women, human rights law and gender sensitive reforms. We must provide funding to the forces in Afghanistan after the main withdrawal of international troops to make sure that we build the Afghanistan National Security Forces' capacity to implement laws that protect women. We need to make sure that we support increased participation of women in the Afghan National Security Forces in high-level and local level decision making and especially the National Security Council.

I cannot see why we would not, in Australia, also make sure that we continue to support and resource the increased participation and access of women and girls to education through literacy and accelerated learning programs. Of course, we should focus on eliminating violence against women in Afghanistan by supporting Afghan civil society in the elimination of violence against women in law in Afghanistan.

I put on the record my disappointment that the minister has not, again, mentioned the plight of women in Afghanistan in this transition. If we are serious about having a plan which secures Afghanistan in the long term then we must protect the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan to participation and education, and we must use some of our aid budget and our transition money to that end. I think we could expect from the government some outspoken support in the UN Security Council. Australia has now got a unique position in the UN Security Council to raise and support this issue of empowerment of women in Afghanistan.


Question agreed to.


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