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Friday, 20 March 1987
Page: 1102


Senator ALSTON(3.42) —I want to speak briefly in the adjournment debate on the subject of Afghanistan because tomorrow is a day that is generally commemorated around the world as Afghanistan Day. It was initially proclaimed by President Reagan in 1983, being the first day of the Islamic spring, and since that time it has been a focal point for very many members of the Afghan community around the world. I think it is instructive that this country should take note of that fact because there are significant Afghan communities in both Melbourne and Sydney. Certainly in Melbourne since 1983 there has been an annual commemoration of the event and in Melbourne this evening there will be an occasion to mark the day.

I did want to make a couple of remarks. One is in relation to the humanitarian aspect of the refugee intake. The figures for the last financial year show that only 276 refugees have been taken into this country. In view of the fact that very many of those already here have very high academic and commercial qualifications, it seems anomalous, to say the least, that the Government has been so niggardly about the size of the intake, especially in view of the fact that Afghanis represent the largest group of refugees in the world. There are 3 1/2 million to 4 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan and about 800,000 to one million in Iran out of a total population of around 15 million to 18 million. So in terms of the devastation of the population one can almost equate what has happened in Afghanistan with what happened in East Timor as a result of the Indonesian intervention. Rather than simply talk in terms of Afghanistan as the Soviet Union's Vietnam, I think we should look at it from the perspective of those who have been unfortunate enough either to reside there or who have been forced to exit from the country.

I firstly urge the Australian Government to give much more compassionate consideration to a refugee intake in view of the fact that those already here have proved to be very reliable and worthwhile citizens who have a lot to contribute to this country. I have not come across very many of them who are unemployed and they certainly do not seem to shirk from working at more than one job.

The other aspect which I think is of significance is the neglect by the Australian Government of the whole question of Afghanistan. It is clear that the Minister for Foreign Affairs (Mr Hayden) has been taken in by the public relations propaganda of the Soviet leader, Mr Gorbachev, who claimed only in November last year that a withdrawal of Soviet troops was not far away. This year a visit by Mr Shevardnadze, the Foreign Minister, to Kabul resulted in his saying that he was very anxious to ensure a political settlement in this calendar year.

Nothing really has happened apart from a unilateral ceasefire which then resulted in some 12,000 troops being deployed to the eastern border region. There was quite a degree of bloodshed and dispersion of residents in those areas which was obviously a result of an unwillingness on the part of the Mujahedeen, the resistance guerrilla fighters, to accept the bona fides of the Soviet regime. I think their judgment is probably better than that of the Australian Government.

The Soviet Union has, I think, mastered a new technique very quickly. It is now a propaganda, public relations oriented government. No doubt it is much more conscious of world opinion in this area. I believe that the Australian Government has shamefully neglected its responsibilities in terms of moral persuasion. There are initiatives that could have been taken and have not yet been taken. The most that can be said by the Department or the Minister is that he has raised the question of Afghanistan with Mr Shevardnadze on his recent visit and in the event that there is a Soviet troop withdrawal, Australia would be prepared to offer its services as a member of an observer force. I do not regard that as good enough. I believe that there are initiatives that we could take, both in the General Assembly of the United Nations and elsewhere. I regard the formula that the Foreign Minister uses as utterly specious-that we do not recognise the Government of Afghanistan and, therefore, our communications should be directed through multilateral channels.

It is quite clear that the Soviet Union pulls the strings and intends to continue to do so. There is, therefore, no reason why we could not be outspoken in our condemnation of the original invasion and the very slow progress that is being made towards the troop withdrawal. The estimates that I think are reliably accepted are that there are some 120,000 troops. The war has now entered its eighth year and it is clear that the Soviets realise they are quagmired in an unwinnable war. They will not withdraw unless forced to do so by the weight of international opinion. The cosmetic leadership changes announced last year should fool no one. The fact of the matter is that one brutal puppet has been replaced by another. The current leader, Major-General Naji Bullah, has impeccable credentials when it comes to having organised the secret police in Afghanistan, but offers no promise of any amelioration of the conditions in that country. To suggest that Karmal was forced to retire on the grounds of poor health is simply a sick joke of the highest order. I would have thought that it is not a basis on which we should rely.

I therefore urge the Government and the Foreign Minister to take positive action in the field of international diplomacy. Mr Hayden is fond of saying that in the world of international affairs words are bullets. It is about time he discharged a few loud salvos in the direction of the Soviet Union. To date he has fired only blanks. In view of the fact that very little progress is being made and that the Geneva talks have been adjourned until May, I believe that one way of ensuring that they do not simply stall indefinitely is for countries in the Western region to take initiatives. I instance the deafening silence of the Minister on the occasion of the seventh anniversary of the Soviet invasion on 27 December last. Australia said absolutely nothing and yet the Governments of the United States of America, Britain, France, West Germany and China all marked the occasion by issuing strong statements of condemnation. I therefore find it difficult to understand the Government's lack of concern. I do not know whether it is because the Afghan community is relatively small, whether it is because it does not have much electoral clout or whether Mr Hayden is simply interested in big nation power plays and is prepared to disregard the range of atrocities and physical intimidation that is constantly being perpetrated in that unfortunate country. I therefore would urge that this day not pass unnoted. There is an opportunity for those in this country who are concerned with human rights to show, by urging the Foreign Minister, that Australia is not prepared to remain silent in this important area.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Senate adjourned at 3.50 p.m.