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Tuesday, 18 August 2009
Page: 5208


Senator BOB BROWN (Leader of the Australian Greens) (3:40 PM) —by leave—I move:

That the Senate take note of the statement on Afghanistan.

This is a statement from the government, and in particular the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Stephen Smith, on Afghanistan and Pakistan. I want to take this opportunity to express the deep dismay that the Greens have with the recent promulgation of laws to do with women’s rights by Afghan President Hamid Karzai. We have our defence forces, good and true, in Afghanistan to bring a measure of democracy and human rights to the people of that country, who have been through decades—indeed, centuries—of turmoil. When one reads of President Karzai’s recent proclamation on the rights of women, one has to question the cause in which we put at risk the lives and wellbeing of our defence forces.

Having been internationally criticised for a move to invoke repressive laws on women in Afghanistan earlier this year, it turns out that just a couple of weeks ago President Karzai used a constitutional loophole, according to the Guardian newspaper from the United Kingdom, to enact a law that allows minority Shiite Muslim husbands to refuse food and money to their wives if they deny them sex. The law also prohibits a woman leaving a house without her husband’s permission and it also automatically gives guardianship, or control, of children to the husband and/or to the grandfather in any dispute between a husband and wife. Let me read from the Guardian:

The legislation, which governs many aspects of family life for Afghanistan’s Shiites, has been sparking controversy since Karzai signed an earlier version in March. Critics said the original legislation essentially legalized marital rape and Karzai quickly suspended enforcement after governments around the world condemned it as oppressive and a return to Taliban-era repression of women.

                         …                   …                   …

But the revised version, made public in July, riled activists all over again because many restrictive articles remained, including one that appears to give a husband the right to starve his wife if she refuses to have sex with him.

That is, she will be denied food and sustenance. Female parliamentarians said they thought they would get a chance to fight the revisions only to discover in recent days that Karzai had taken advantage of a legislative recess to approve the law by decree. Parliament has the right to examine and change the law when they reconvene, but the laws stay effective in the meantime.

What indeed is this parliament to make of this law? Are we to stay silent about this sort of barbaric legislation from the elected president of Afghanistan in what I can only take to be an affront to decency to a world that is putting a lot of people at risk of life and limb to come to the so-called assistance of Afghanistan?

The Greens position here is that Australian troops should be withdrawn from Afghanistan. That has been our position all along. At the outset, when Afghanistan was taken over by the US defence forces in the wake of the bombing of the buildings and the huge loss of life in America, we thought that after getting rid of the Taliban there would be the establishment there of a more enlightened society. However, President Bush, the chamber will remember, then withdrew the bulk of troops from Afghanistan to invade Iraq, and that allowed the Taliban to become re-established. Now with the Taliban growing in influence in Afghanistan we have President Karzai beating them to the punch with barbaric laws that have no place in civilised society.

I call upon the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Prime Minister of this country, Kevin Rudd, to issue the greatest objection to President Karzai in Afghanistan and a demand for the withdrawal of this legislation. It will be said that we should not be intervening in the domestic law of another country. We have our troops in that country, and they are there fighting for liberty, democracy and decency. This legislation is an affront to all three of those things. I ask our government to take up this issue. I do not accept that silence is necessarily consent, but I want to know what the government is doing to have this law rescinded in Afghanistan. The polls indicate that President Karzai may well be re-elected. Indeed, commentators are pointing out that his action in passing this law was to placate some extremist and hateful clerics who wanted these laws brought in—in other words, to get their support.

But is that the Afghanistan we are fighting for? Are we asking Australians to put at risk life and limb—and are we asking their families see their loved ones going off to a very dangerous situation in Afghanistan—to uphold laws like this? I think not. It is a matter that we have to confront and debate. If Afghanistan is going to—whatever government is there—resort to these religious based laws which include extreme repression of women then so be it. If that is what the people of Afghanistan want—and I know there are many who do not want that, but if that is what the majority are voting for—then let us collectively debate the propriety of us putting our defence forces into a theatre of war to defend those laws and that particular regime, elected or otherwise, in Afghanistan. I pose that question to the coalition as well as to the opposition and to other crossbenchers. We cannot ignore this issue. We cannot just go quietly and say, ‘Oh, well, that’s a cultural difference between us and them.’

We are putting our troops into mortal danger in Afghanistan and all the reports are that that danger is increasing. Our soldiers are in some of the most dangerous circumstances. They are circumstances that other European countries—NATO countries, for example—will not allow their soldiers to enter into in Afghanistan. We have lost double figures in numbers of our soldiers already. How far is this to go, and in defence of what? I am motivated to get up and speak about this today because I find President Karzai’s behaviour totally unacceptable.

I put this question through this chamber to Prime Minister Rudd: what have you to say about this circumstance in Afghanistan? We need to know about the government’s thinking on this issue, and we need to know about what messages have been conveyed to President Karzai, not just after an election but in the run-up to this election, because he is thumbing his nose at the democracies which are putting so much into defending his position—let us be direct about this—as the elected President in Afghanistan. It is not good enough for us to be silent about it.

Question agreed to.