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Tuesday, 18 August 2009
Page: 5264

Senator HUMPHRIES (7:29 PM) —Members of the Senate will be aware, I am sure, that this week there is an election in Afghanistan. That election is for the presidency and for regional councils in that country. As it is the second free election in modern times, I am sure that we would welcome the advances that that society has been able to make—partly as a result of the involvement of Australian troops in that country to assist it to restore democratic freedoms to its citizens.

I rise tonight, however, to highlight a complexion on the Afghan political situation that I believe needs to be addressed if we are to fully understand the challenges that that country faces in becoming a fully democratic society. I want to talk tonight about the plight of the Hazaras, the third largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, comprising some 25 per cent of the population. This minority has occupied the humblest niche in the country’s complex ethnic mosaic. The political power structure has been dominated by the large southern Pashtun tribes, followed by the slightly less numerous northern Tajiks.

The Hazaras are, unfortunately, a much persecuted minority. During periods in history, the Shiite Hazaras have been forced from their lands and slaughtered in bouts of ethnic or religious cleansing. In more recent times they have been relegated to lowly jobs as cart pullers or domestic servants, a result of their social standing in the community, made famous by the novel The Kite Runner. Today almost all Hazaras adhere to Shiism, whereas Afghanistan’s other ethnic groups tend mostly to be Sunni.

The Hazara now stand poised, however, to play a more decisive role in the future of their country through these elections that are taking place this week. An independent candidate called Ramazan Bashardost is a Hazara and is travelling the country and apparently attracting a degree of support, notwithstanding that he is a Hazara. His message is one of government reform and social justice.

Hazaras have faced a long history of injustice and oppression. They have faced displacement in a number of wars, going back at least as far as the mid-18th century. Their oppression continued from a variety of sources, leading to uprisings in the 19th century and massive displacements which led to them having to leave Afghanistan altogether in many cases. Apparently some 35,000 families have, since the 19th century, fled to northern Afghanistan, to Meshed in Iran, to Quetta in Pakistan and to other places in Central Asia. It is estimated that more than 60 per cent of the Hazara population were massacred or displaced during the late 19th century. Farmers were often forced to give up their properties to Pashtuns and, as a result, many Hazara families had to leave seasonally to major cities in Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan in order to find jobs and a source of income. Pakistan, in fact, is now home to one of the largest settlements of Hazara, particularly in and around the city of Quetta.

During the Soviet war in Afghanistan, the Hazarajat region, which is in the centre of Afghanistan, the home of most Hazaras, not only felt the effects of the conflict but also dealt with the bloody internal conflicts of rival Hazara political factions. When the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996, the Hazaras sided with the Northern Alliance against the Taliban but were again on the wrong side of the conflict. Hazarajat fell to the Taliban in 1998 and was then totally isolated from the rest of the world, with the Taliban going so far as to prevent the United Nations from delivering food to the provinces that make up the Hazarajat region. Even very recently, as recently as 1998, there was a major massacre of Hazaras in the city of Mazar-e Sharif. Eight thousand civilians were massacred and the Taliban openly declared that the Hazaras would be targeted. The leader of the militia that attacked them said:

Hazaras are not Muslim. They are Shia. They are kafir.

‘Kafir’ means ‘infidels’. The quote continues:

The Hazaras killed our force here, and now we will have to kill Hazaras.

I am pleased to say that there have been some improvements in the position of this minority since 1998, but it would be quite wrong to imagine that the Hazaras face a bright future. They still face animosity, sporadic oppression and attacks from a number of sources, including Pashtun tribesmen and Taliban inspired fighters. They are considered a lower social class within Afghan society today, with the result that they have a level of support from the Afghani government that leaves a great deal to be desired.

I want to make two points tonight about their position. Firstly, I would like to express my appreciation for the resilience and patience of the Hazara people, who have survived and continue to be very much identified by their ethnicity and their faith despite centuries of oppression and conflict. I hope that the rest of the world will be in a position to acknowledge that the Hazara seek only to be able to live peacefully in a pluralistic Afghan society, if that is possible. Secondly, I want to remind the Senate that the rights that we enjoy in this country, which are free of racial or social distinctions, are not enjoyed by many other countries of the world, particularly, in this case, Afghanistan. It is important that we acknowledge that our role as a participant in the military force in Afghanistan today is a means to an end. That end has to be the establishment not just of a democratic society but also of one that has all the features of a truly democratic society, including respect for minorities.

I would ask the Australian government to use the opportunities afforded to it by virtue of it being a participant in the multinational force in Afghanistan to remind the Afghan government that it cannot create a truly peaceful and democratic society if it does not address the legitimate requirements and needs of minorities like the Hazara within the framework of the society which is Afghanistan. They need to understand those needs, to address them and to restore to them a degree of civil equality, which is clearly lacking in the practice of government and the attitudes of many in Afghan society.

I wish these people well. I wish the Afghan people as a whole well in the important elections that are taking place this week. I hope that it will be a small step towards the kind of peaceful and democratic society that we would hope Australia’s involvement in that country’s conflict is going to produce.