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Wednesday, 1 December 2004
Page: 65

Senator BARTLETT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (2:31 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Defence and the Minister representing the Prime Minister, Senator Hill. Is the minister aware of the newly released independent report on health conditions in Iraq which states that there is a hugely increased burden of death and mental and physical illness as a result of the conflict in Iraq, and that the incidences of diseases such as typhoid, measles and malnutrition in children are at higher levels than before the war and are continuing to rise? Is the minister also aware of independent estimates that over 100,000 Iraqi civilians have died as a result of the invasion of Iraq and the ongoing conflict? Has the Australian government made any attempt to verify these findings? If not, why not? Is the Australian government taking any direct action to reverse the current decline in the health situation in Iraq?

Senator HILL (Minister for Defence) —The independent report relating to health to which the honourable senator refers has only just been released. I saw a report on it, not from official sources but from those who released it, this morning, so obviously I have not got an official response to it. I have previously put before the Senate considerable evidence of areas of improvement in health within Iraq and the very significant investment that has been made by the international community towards that goal. There is no doubt that before the war the health system within Iraq was very seriously run down—partly, you might say, as a result of sanctions but also partly because Saddam Hussein had other priorities—and certainly the ensuing conflict would not have helped in that regard. But the efforts by the international community in rebuilding the system and building a better system have been considerable. They are, of course, being hindered by the ongoing insurgence, which makes it very difficult to attract international personnel. That insurgence is also, obviously, hindering the construction of infrastructure. The international community is putting a major effort into the reconstruction of Iraq, into the rebuilding of its institutions and into assisting it with its primary responsibilities in areas such as health and education, and it will continue to do so. I am sure Senator Bartlett is aware of the recent donors conference and the amount of international assistance that is being given.

In relation to that other so-called independent report of deaths of civilians, the truth is that the number of deaths of civilians is not known. But the multinational force has made considerable efforts to minimise civilian casualties throughout this conflict, and it continues to do so. With the development of precision munitions and the like, there is greater scope now to reduce the number of civilian casualties. Certainly those involved in the removal of Saddam Hussein and those who are seeking to give the Iraqi people a better future have made, and continue to make, every effort to minimise those casualties.

Senator BARTLETT —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Can the minister confirm whether or not malnutrition in children is worse now than before the war? Is the minister disputing the estimates of 100,000 civilian casualties since the start of the war? How can he refute estimates such as those if he says he does not know himself what the total is?

Senator HILL (Minister for Defence) —I am sure Senator Bartlett would also have read the criticism of that report, which says that its particular statistical basis of focusing on small samples and then extrapolating from those is very suspect. That is why I question those figures. I question them because of the background of the efforts that were made to minimise civilian casualties. In relation to malnutrition and other health failures, I can get the material out again and bring it to the Senate, but there is significant material of improvements. For example, the inoculation of children has been a major program within Iraq since the conflict. It is very difficult. There is no doubt that there is a very difficult environment within the country at the moment. It is very difficult to attract, as I said, international support. But there are a large number of health professionals within the country that are doing their very best in a difficult environment. What they need is our support and recognition of the challenging task that they face.