Australia is usually seen as a progressive society, with an excellent reputation for upholding United Nations' Treaties. However, over the last decade there have been a number of changes taking place that have tended to 'politicise' situations and turn issues such as asylum seekers into security threats and a greater willingness to participate in wars in countries not necessarily seen as a threat by the general population (e.g. Iraq and Afghanistan). These changes inordinately affect women as money goes into executing wars, thus reducing funding for meeting human needs. Some women's personal autonomy has also been reduced through new punitive domestic legislation.
Following Australia's involvement in both World Wars and the disastrous Vietnam War, the Australian people have become increasingly ‘anti-war', opposing war as the way to resolve international conflict. There were large public demonstrations against Australia's involvement in the 2003 Iraq War, which proceeded without parliamentary vote, requiring only the decision of the current Prime Minister, John Howard, to involve Australia in it.
Australian citizens see this as a violation of the rights of Australians to have such important decisions made without the participation of our democratically elected representatives in parliament. Several calls to address this situation have failed. Both major political parties prefer the right for the party in power to make the important decision, without parliamentary support. We want to reduce the likelihood of all wars, as we know the terrible impact they have on the populations of all sides involved and particularly on civilians.
More and more Australians are questioning our role in Afghanistan, especially as large numbers of civilian deaths are revealed. We are asking the question particularly, ‘Are drone strikes actually legal?' We are currently seeking legal advice from both the Australian Red Cross and the Australian government to clarify this. Drones highlight the change in methods of warfare taking place. Who is responsible for a drone killing families? This also needs to be clarified. These scenarios need urgent international legislative review. Again, the impact on women and families, the creation of widows and orphans, is unjustifiable.
Australia is currently coupled with the US in these wars through a long standing ANZUS Treaty, aligning us closer and closer with US foreign policy. Equipment is now designed to be “interoperable” and recently, for the first time, our Prime Minister announced that 2,500 US troops would be permanently stationed at our northern Darwin base.
Many Australians are increasingly concerned that we are becoming uncritical US allies. We see this as a violation of our right as citizens to develop our own independent foreign policy. We would like to see Australia build friendships, trust and partnerships with our regional neighbours, rather than be seen by them as an extension of US foreign policy. We want to support the right of women in all countries to live a life free from war and all forms of violence.
The most recent example of state violence has been metered out to asylum-seekers, fleeing from war zones such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, attempting to arrive in Australia by boat. Shrill parliamentary debates have resulted in worsening policies that now see asylum-seekers imprisoned for an indeterminate time in ‘off-shore' countries such as Nauru, denied processing of their refugee status claims for years and eventually being processed under non-existent Nauruan law. They are also denied access to Australian courts to contest this treatment.
We hope this blog will alert others that governments can quickly change policies that can seriously impact both their own citizens as well as those in war zones, with women and families often bearing the brunt of such brutal policies.
By Ruth Russell & Barbara O'Dwyer, Joint National Coordinators for WILPF Australia