Senator Lee Rhiannon – discussing implications of the Balfour Declaration, a letter sent 100 years ago

photo of Senator Lee Rhiannon
November 14, 2017

Decades of human rights violations, war crimes and deaths on all sides can all be attributed to the arrogance of the colonial British at the hand of Lord Arthur Balfour…Talking of a resolution between Israel and Palestine, or indeed talking of recognition in this country, without first recognising the history and cause of the problem can never result in a just peace—and surely peace with justice should be the starting point for any negotiations.

Full speech

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (21:17): In recent weeks I have met with representatives and supporters of some of the diverse communities that are active in Sydney. Tonight I will share with the Senate the information I have been provided with. These reports are deeply shocking, highlighting the brutality of colonialism and the tragic consequences of war and oppression.

There is a humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Yemen right now. After 2½ years of war, a severe blockade is stopping crucial supplies from reaching desperate people. I’m speaking about this in the Senate because the Australian government is deeply complicit, through weapons exports to Saudi Arabia. First, I will detail the suffering that is occurring. Rathwan Alasbahi needs a kidney transplant. He is forty years old and he urgently needs a kidney transplant. The ABC’s Sophie McNeill has reported that the hospitals in Yemen, because of the blockade and the war, can no longer perform transplants. Due to the blockade, Rathwan cannot leave the country to get a transplant either. What a shocking situation for him to be in and for his family to watch. The Yemeni ministry of health estimated that, even before these new measures, 10,000 patients died in the past year waiting for medical care—10,000 in one year because there was not sufficient medical care. That figure alone is shocking and should be a wake-up call for us.

The blockade is affecting the most basic of human needs: food. On 8 November, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, commented on the tightening of the blockade. These were his words:

I have told the Council that unless those measures are lifted and five particular steps that I am going to run through are taken, there will be famine in Yemen.

It will not be like the famine that we saw in South Sudan earlier in the year where tens of thousands of people were affected. It will not be like the famine which cost 250,000 people their lives in Somalia in 2011. It will be the largest famine the world has seen for many decades, with millions of victims.

That is a quote from a UN representative identifying that millions of people in Yemen will die if the blockade is not lifted. Twenty-three humanitarian organisations, including Care, Oxfam, Save the Children and the UN, have issued a joint statement on the blockade restricting aid supplies. This is from their statement:

There are over 20 million people in need of humanitarian assistance; seven million of them are facing famine-like conditions and rely completely on food aid to survive. In six weeks, the food supplies to feed them will be exhausted. Over 2.2 million children are malnourished, of those, 385,000 children suffer from severe malnutrition and require therapeutic treatment to stay alive.

The current stock of vaccines in country will only last one month. If it is not replenished, outbreaks of communicable diseases such as polio and measles are to be expected with fatal consequences…

That’s from the statement of 23 humanitarian organisations.

Where does Australia stand? Australia is complicit in this suffering through its cooperation with Saudi Arabia. ‘Cooperation’ is probably too kind a word. Australia is actually bragging about its arms sales with Saudi Arabia as this war intensifies. On 30 October this year, Minister Christopher Pyne announced he would be visiting Saudi Arabia. These were Mr Pyne’s words:

… to promote Australia’s world-class defence materiel and strengthen bilateral defence industry relationships.

And in Saudi Arabia he would—and these are his words:

…meet with senior government representatives to discuss the bilateral defence industry relationship.

Surely, we all know that the people of Yemen are dying. Even though there’s not much publicity, I think we all know that something shocking has happened there. And Australia is spruiking arms that kill these people! That’s what is going on in this part of the world—Saudi Arabia is permitting terrible crimes.

We don’t actually know the arms trade or value of the trade Australia is engaging in with Saudi Arabia. Despite a motion from former Greens senator Scott Ludlam which called on the government to provide details, the government is continuing to hide what is being sold to Saudi Arabia. But we know it is being sold. At the very least, the Australian people deserve to know that Australia is complicit in this war, which is driving the famine. When you’re spending money on war and when you’re waging war, however it plays out it costs lives. The global community needs to place an arms embargo on parties to the conflict. The way we profit from the misery of the people in Yemen is a disgrace.

One hundred years ago, Britain, responsible for so much death and destruction in its colonial zeal, sowed the seeds of Palestinian dispossession of the Nakba, the impact of which is still being felt by everyone living inside the borders of historic Palestine and around the world. The Balfour Declaration, delivered to Lord Rothschild of the British Zionist Federation 100 years ago, was a moment in history that is still unbelievable. As Israeli journalist Gideon Levy wrote:

There was never anything like it: an empire promising a land that it had not yet conquered to a people not living there, without asking the inhabitants.

Historians, such as Ilan Pappe, have shown that the Zionist leaders understood ‘the promise’ meant the country as a whole. This also meant that the Zionist leaders had no intention of honouring the partition plan, which was also a violation of the rights of Palestinian people. From the moment Lord Balfour penned those 67 words to the implementation of Ben-Gurion’s Plan D, which started the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the land of Palestine, the intention of the Zionist leaders was to colonise the whole of Palestine. Today 78 per cent of historic Palestine is colonised and the remaining 22 per cent is under Israeli occupation. Today there are over nine million Palestinians living as second-class citizens inside Israeli borders, under military occupation in the Gaza Strip and West Bank or living as refugees in surrounding Arab countries and in the wider diaspora. All of these Palestinians have been personally impacted by the violent dispossession of their homes and lands that began in 1948, and none have been granted the right of return. If you are Palestinian, you can’t return to your land.

Decades of human rights violations, war crimes and deaths on all sides can all be attributed to the arrogance of the colonial British at the hand of Lord Arthur Balfour. This year, the Palestinian people called on the British government to recognise and apologise for the 100 years of destruction and dispossession instigated by the declaration. It is unfortunate that not only did Britain fail to recognise their hand in the Palestinian Nakba but also British Prime Minister Theresa May attended a gala dinner celebrating the declaration, saying that Britain is ‘proud of her pioneering role in the creation of the State of Israel’. The centenary came and went without an apology from Britain. But that should come as no surprise. The lack of recognition of the genocide that was perpetrated by British colonisers on this land and indeed around the world in so many other countries still remains unrecognised. Talking of a resolution between Israel and Palestine, or indeed talking of recognition in this country, without first recognising the history and cause of the problem can never result in a just peace—and surely peace with justice should be the starting point for any negotiations.

The Kurds of the Middle East have common ethnicity, language and identity, but their land flows across four modern state boundaries—Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. For centuries the Kurds have struggled for recognition and autonomy and repeatedly this has been denied in the wider geopolitical struggles in the region. Again and again the Kurds have assisted in the overthrow of oppressors, in defeating the Ottomans and most recently in defeating ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Despite promises of recognition, history is littered with broken promises to the Kurds; in fact, they continue to be oppressed by the nation states in which they are embedded, being denied citizens’ rights. Considering the level of abuse, it is no wonder that the Kurds in Turkey at least have resorted to violent military action in defence of their rights. Their recognised leader, Ocalan, has been jailed for many years. Only mutual negotiation and recognition can solve this running sore.

Kurds, as we know, have no homeland state of their own. In each country they live in they form a sizeable minority and in each country except Iran they have struggled for autonomy for centuries. Such has been the fate of Kurdish people for millennia—constantly being attacked, massacred or deported. In each case the dominant rulers of the state have frequently refused to acknowledge the Kurds as citizens and denied them basic rights. In Turkey, Kurds account for 18 per cent or more of the population, mainly in the east and the south of the country. Following the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, Turkey denied the very existence of Kurds and any expression of ethnic identity by the Kurds was harshly repressed. The use of Kurdish language was repressed, especially in state schools. Sadly, these practices continue across different countries where Kurdish people now live.

Human Rights Watch have documented many instances where the Turkish military forcibly destroyed houses and villages. Three thousand villages were virtually wiped off the map and it displaced more than 378,000 people. The struggle continues to this day, greatly increased since the failed coup and autocratic rule of Erdogan.

The PKK is a Kurdish militant organisation which has waged an arms struggle against the Turkish state for cultural and political rights and self-determination for the Kurds. The PKK has been labelled a terrorist organisation by Turkey’s allies, including the US and the European Union, but, interestingly, not by the United Nations, Switzerland or Russia. To this day, the Kurds remain the largest group of stateless people on this planet. Many feel far more kinship with their fellow Kurds in Iran, Iraq and Syria than with their nominally country folk in Turkey.

In Iraq, Kurds make up around 17 per cent of the population and form the semi-autonomous state of Iraqi Kurdistan. Yet, between 1975 and 1978, 200,000 Kurds were deported to other parts of Iraq. During the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, Iraqi forces were responsible for the mass murder of hundreds of thousands of civilians and the destruction of 2,000 Kurdish villages. Most recently, the Iraqi Kurds held a referendum resulting in an overwhelming vote for autonomy. However, the Iraqi government quickly moved into Kirkuk, regaining political control and reclaiming the rich oil fields of Kirkuk. Many thousands of civilians fled towards the northern border with Turkey fearing further retribution.

In Syria, Kurds make up approximately 10 per cent of the population, living mainly in the north. In some areas, the Kurdish language is banned. As well, in some areas children cannot be registered with Kurdish names. Around 300,000 Kurds have been denied Syrian nationality and any social rights, yet Kurdish militias in Syria, in support of US forces, were the only ground forces that so far have managed to take on ISIS and win. The Americans supported the Kurds when it suited them, but then refused to support their bid for autonomy. The Turkish government has long feared Kurdish independence outside its borders lest it provoke similar aspirations inside Turkey. Thus, Turkey felt threatened when Iraqi Kurds held and won a referendum for independence and threatened potentially crippling restrictions on oil trading, and have even have threatened to invade Iraqi Kurdistan. In Syria, rather than supporting the Kurdish militias fighting ISIS, Turkey has actively attacked Kurdish regions in northern Syria.

For Turkish Kurds, the double standards are extreme and discriminatory—that’s what they have to endure. Kurdish fighters were celebrated around the world in 2014-15 as they withstood a month-long siege by the Islamic State but were then ignored in their own struggle for human rights. Kurds quite rightly condemn as hypocrisy the US policy of supporting Kurds when fighting for their rights against ISIS but not when doing the same against Turkey.

Abdullah Ocalan has achieved a status among Kurds much like that of Nelson Mandela. He’s also been jailed for a very long time. Ocalan is a political theorist who first pursued a Marxist national liberation struggle uniting the Kurds across four countries: Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. He co-founded the PKK in 1978 and led the movement in a protracted guerrilla resistance in the 1980s and 1990s. He was captured in 1999. Ocalan has developed the theory of loosely federated Kurdish communities that would not necessarily cause the break-up of Turkey’s national territory. I give emphasis to that because the Kurdish, in their negotiations and in their campaigns, are being very practical in terms of the current situation, where there are now four nation states, and are trying to work within that to advance their rights for some level of autonomy in that area. Ocalan has become a symbol of struggle that crosses many of the divides in Kurdish national politics. While there are large differences among Kurdish national movements, Ocalan is supported by many Kurdish groups. For the PKK, real negotiations can only begin when Ocalan is released from his island prison and leads the Kurds at the negotiating table for greater autonomy, peace and cultural rights. Thank you, Mr President.

Link to parliamentary Hansard