Below is the text of an open letter to the Prime Minister-elect, the Hon. Tony Abbott MP, signed by me and a number of distinguished Australians who support CIWI’s cause, was published in today’s edition of The Age. The original may be viewed online at An open letter on war to the new PM.
Among the many big-picture items missing from Australia’s recent election campaign was foreign policy. While Australians were voting, the United States President was seeking US congressional and international approval to launch a punitive military action against the government of Syria, which would almost certainly bring further suffering and disruption to populations in the region.
We welcomed the news that the US would hold off on a military strike because Syria has ”already agreed” to an initiative by Russia for Damascus to hand over its chemical weapons stocks to international control. However, the danger of another disastrous military intervention persists.
The newly elected Australian government may soon have to decide whether, how and under what circumstances we would support our major ally in another armed intervention in the Middle East.
Ten years ago Australia strongly supported the US invasion of Iraq on the decision of the prime minister. We believe that on this occasion Australia should independently assess how best we can serve the interests of the people of Syria and broader international security interests.
There is a related, fundamentally important issue that will apply not only now in relation to Syria but every time the possibility of Australian support or involvement in military action is considered. How and by whom should a decision to send Australian troops to war be made – by the prime minister or by a broader consultative process?
We invite prime minister-elect Tony Abbott to tell the Australian people whether he believes that a prime minister should continue to have the authority to take Australia into international armed conflict on her/his own, or whether he would support a bill requiring parliamentary debate and approval before the Australian Defence Force is deployed overseas in combat.
Specifically, in relation to concerns about weapons of mass destruction, does he believe Australia should defer to the established international channels for WMD verification, monitoring and compliance?
The importance of these issues is stark. There has been no policy review of the decision made by Australia’s leadership in 2003 to invade Iraq, and no inquiry into the decision-making process to draw out lessons or make recommendations for the future.
We appear now to be at risk of repeating the errors of 2003. Before the election, the Rudd government made supportive comments about US plans for a military strike against Syria, despite the absence of a report from UN weapons inspectors, and in the absence of authorisation from the UN Security Council. While Coalition comments at the time appeared to be commendably more cautious, a commitment to a proper and transparent decision-making process is lacking.
At the same time, the British Parliament has considered and rejected Prime Minister David Cameron’s bid for British involvement, President Barack Obama has decided to turn to Congress to seek wider political endorsement of his planned military strike, and French President Francois Hollande has also decided to consult his parliament.
At the recent G20 summit, a majority of participating governments did not support the case for US military action in Syria without an authorising UN Security Council resolution. The situation in Britain demonstrates the valuable role of legislatures in acting as a brake on the impulsive use of executive power.
Australia’s policy is particularly crucial during our current term on the UN Security Council, and our presidency of the council this month. The responsibility to respect and protect the pre-eminent role of the United Nations in examining the evidence and all possible responses to security threats and violations, weighs heavily on us.
International law states that no military action is legal unless authorised by the Security Council or in a country’s own self-defence. While the crisis in Syria demands an international response, military intervention would be the most risky, destructive and costly option, and one that would make a terrible situation worse.
We urge that the lessons of 2003 be heeded, and that Australia follow the lead of the majority of our allies and major regional partners in withholding support for the course of action now being proposed by President Obama.
We also urge that parliamentary debate and approval become standard before the Australian Defence Force is deployed overseas in combat. If Parliament cannot be persuaded that Australia should be at war, then the case for authorising it is not sufficiently strong. If MHRs and senators are required to debate and vote on a case for war, they will be individually and collectively responsible for Australia’s decision.
Deploying the Australian Defence Force into international armed conflict is the gravest decision a government can make. This is not a decision for a leader acting alone, nor for a leader in concert with a small group of cabinet colleagues. Australians have the right to expect that such a decision would receive the most rigorous scrutiny of all possible consequences, including humanitarian, military, legal, strategic and political, by all those elected to represent us.
This article is signed by:
Paul Barratt AO, former secretary, Department of Defence
John Menadue AO, former secretary, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet
Malcolm Fraser, former Liberal prime minister
Professor Ian Maddocks AM, Senior Australian of the Year
Professor Peter Baume AC, former federal Liberal minister
Garry Woodard, retired ambassador
Professor Ramesh Thakur, former UN assistant secretary-general
Elizabeth Evatt AC, former judge
Kellie Merritt, widow of Flight Lieutenant Paul Pardoel, who was killed in Iraq