Civilians toll and UN Human Rights call for halt to air strikes

KEITH LOCKE (Green) to the Prime Minister: In light of her reported statement yesterday that bombing raids inevitably cause civilian casualties, is she concerned about the increasing numbers of civilians being killed by the bombing of Afghanistan and will she support the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson’s call for a halt in the air strikes?

Hon. PHIL GOFF (Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade), on behalf of the Prime Minister: The Government is concerned about any loss of civilian life, whether as the result of military action or as the result of terrorist attacks. Every casualty represents a human tragedy. The Government is also concerned about the much larger number of civilian casualties as a result of civil war, oppression, and the loss of life through preventable causes in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and in the refugee camps. I think that everyone would support the key thrust of what Mary Robinson said, that there is an urgent need to provide huge humanitarian relief to help the civilian population through the coming winter.

Keith Locke: How then does the Prime Minister justify the continuation of the bombing when Mary Robinson says that if food aid does not get through to the Afghanis because of the bombing we may “preside over the deaths from starvation of hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of people this winter.”?

Hon. PHIL GOFF: I point out to the member that the latest information from the BBC this morning is that 80 percent of the bombing is now taking place not near centres of population but on the front line between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban forces. I also point out that Mary Robinson’s comments referred to starvation occurring in areas well away from the bombing. Certainly it is critically necessary to get support to those people, but, finally, I point out to the member that it was the Taliban themselves, by persecuting the international staff working through the aid agencies, that prevented food from going into Afghanistan even before the current crisis started.

Nanaia Mahuta: Will humanitarian action be taken to reduce the level of civilian casualties in Afghanistan from all causes, and what role will New Zealand have?

Hon. PHIL GOFF: It is vitally important that such humanitarian action takes place. I think that all members of the House should give some credit to the United States for having committed, on 4 October, NZ$700 million in emergency relief assistance. Other countries are also making that contribution. New Zealand has itself committed $1 million in emergency relief, and we are now examining other ways in which we can help relieve the humanitarian crisis in that country at the present time.

Dr the Hon. Lockwood Smith: If the Prime Minister’s statement this morning that: “I wouldn’t expect the campaign to carry on in exactly the form it has for the longer term. I think it will enter other forms where perhaps, you know, intelligence, financial measures, diplomatic action, etc. come to the fore more than the military campaign has just recently.”, was not intended to give the impression that the bombing will soon cease, what was it intended for?

Hon. PHIL GOFF: I am in the curious position of answering a supplementary question to the previous question, rather than to this one, but I am happy to answer. If I could quote Richard Armitage: “There’s no point in making the rubble bounce. You run out of military targets very quickly, such as airports, planes, and ammo dumps.” Clearly that will not continue indefinitely, because the targets have already been destroyed. That is what the Prime Minister was saying.

Hon. Ken Shirley: In view of the United Nations resolution sanctioning the bombing response to combat terrorism and those who harbour terrorists, can the Prime Minister confirm that Mary Robinson does not carry a United Nations mandate for her utterances on this issue, and therefore is she presumably expressing a personal view?

Hon. PHIL GOFF: If I could correct the member’s first comment. The support that the United Nations gives to this is by way of article 51, which is with regard to self-defence. It does not specify bombing or any other particular form of military activity. Mary Robinson, as an employee of the United Nations, has a responsibility for refugees. I think it is appropriate for her to express concern about the well-being of those refugees. I would say, and have said in this House already, that all the coalition partners share that concern, as would the member. We will try to do everything we can to relieve that humanitarian crisis, which, however, did not begin with the bombing or the events of 11 September. It began 22 years ago, and more than 1 million Afghan civilians have died as a result of the fighting during that time.

Rt Hon. Winston Peters: Is doing nothing and sitting on one’s hands and shroud-waving likely to encourage terrorism or deter it, as the Greens’ spokesman on foreign affairs constantly advocates?

Mr SPEAKER: The member is not responsible for the Greens’ foreign affairs policy. The Minister may comment on the wider issue.

Hon. PHIL GOFF: I do not think “doing nothing” is an option; nor, to be fair to the Greens, do I think that is what they are advocating. What is important is that we take a measured approach across a whole range of measures. I say, very regrettably, that force has to be one of those components because consistent diplomatic efforts through the United Nations over 3 years to deal with the Taliban have failed utterly. They have not responded.

Keith Locke: Does the Prime Minister support the United States’ use of cluster bombs, some of which lie unexploded and are picked up by children, particularly when the bombs are the same colour as the food parcels also dropped by American planes?

Hon. PHIL GOFF: I heard the news earlier this week that the food parcels are the same colour as cluster bombs. I think that is hugely regrettable, and a bad slip-up that needs to be addressed.