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Celebrating Arab-Australians

Opening Address by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC, Chancellor, Australian National University, Exhibition Commemorating Arab Australian Contributions to Victoria, Queens Hall, Parliament House, Melbourne, 12 June 2013

I am delighted to have been invited by Bronwyn Halfpenny and the Victorian Parliamentary Friends of Palestine to commemorate with you the contributions to the life of this state, and this country, of Australians of Arab heritage: not just Palestinian heritage, but of the other major diaspora communities – Egyptian, Lebanese, Syrian and  Iraqi  and others as well.

The exhibition around us captures a number of dimensions of that contribution, particularly in the wonderful snapshot biographies and descriptions of individuals and organizations who really have made a difference, and are continuing to do so: individuals from QCs like my old friend John Karkar to community workers to comedians, from academics and artists to engineers and entrepreneurs; and community organisations from Olive Kids and Save the Children, to Darebin’s Spectrum Migrant Resource Centre and Anglicord with its ‘Women Die Waiting’ campaign in Gaza supported by Australians for Palestine and other groups. Both the idea of the exhibition, and the way it has come together, are tributes to all those involved in its organization and sponsorship. 

It’s not just the current generation of Australians of Arab heritage who have contributed to making this community more vibrant and prosperous, and more creative and caring. The first Syrians came here well before Federation; then there were waves of immigration from Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian communities after the First and Second Wars; then further immigration prompted by the Lebanon war, with more recent arrivals late in the 20th century and the early years of this one coming from Iraq, Tunisia, Morocco and Yemen. 

In this marvelous multicultural mosaic that is now this country of ours, with over a quarter of our population born overseas – and many more born here of at least one foreign-born parent – we now have over 370,000 Australians of Arab descent living here (in addition to 25,000 or so students from the Middle East at any given time) with particularly strong concentrations, I am glad to say, here in Melbourne, initially in the inner north and west and out in my old parliamentary stamping ground of Dandenong and Endeavour Hills, but now increasingly further out in the northern suburbs.

Although the overall census numbers are less for Australians of Arab heritage than for a number of other communities, the good news is that they have in recent times been growing rapidly. The less good news is, unhappily, the primary reason for this growth – family reunification and humanitarian immigration programs for those displaced as a continuing result of war and unrest in the Middle East.

As we all know to our distress, the legacy continues in Iraq of the deeply misguided military intervention in 2003 and the almost incomprehensible bungling of the occupation which followed. We can only hope against hope that cooler heads will prevail in the political leadership, and the sectarian situation not become further inflamed ­– but here as elsewhere in the region, and particularly troublingly in Lebanon and Jordan, the terrible continuing carnage in Syria is having a negative spillover effect.
After more than two years of civil war, with no decisive military victory by either side in sight, the situation in Syria could hardly be more desperate. More than 80,000 are dead, and 6.8 million – one-third of the country’s population – need urgent humanitarian assistance, with some 4.25 million displaced internally, and nearly two million sheltering as refugees in neighbouring countries. 

The most immediate need is massive humanitarian assistance, about which there should be no controversy. Too many international donors have been dragging their feet on this, although I am glad to say that Australia has not been among them: under both Kevin Rudd and Bob Carr as foreign ministers we have been much more closely and constructively engaged in the region than has been the case for many years, with a strong focus on diplomacy and development support as well as the traditional preoccupation with trade.

The really crucial need in Syria at the moment is for diplomacy – and I hope Australia, with this record of engagement and its presence now on the Security Council, can contribute to crafting it – to secure a ceasefire and a political transition settlement to stop the killing once and for all.  The recent moves by the United States and Russia to convene a diplomatic conference in Geneva with these objectives deserve a less sceptical reaction than they have received. Of course it will be hugely difficult to get all of the relevant parties to the table in Geneva any time soon, and even more to get both sides to unite and reach the compromises they will have to, but diplomacy is the only game left in town.

I’ve looked closely at all the other policy options that have been canvassed  – including all the military ones ranging from declaring war on the Assad regime, to establishing no fly zones and humanitarian buffers and corridors, to arming the rebel groups – and have been forced to conclude that every one of them is either wrong in principle, nonviable in practice, unlikely to be effective, bound to increase rather than diminish suffering, or  some combination of these.

With so much terrible new suffering being experienced in the region, it is important that none of us forget – as I know none of you will in this community, and this gathering, but the wider community in this country and many others seems to need constant reminding – the oldest and most grievous source of suffering of them all. I mean, of course, that experienced by the displaced people of Palestine, with their homeland under occupation, and – with the peace process apparently moribund – all the physical and psychological wounds accumulated in the past and continuing in the present seeming no closer to healing than they have ever been.  

There are many I know who, in these circumstances, will reject diplomacy as a mirage, and the two-state solution to which so many have been committed for so long as an unprincipled mirage, but my own view – as someone who has been following this issue for a long time as foreign minister and as head of the International Crisis Group, and who has had an opportunity over the years to talk to most of the leaders involved (including those like Hamas the West still won’t talk to) – that, again, creative diplomacy is the only game in town. Violence is never going to deliver the goods, and nor will any other form of coercion given the nature of the states and actors involved.

For all the difficult compromises that will have to be involved, I firmly believe that a settlement based on 1967 borders with some mutually acceptable accommodations is the only one remotely capable of securing a just and sustainable peace – and that sooner or later the Israeli leadership will recognize again, as some of its more visionary leaders have in the past, that the demographic clock is ticking, and that it simply cannot have, simultaneously, a state which occupies the whole of historic Judea and Samaria, is Jewish in character – and genuinely democratic, not practicing some form of latter-day apartheid.

What has been tremendously important in giving diplomacy new momentum – including American diplomacy under new Secretary of State Kerry, was the UN General Assembly’s decision last year, fiercely opposed though it was at the time by the U.S., Israel and a handful of others – of Palestinian statehood. Of course this hasn’t, and won’t, deliver by itself an end to occupation, and full realization of the statehood dream, including Palestine as a member and not just observer at the UN. Only a negotiated agreement on all the critical outstanding issues – boundary definition, Jerusalem, security guarantees for Israel, and refugees – can do that. But what the decision did, passing with the overwhelming majority that it did, was act as a circuit breaker, giving new energy, new credibility, new leverage, and new respect to the Palestinian cause.

When it came to the vote in the UN, I am delighted that Australia – albeit not without a few bumps along the way within the government – was on the right side of history. And I hope that it will remain so, whatever course our own political history might take in the next few months.  It is not a matter of renouncing or abandoning Israel, or those who are bound to it by ties of religion, blood or culture just as strong as those binding Palestinians to their land: it’s just a matter of recognizing – as a majority of ordinary people on both sides have long done, and as Israeli leaders like Yitzhak Rabin have recognized in the past, and most Palestinian leaders of the present still do – that a just and lasting two-state solution is absolutely in everyone’s interests.

There are some who may say that it’s time for Australians of Palestinian heritage to put these issues out of their minds and out of their hearts; and, similarly, for Australians of other Arab heritages to ignore what is happening in their homelands and focus wholly on their new lives here.  But that is to ask too much of any of us. Human beings are complicated mechanisms, with multiple identities, multiple emotions, and multiple loyalties, and Australians of Arab descent are no different in this respect from anyone else.

You have fabulously enriched our Australian society by your presence here, as this exhibition helps testify.  We have benefited from your intelligence and application, from the contributions you have made by hand and brain to the growth of this country, and from the multiple new cultural strands – of art, music, literature and spirituality – that you have layered and woven into the fabric that makes us the society we are.

The least we Australians of other heritages can do is recognize and empathise with the emotions you can’t help but be feeling as the horror of violence and the pain of injustice continues in those faraway places that part of you, whether you still have family and friends there or not, will always call home – and play our part in doing everything we possibly can, directly or through our elected government, to end that violence and end that injustice once and for all.