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Does Australia belong on the UN Human Rights Council?

Speeches in Parliament
Scott Ludlam 28 Mar 2017

A couple of years ago I had the privilege of being an election observer in Myanmar. One memory stands out in particular: standing in a school quadrangle on a bright afternoon in the regional city of Taunggyi; queues of people waiting patiently to get into the polling booth; a couple of military guys on bikes watching from the perimeter; but, apart from the long wait, nothing here is amiss. I think probably all of us in this place have had this experience in Australia more times than we can count: a school hall marked out into sections; people getting their names checked off; cardboard booths with voters hunched over a sheet of paper. One difference between this place and identical schoolyards in South Hedland or North Fremantle is: after you have voted, an electoral commission volunteer presses your finger into an ink-pad before you are allowed to leave, so that everyone heading back out into their afternoon has a bright purple pinkie finger proving that they voted. That is the memory that will stay with me: three women, beaming into the camera, holding their fingers up with enormous pride, having just voted in Myanmar's first election in decades.

This precious day is incredibly moving, because I know how much it has cost people. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has spent more than 15 years under house arrest. Thousands died or were tortured at the hands of a vicious military regime that turned this beautiful country into a living nightmare of paranoia and poverty. Today, across much of the country, courage has won. As the votes tally on a whiteboard until late at night there will be no arrests and no shots fired. Another outstanding memory is how familiar that all feels—scrutineers are haggling, journalists and candidates hanging around nervously and people glued to their mobile phones, trying to get a sense of how the ballot is unfolding around the country. I love it. It was the last thing I expected, but it feels like home. But there is a catch—there is always a catch: in the months leading up to that election, more than a million Rohingya people were struck off the electoral role and prevented from voting, entrenching their status as outsiders in their own land. The 2015 Myanmar election was more or less free and fair unless you were Muslim or you lived in one of the areas where decades-old civil wars still simmer. In Myanmar, since early October 2016, we have been witnessing what very likely constitutes crimes against humanity, including the murder of more than 1,000 Rohingya people in Rakhine State. Military and police operations have resulted in the displacement of at least 97,000 people, arbitrary arrests and disappearances, extrajudicial killings and the most horrific sexual violence against Rohingya women and children at the hands of Buddhist extremists. And all the while state authorities and much of the global community have reacted with blind silence.

One of the ways these atrocities become possible is when people are cast as less than human. It is a calculated process of organised dehumanisation: these people are not like us, they have strange names, they worship violent gods, they are not from here, they hate us and they mean us harm. Perhaps they are not people at all. Maybe they are like a virus that we need to vaccinate ourselves against.

Growing up in Perth's southern suburbs, human rights were something that mattered to other people in other places. They were abstract. They were academic. They were something on paper, handed down from 1948, having something to do with the people I would occasionally see on TV being tear gassed or trying to flee across borders.

Many of us in this building, me included, are in the fortunate minority for whom human rights can be safely taken for granted because ours are so rarely threatened. We are male, white, safe, financially secure and politically cocooned. We get to look at human rights through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars—something indistinct and far away.

Last October, Australia launched a bid for membership of the United Nations Human Rights Council. There are two seats up for grabs but three candidates: Australia, France and Spain. Let me put my cards on the table now: I support the bid. I want it to succeed but only if we mean it. About two months after launching the bid, in an address to the Lowy Institute in December 2016, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Ms Julie Bishop, characterised the bid in this way:

Our platform for election is to commit to upholding fundamental freedoms and rights, many of which are now coming under increasing attack from different quarters. Australia has a strong track record in promoting fundamental freedoms, making us an ideal candidate for the Human Rights Council.
Let's start at the beginning. This parliament has still not come to grips with its founding human rights violation: that the ground we stand on tonight was stolen from the planet's oldest continuing civilisation. Our country is irretrievably shaped by the vast national silence shrouding the frontier wars: 23 decades of dispossession and incarceration for which there are no national monuments or moments of silence. Violently occupying country is a human rights abuse, stealing children is a human rights abuse, deliberately erasing language and song is a human rights abuse and jailing children and driving desperate people to suicide is a human rights abuse. The initiation of this catastrophe is still designated as a mandatory national celebration—Australia Day—when we are encouraged to take a day off work, get pissed and watch fireworks light up country over which sovereignty was never ceded.

I know there are people, including those in this parliament, whose political persona is fabricated around the conceit that this is all ancient history or maybe did not happen at all. Our great national amnesia makes parties like One Nation possible. Human rights violations are not something that just happen far over the horizon; they happen right here to Aboriginal kids in overcrowded prisons and to women and children in violent homes. So, before we get to waving our finger at other people from behind a lectern in New York, we might want to look at getting our own house in order.

There is no question that the horror of Australian funded and run offshore internment camps will weigh against our case to take a place on the Human Rights Council. People have been murdered in the delicate care of ministers Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton. People have set themselves on fire and starved themselves nearly to death, and these barbed wire enclosures are now mental illness factories. The worst thing about this inhuman bipartisan policy of exemplary detention is that these people are on the run from precisely the kind of human rights abuses that the Australian government claims to stand against. It is like locking the fire escape on a burning building. That is why we are going to struggle to make the case that we are ready to lead the world in human rights advocacy.

Some of these fires are ones our own government helped ignite. Families fleeing the sectarian horror in Iraq have discovered that Australia, alone in the world, is locked into a system of mandatory, unreviewable offshore detention, indefinite until death or repatriation back to the regimes they fled from. There are other acts of official cruelty that will weigh against us. In 2014, the UN Human Rights Council resolved to launch an investigation into war crimes and other atrocities that took place in the late stages of the Sri Lankan Civil War. Australia opposed the inquiry. At the time, Foreign Minister Bishop said, 'I do not think the resolution adequately recognised the significant progress taken by the Sri Lankan government to promote economic growth.' Instead, Australia was gifting the Sri Lankan military patrol boats to intercept families fleeing the terrors that still stalked majority-Tamil parts of the country.

There are traumas much closer to home. Our neighbours in West Papua are still being denied self-determination nearly 50 years after the 'act of no choice' locked in the Indonesian occupation of their ancestral lands. Four thousand unarmed West Papuans were arrested last year alone for protesting. You can be beaten or murdered for flying the Morning Star flag in West Papua, but the Australian government still provides diplomatic cover for these atrocities and helps train the paramilitaries, like Detachment 88, that are implicated in some of the worst of the violence.

Self-interested appeasement runs deep in Australia's shallow foreign policy pool. As recently as last week, Foreign Minister Bishop travelled to Davao, the hometown of Philippines President, Rodrigo Duterte. There are many examples of Duterte's homicidal tendencies, but here is one from 2009:

If you are doing an illegal activity in my city, if you are a criminal or part of a syndicate that preys on the innocent people of the city, for as long as I am the mayor, you are a legitimate target of assassination.
He has now brought this spirit of unapologetic mass murder to the presidency, but in her speech in Manila Ms Bishop was moved to observe that 'Australia and the Philippines are experiencing exciting and interesting times.'

This parliament narrowly avoided having to confront some horrifying truths about our largest trading partner this week, since the government seems to have pulled its proposal to enact an extradition agreement between Australia and the People's Republic of China. This was no doubt done to avoid embarrassing the Chinese Communist Party, which would have to rate as one of the most determined and systematic abusers of human rights on earth. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo and the Uyghur economist Ilham Tohti were jailed, maybe forever, for expressing opinions found to be threatening to the brittle authoritarians in Beijing. This week several of my colleagues and I joined Tibetan campaigners who are asking for nothing more than the right to return to their homeland without the threat of imprisonment. I sat in my office this morning with two young Tibetan men who had been imprisoned and tortured by Chinese authorities. They had made their way somehow to Dharamsala and then on to Australia. For my entire life I have seen Australian ministers of both political stripes participating in the ancient Chinese ritual of kowtowing, yet I cannot remember anything stronger than formulaic incantations of concern for human rights, which are then politely ignored so that the real business can be conducted.

Our behaviour where abuse conducted by our strategic allies is concerned is even more craven. There has been not a whisper of concern expressed by the Australian government on the release, by the WikiLeaks publishing organisation, of the Iraq or Afghanistan war logs or the state department cables. Despite the crimes and casual violence revealed in these documents, the Australian government reflexively lined up behind the Obama administration and attacked the whistleblowers. They treated Ed Snowden with the same paranoid revulsion when he exposed the machinery of the Five Eyes global surveillance network in which Australia is an enmeshed and deeply compromised participant. This is a human rights violation machine; that is what it is for.

To really understand the uniquely Australian hypocrisy towards human rights, we need only spend a few moments considering our role in the Middle East. There is no Israeli atrocity towards the people of Palestine so horrific that this government would not be willing to fabricate a justification for it. An endless siege, artillery bombardments, drone strikes, ground invasions, assassinations—there is nothing here that cannot be whitewashed in the name of some diplomatic outcome that, to be honest, I have never been able to understand. Australia drops weapons and supplies to Kurdish fighters in Syria for their part in the war against the medieval barbarity of Daesh, but we are silent when they are jailed and bombed out of their home cities by the Turkish government. Late last year, the Minister for Defence Industry, Christopher Pyne, made his way to Riyadh to flog Australian military equipment to the head of Saudi Arabia's National Guard, seemingly oblivious to the Saudi government's genocidal war in Yemen, which has killed at least 10,000 people. This one-sided conflict now threatens seven million people with deliberate starvation. Defence analysts believe that this conflict would end tomorrow without US and British military, logistical and intelligence support—with Australia contemptibly scrambling along behind.

If we are serious about getting on the Human Rights Council then let's do it, but let's mean it. Let's clean up our own act; build communities, not prisons; close the camps; and give no further material support, training or weapons to documented human rights abusers. Australia will no longer participate in wars of aggression. Our Defence Force will deploy only for defence or for the kind of humanitarian support that they are about to throw themselves into in North Queensland. Wind back mass surveillance and stop providing diplomatic cover for human rights abusers just because they happen to be our allies. Get engaged in the campaign to ban nuclear weapons, probably the ultimate tool of human rights abuse. Wind our foreign aid budget back up to the level we committed to and use it for the kinds of things that we can all be proud of: health, education, democracy, peace building and local economic resilience. Put human rights and the rule of law at the heart of Australian foreign policy, because there is so much work to do. The world is grappling with a lunatic regime in Pyongyang that tests nuclear weapons every couple of years. It is grappling with barbarity of Daesh, the nightmare of the Syrian civil war and the Russian government's queasy interventions at home and abroad.

The Human Rights Council is an incredibly important multilateral platform on which to promote the rule of law and our shared human values. More than 68 years ago, the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and way back then Australia was a founding member of the United Nations, formed in the aftermath of the Holocaust, the Blitz, the firebombing of Dresden, and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Australians were instrumental in drafting the Declaration of Human Rights in the aftermath and the shadow of the Second World War. We have modern achievements that we can be proud of as well: our work internationally on the death penalty, for which I would credit Foreign Minister Bishop and those who came before her in that office; our defence of self-determination in Timor-Leste; and a couple of quite specific but important actions during our tenure on the UN Security Council. But the very concept of human rights is under sustained attack in Australia. If you argue that Muslims are a virus, a disease, to be cleansed from our community then know that you have adopted the language of the Holocaust. Human rights matter because they cut across this language and the violence that proceeds from it.

Set aside the language of UN resolutions and rights diplomacy just for a moment and bring into your mind, if you can, the expression on the face of that battered and blood-covered little boy in the back of a Syrian ambulance. Can you recall the look of incomprehension in his eyes? I can. The boy's expression was seen around the world because we recognised him. He was familiar. We wanted to wrap him up and care for him. He is family. That look in his eyes is the solvent for the toxic nationalism whipped up by One Nation and their forebears in the Liberal-National Party. He is Syrian, yes, but he is family, and I believe that most Australians want this kid and others like him protected no matter where they were born. Maybe one day he and his family will emerge from a polling booth in Aleppo with bright purple ink on their pinkie fingers.

That moment in Myanmar that I cannot forget was made possible in part because our foreign aid budget had helped put DFAT and Australian Electoral Commission officers on the ground for months in advance to help local authorities run the election. So, good luck, Australia, in getting on the Human Rights Council, but for heaven's sake let's mean it.

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