Speech delivered at the PASA forum by Senator Janet Rice, Australian Greens spokesperson on Foreign Affairs (6th December 2020, Melbourne Australia)
I want to start by acknowledging that I’m joining this meeting from unceded land of the Wurundjeri people, and that for those of us joining from around Australia are speaking from unceded First Nations lands. Sovereignty was never ceded, and we commit ourselves to work towards justice and treaties with our First Nations peoples.
It’s particularly relevant to reflect on the struggle for justice for our First Nations people in a speech about human rights in the Asia pacific. Because here on our shores, on this stolen land is an ongoing example of denial of human rights over centuries. The British invaded with a doctrine of Terra nullius, effectively extinguishing any rights of our First Nations peoples – no rights to land, to resources, to healthcare, to food, to spiritual connection to country and protection of country, to culture, to language, to be able to teach their children their language and culture. And any resistance was severely punished. Tragically but inevitably under such repression and oppression the Aboriginal population crashed from an estimated close to a million at invasion to just over 100,000 by 1900. it’s estimated that half the original Wurundjeri population here in the Melbourne region were killed by disease, dispossession or violence in the first four years of settlement in the 1830’s, and their population continued to dramatically drop over the coming decades. But they have survived due to their strength, resilience and ongoing struggle for justice.
Over the decades our First Nations people have gained more rights, but no effective recompense has been made for their dispossession and trauma. Settler Australia looks away, does not want to face the truth of our black history, blames Aboriginal people for the repercussions of ongoing inter-generational trauma.
Fundamental to any discussion of human rights in Australia is the need to for settler Australia to come to terms with the massive injustices that our ancestors wrought on Aboriginal peoples, to acknowledge that we benefit from stolen land, the need to decolonise our thinking, and know that we continue to be in a position of immense and unjust privilege compared with our First Nations peoples. If we are to be in any position at all of not being hypocritical in our advocacy for international human rights then we must acknowledge the truth of our past and sit down and develop treaties with our First Nations peoples in order to move forward with justice and compassion.
That’s so important to me as an Australian Greens Senator, because one of our central values and beliefs is that universal human rights are fundamental and must be respected and protected in all countries and for all people. Of course, we recognise that cultural, religious, gender and other differences often give rise to specific needs and circumstances that must be taken into account in order to ensure equal rights for all. This is why foreign relations, and Australia’s advocacy for human rights on the global stage, can be so complex.
I’ve been passionate about human rights for a long time, and certainly outspoken over my six years in the senate, but particularly so in the last three months now that I’ve taken on the role and responsibility of being the foreign affairs spokesperson. My role frequently involves working to highlight human rights abuses and violations in different parts of the world, including in the Asia-Pacific.
Tragically, that means it’s all too easy to think of recent examples of devastating, egregious violations of human rights in the region.
Here’s a snap shot of some issues in the Asia pacific I’ve been focussed on recently.
- West Papua: Last Tuesday, 1st December, was the 59th anniversary of the first raising of West Papua’s symbol of independence, the Morning Star Flag. We are incredibly concerned about violations of human rights and threats to life in West Papua, particularly for Papuans who are protesting. Just a few weeks ago, I was so upset to hear of the awful reports that a 17-year-old was shot dead and another teenager injured in a police shootout. Because I’m with you today I’m not joining the West Papua Open Day celebrating flag day
- Indonesia: As well as raising the issue of human rights in West Papua, when the Indonesian president visited in February this year, I specifically raised with him the issue of LGBTIQ+ rights in Indonesia. As recently as September of this year, we saw the Indonesian government arresting people based on their sexuality. We condemn that unacceptable behaviour, and we affirm our solidarity with LGBTIQ+ people and communities around the world in their struggle for genuine equality.
- China: In China, there are multiple instances of attacks on human rights that I’ve spoken out about repeatedly. That includes the attacks by the Chinese government on Uyghurs in Xinjiang province, known to the Uighers as East Turkistan; the human rights of the Tibetan people, and of course the incredibly disturbing crackdown on protestors in Hong Kong, and a devastatingly rapid dismantling of democracy, civil society and protest movements there. We have called for the Australian Government to do more on all of these issues, to work multilaterally with other governments and to put human rights front and centre in our negotiations with China.
- India: One of the areas that I have been particularly focussed on recently is the actions of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in India. The RSS is a fascist organisation that openly admits admiration for Adolf Hitler and the appalling genocide that occurred under his Nazi regime – and they are very close to the ruling BJP govt. In fact, president modi is a member of the RSS. The RSS has attacked Indian people’s rights to freedom of expression, freedom of religion and safety, and has been implicated in violent attacks on Muslims, ethnic minorities, and lower caste people. Their advocacy of a Hindu Rashtra is for an India where, by definition, minorities are denied rights and privileges. They demonise and encourage persecution of some of the non-Hindu citizens of India, particularly those of Muslim background.
- In Vietnam, Australian Van Kham Chau has been imprisoned for two years because he is a member of Viet Tan which advocates for democracy and human rights in Vietnam. On visiting Vietnam almost two years ago he was arrested for alleged terrorist activities against the state. In a trial lasting less than five hours and condemned as a “sham”, he was sentenced to 12 years in prison. I had the privilege of meeting his wife at Parliament this week at an Amnesty International event ‘write for Rights’ where I signed petitions calling for justice for a range of political prisoners around the world. What do you say to someone whose 71 year old husband is imprisoned by an authoritarian state? I let her know that I would keep on speaking up on her husband’s behalf and that I hoped that she and he could stay strong and know that people were actively working for justice on their behalf
- In neighbouring Cambodia Human Rights Watch summarises the situation as Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s party maintaining power through violence, politically motivated prosecutions, repressive laws, and corruption. Opposition leader and other activists face unsubstantiated criminal charges. Independent media outlets and journalists remain under attack. And Hun Sen’s tentacles reach to our shores too. At a recent senate inquiry, The Cambodian Australian Federation gave really disturbing evidence about the level of intimidation of the Cambodian community here in Australia and their families in Cambodia because they are speaking out about what’s going on in Cambodia
- Finally in Bangladesh more than 388 people were killed by the security forces in 2019 in alleged extrajudicial executions, which have reportedly spiked since the Government of Bangladesh began its ‘war on drugs’ . Amnesty has noted that UN experts consider that the ‘war on drugs’ ‘appears to be a deliberate policy of extrajudicial killings. And that journalists, activists, human rights defenders, and others who faced arrests for exercising their right to freedom of expression”. Sounds familiar?
As we talk about these instances of human rights under attack in different countries, it’s easy to feel pessimistic and discouraged. I did not even mention Myanmar, Malaysia, Singapore… the list goes on and on just in our region.
It’s easy to think that perhaps authoritarianism and dictatorship is on the rise, and that there is something inevitable or unstoppable about the retreat of human rights.
One possible response to that fear and doubt is to try and find and cling to certainty in strange and uncertain times. To persuade ourselves and to feel optimistic that something guarantees a progressive victory – to believe, like some have argued, that historical forces will reduce violence over time. And that the arc of history bends towards justice.
But gosh it takes some determination to maintain such optimism in the face of our current realities.
I believe that staying optimistic is great if you can do it, but that its easier to just have hope rather than optimism, and that hope in itself is incredibly powerful.
In her book, Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit wrote:
“Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes – you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists.
So it’s precisely because of that hope that it’s exciting to be here, with so many passionate people, who are excited about doing everything we can to change the world, embracing that uncertainty.
Continuing to work passionately with hope that things can change and knowing that is powerful and sensible to keep working for change. That even as we suffer and grieve our losses and know that things look really grim, to have the strength and resilience to take the next step.
And of course, in marking International Human Rights Day, we’re marking a victory for human rights. At the time, it may have seemed unrealistic, so soon after the carnage of the second world war, to adopt a universal declaration of human rights. But the truth is that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a profound statement of human rights, and stating those human rights explicitly is a powerful tool to fight against oppression and abuse, in whatever country we’re in.
Another bit of good news is that we are moving closer towards implementing a Magnitsky Act here in Australia, where we apply sanctions on individuals who breach human rights, denying them the ability to get a visa to visit here, or invest here. The JSCFADT is currently considering the final report of the inquiry that was conducted by the parliament into this issue so stay tuned.
A Magnitsky Act is one part of the answer to the big question I continually ask myself and I know most of you probably do too – what do we do as Australians? But it’s only one part. The bigger context is How should Australia act on the world stage? What can we do?
The first thing to say is that human rights, and the struggle to protect them, starts at home. As I stated at the beginning of this speech, Australia completely undercuts its international credibility when it criticises other countries on human rights grounds but fails to act within its borders.
On top of our inaction on truth, justice and treaties with our First Nations peoples is of course our incarceration of refugees and asylum seekers both on and off-shore. We must fight to ensure that here, in Australia, all people have fundamental human rights and are entitled to equal protection of the law without any discrimination, including on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. We must address the domestic violence crisis, we must address poverty, and provide a genuine safety net for people on income support. How about a charter of rights like every other democratic nation in the world?
But we must also tackle our political, economic and environmental problems, if we are going to be effective advocates for human rights on the international stage. In the centuries since colonisation, many of our economic systems have been based on an unsustainable, extractive approach. We have introduced species, we have destroyed country through clearing, logging and mining, in short have devastated the carefully managed country that existed pre-colonisation, and most of this has been for trade. The mining of coal and gas which has us as the second biggest exporter of fossil fuels in the world and headed for the top spot, turbo charging the global climate crisis is just the latest incarnation of our commitment to extractivism. And if you think that the most important element of our interaction with the Chinese government is negotiation over the sale of coal or timber then it’s easy to buy into the fallacy that raising human rights internationally is bad for Australia. But the reality is that we must tackle our climate and ecological crises, including stopping coal mining. Moving away from extractivism. Moving away from relationships that are fundamentally premised on digging stuff up and shipping it offshore can only be for the good. And beyond the benefits environmentally and economically, doing so will make us able to engage more confidently, not less, on the international stage.
As an international actor, Australia must work to strengthen its bilateral relationships, and strengthen the multilateral institutions that have contributed to global wellbeing. Building stronger bilateral relationships with regional neighbours can enable us to raise human rights issues more directly, more confidently, and with more impact. Rather than providing training to police in Indonesia or other countries that may contribute to attacks on protestors, our development assistance program should focus on the kind of capacity-building support that empowers communities, and supports governments in protecting, rather than undermine, human rights.
In acting through multilateral institutions, Australia has a real opportunity to raise human rights, and amplify the voices of those calling for justice. I know that the next speaker will touch in depth on the human rights situation in the Philippines. Let me just say that the Australian Greens support the calls by Human Rights Watch and others that the United Nations Human Rights Council should establish an independent international investigation on extrajudicial killings and other human rights violations in the Philippines. By acting with other parties, and through stronger, fairer multilateral institutions, we can empower those advocating for human rights, and highlight countries who are failing to protect their citizens or are undermining human rights.
There is no simple solution. This is a long, complex process that takes years. Almost anything worth doing does. But if Australia is to become the best version of itself, we must start at home, and then work to advocate ceaselessly for human rights on the international stage.