Human rights speech

  • Speech, check against delivery

Almost fifty years to the day, Australia was approaching a legal watershed.

Ever since Captain Arthur Phillip had established the colony of New South Wales 179 years earlier – a short distance from where we meet today – the death penalty had been a feature of the Australian legal system.

On 27 February 1788 – a mere 32 days after the colony was founded – one Thomas Barrett was hanged at Sydney Cove for stealing from government stores – the first man executed in this country under British law. Legal jurisdictions around Australia continued to sentence and put people to death for committing a range of serious and not so serious crimes from murder and piracy to stealing clothing or a comb.

Ronald Ryan, in Victoria, would be the last. In December 1966, Ryan and his legal team were down to their final gambits. For his conviction for murdering a prison warder two years earlier, he was to be hanged on 9 January, a fortnight after Christmas.

The Victorian Premier, Sir Henry Bolte, held the power of commutation, as a petition to the UK Privy Council was under consideration. There was also a motion to delay in the Supreme Court of Victoria with blow by blow accounts in the national newspapers, editorials furiously making their case.

There would be a stay – then a refusal of leave to appeal by the Privy Council. A second stay, after a former prisoner claimed – at the eleventh hour – that another man had in fact pulled the trigger.

Manoeuver after manoeuver, plea after plea, for Ryan to be spared, as had been every other Victorian death row prisoner since 1951. In the end, Ryan lost his battle. He was hanged on 3 February 1967 – the last person ever to be executed by the state in Australia.

The death penalty abolitionists though eventually won the battle to end this practice. It has been half a century since any Australian government has carried out an execution. The death penalty has been removed from our nation's statute books.

In the decades since, Australia has been a global leader in opposing the death penalty.

In forum after forum, whether in bilateral meetings or in multilateral settings like the United Nations, Australia has argued the case for abolition - with calm, with patience and with determination.

As Foreign Minister, I have been urging countries around the world that retain the death penalty to find other, more just, and indeed more effective ways of punishing serious crimes.

There is a long way to go.

Our most recent effort – to convince the Indonesian Government not to put to death two Australian citizens Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran – was not successful despite sustained private advocacy and then a high profile public campaign in the final months of their 10 years in detention.

We oppose the death penalty not only in Australia but elsewhere for the citizens of any country. It has not and will not prevent the incidence of the commission of serious crimes. The death penalty violates one of the most important rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – the right to life. At home and abroad, Australia believes all people have inalienable human rights – rights which demand that respect and dignity should be enjoyed by each and every person.

Two days ago, on 10 December, we commemorated Human Rights Day. It was on that day 68 years ago that the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We should justly be proud that Australia was a founding member of the United Nations and instrumental in drafting the Declaration.

For we believe in fundamental freedoms. Particularly we defend a person's right to free speech and right to hold personal beliefs –provided they do not impinge on the rights or freedoms of others.

Our values are at the heart of our decision to run for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council for the 2018 to 2020 term. According to Freedom House, 2015 saw an overall drop in freedom around the world for the 9th consecutive year. In a wide range of countries, governments have clamped down on freedom of expression, arresting and imprisoning journalists, academics and political opponents.

Freedom of expression is enjoyed and valued in Australia – it is a fundamental part of our vibrant democracy. Should Australia become a member of the Human Right Council we would place a heavy emphasis on protecting freedom of expression.

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.

Australia was one of the first countries to establish a bilateral human rights dialogue with China, and the only at Ministerial level, through which we have had constructive exchanges. We were the first Western country to advocate for rescinding the human rights resolution condemning Myanmar – an important step, as that country began its transformation.

So we take a practical approach. We have also provided practical support on human rights challenges to Myanmar as it undertakes momentous political change.

Australia is engaging directly with the Myanmar Government in relation to our concerns about the security situation in northern Rakhine State, the obstacles to humanitarian access and the reports of alleged human rights abuses.

As well as providing generous levels of humanitarian support, Australia is working with the Myanmar Government to build a long-term solution to the complex situation, including through funding for education, income diversification and skills development.

We demonstrated our practical, pragmatic approach during our term on the UN Security Council between 2013-14, delivering concrete results and pushing policy into new areas, including by securing the first ever UNSC resolutions on small arms trading and the important role played by police in peacekeeping and peace-building.

We also led a UN Security Council session on human rights violations in the surely ironically named Democratic People's Republic of Korea –an historic step which saw the UNSC recognise the mass human rights violations in North Korea. Thanks to the work of Michael Kirby and others, this is now a standing item on the Security Council agenda.

Without question, North Korea is the most destabilising regime in our region in terms of security. With its repeated flouting of UN sanctions by conducting ever frequent missile tests, it is a threat to global peace.

While building its nuclear weapons capability, it engages in widespread, systemic human rights abuses against its own people, which adds to the risk and instability it poses. On some accounts, North Korea spends around a quarter of its GDP on its military - compared with the South's 2.8 per cent – reflecting its priorities. The long suffering North Koreans have greatly reduced life expectancy and quality of life - without adequate access to food and basic necessities.

In the 21st Century, we must strive to ensure that everyone have the same basic rights in terms of how they are treated, equality before the law, equality of access to basic education and health care, equality of opportunity, and the like.

That is why in the Human Rights Council we would continue to advocate for greater rights for women and girls across the world and to assist Indigenous peoples both in Australia and overseas to overcome social and economic disadvantage.

Australia's human rights principles are clear – we oppose racism and discrimination on the basis of gender, sexual identity, ethnicity, religion, or disability. Australia's commitment to human rights goes to the core of who we are and our respect for human dignity in all aspects of life - it is about basic morality, justice and integrity.

Respecting fundamental human rights and freedoms, and building them into the fabric of a society, makes us safer and more secure. Human rights, security, peace and prosperity go hand in hand.

Time after time, serious and escalating human rights abuses are the vital early warning that a country is unstable and heading towards either large-scale internal turmoil or conflict with an immediate neighbour or within the region.

In these instances the Human Rights Council has a key role to play –it is uniquely qualified to detect emerging crises and to give the global community early warning. Unfortunately, democracy and human rights have suffered serious setbacks in many parts of the world in recent years, adding to a growing sense of geopolitical flux and instability.

The world has seen violent human rights abuses on a mass scale for many years. However, arguably the worst in recent years has been in Syria and Iraq. Despite recent gains by the Iraqi Government and the international coalition, the terrorist group Daesh or ISIL remains an appalling force for instability and human rights abuses in both Syria and Iraq.

Throughout 2016, Daesh has continued to use violence - rape, murder, - to devastate the lives of the civilian population in Syria and Iraq, at the same time as they direct or inspire terrorists in cities all around the world to target innocent citizens.

A diabolical dilemma presents – the more successful the efforts to defeat ISIL, the more likely that its foreign fighters will seek to return home – some to our region and to Australia – battle-hardened experienced terrorists who may still harbour extremist ideals.

Simultaneously, the Assad regime in Syria has used indiscriminate barrel bombs and chemical weapons against the civilian areas of its own cities, killing and maiming children and other innocent civilians. It has detained and systematically tortured dissenters and perceived enemies of the regime in horrific prison conditions.

Australia has committed over $500 million in humanitarian assistance to help those affected by the conflict in Syria and Iraq since 2011. I have also worked with human rights lawyer, Amal Clooney, to draw attention to the plight of the Yazidis who have been the subject of gross human rights abuses.

In Afghanistan, the presence of Daesh and insurgent targeting of civilians is an increasing concern, while violence against women and girls remains widespread. Australia must continue our efforts to counter terrorism through the international coalition and increasingly close regional cooperation.

In our region, there have been a range of other worrying developments and persistent trends undermining support and respect for human rights. The death penalty continues to be applied in many countries in our region and on the largest scale in China. Internet freedom is under pressure and there are increasing restrictions on the operations of non-government organisations.

In Southeast Asia, gains have been made in realising economic and social rights over the past decades; however enormous work lies ahead in promoting and protecting political and civil rights.

It is important to work with other countries, taking a collaborative approach where we can, respecting another country's perspective yet never resiling from our commitment to fundamental human rights.

As well as China, we hold formal, high-level dialogues with Vietnam and Laos, to raise our human rights concerns systematically and directly.

Australia continues to appeal to our counterparts in the Philippines to ensure the cessation of all extrajudicial killings and have offered support to the Philippines Government to support improvements in health-focussed drug policies. Australia also sincerely hopes the Philippines will reconsider moves to reinstate the death penalty. For as two of the few abolitionist countries in our region, we have worked closely together in the past in seeking an end to this practice.

On another front, I cannot emphasise enough the critical connection between peace, security and gender equality. One of the best indicators of whether a country is peaceful and stable isn't its level of wealth, or ethnic profile or religious identity – I suggest it is how a nation treats women and girls.

A woman's right to live free from fear and violence is integral to the genuine protection of human rights. That is why promoting gender equality is a strong theme in both our human rights work around the world and in our proposed platform for election to the Human Rights Council.

Earlier this year I launched a new Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women Strategy to step up our efforts to drive change in our region. Importantly, the Strategy is backed by a gender equality fund. With a budget this year of $62.5 million, the fund is supporting practical projects across the Indo-Pacific to advance the human rights of women and girls.

We have been working closely with our neighbours in the Pacific to combat gender-based violence. And last week with Senator Penny Wong, Senator Claire Moore and Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, we visited a number of centres and saw the work Australia is doing in this regard. Kiribati, Samoa, Solomon Islands and Tonga have shown leadership by introducing legislation to criminalise domestic violence.

We are one of few countries in the world to maintain an Ambassador for Women and Girls to promote gender equality, gender empowerment and ending violence against women. I am proud of the work Natasha Stott Despoja undertook in that role during her 3 year appointment and I look forward to Dr Sharman Stone building on Natasha's legacy over the next 3 years.

As I have argued many times as Foreign Minister – gender equality isn't just the right thing to do, it's the smart thing to do.

According to the McKinsey Global Institute, if women were to participate in the economy at a level comparable to men, global GDP would grow by 26 per cent, or USD28 trillion, by 2025.

It is to all our benefits that we strive to ensure that all people can have the opportunity to participate in every aspect of economic and social life, and empowering them to reach their full potential in ways that boost productivity and economic growth.

In the years ahead, the Sustainable Development Goals aim to create a more equal world – and equality will deliver a prosperity dividend. Equality is also about ensuring that the rights of everyone, including the LGBTI community and vulnerable groups like those with a disability, are respected.

That is why Australia joined the Equal Rights Coalition in September to fight discrimination and violence against LGBTI people, who can be some of the most vulnerable, and the most subject to violence and discrimination.

The rule of law, strong institutions and good governance are also part of our platform for our election to the Human Rights Council as essential to achieving development and prosperity. It is also important that the private sector recognises that it has a role to play in promoting human rights.

When Unilever released its Human Rights Report last year, the first of its kind, CEO Paul Polman said: "Business can only flourish in societies in which human rights are respected, upheld and advanced. People are our greatest asset, and empowering them across our supply chain is not only the right thing to do, but also ensures a sustainable future for the business."

Australia has supported the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights since their inception in 2011. I am pleased to announce our Government is establishing a multi-stakeholder advisory group, consisting of business and civil society to assist government and business to work together to improve human rights and to implement the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

So what more can Australia do?

To achieve change and protect the values we hold dear, Australia must continue to be an active and visible player across the multilateral UN system. We believe very strongly that the UN system needs to be better coordinated in the way it approaches human rights.

At present, the UN's work on human rights, conflict prevention, peacekeeping and peace building occurs mostly in silos. Australia is taking practical steps to connect different parts of the UN system to ensure a more holistic approach to human rights. For example, Australia took the lead earlier this year, with Angola, in achieving the first ever peace-building resolutions cutting across both the Security Council and the General Assembly.

During the General Assembly last September, I announced a new Australian pledge of $10 million over three years to the UN Peacebuilding Fund. This fund helps countries emerging from conflict avoid sliding back into renewed confrontation by creating conditions for long-term stability and growth.

In Australia, we are privileged to have a vibrant civil society, a dynamic private sector, a strong judiciary and national human rights institutions. We have pledged to build and strengthen human rights institutions and civil society across the world should we be elected a member of the Human Rights Council.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is inevitable that in giving this speech outlining our case for election to the Human Rights Council, there will be a chorus of criticism over our support for off shore detention centres in Papua New Guinea and Nauru to process applications for those seeking asylum in Australia. I state categorically that this Government will not take any steps that would encourage the criminal people smuggling syndicates to get back into the business of people smuggling. There is no humanity in a government that puts in place a legislative framework against advice that can and did have the effect of luring vulnerable people to their deaths.

That's what happened under the previous Labor Government - and it's an uncomfortable truth for many - but by unpicking the Howard era border protection laws, and reinvigorating the people smuggling trade to Australia, over 1,200 people drowned at sea - many smashed up against the rocks on the Christmas Island shores.

Time and again - as 50,000 people, aboard 800 often unseaworthy wooden fishing boats, paid criminals significant sums of money to make the dangerous sea journey to Australia, thus by-passing our orderly and regular processing for humanitarian and refugee visas - not only were they placing their own lives at risk, but the lives of our Defence, Customs and Border Protection personnel who had the horrific tasks of rescuing the stricken vessels and fishing dead bodies from the ocean.

This was intolerable and no self-respecting humane government, or indeed any human rights activist, should have been an accomplice to such tragedy.

Yet that's what happened.

Overwhelmed by its massive policy failure, the Labor Government opened 17 detention centres across Australia, established an off shore centre on Manus Island and reopened a centre in Nauru. Over 8,000 children passed through detention centres and there were 2,000 children in detention when the Coalition came to government in 2013. The silence from the so called human rights activists was deafening.

It took the courage, political will and humanity of a Coalition Government – first under Prime Minister Abbott and continued under Prime Minister Turnbull to dismantle this people smuggling criminal trade, stop the boats from coming, close the 17 detention centres, remove all children from detention, stop the deaths at sea and seek resettlement options for those found to be owed protection. It has been over 800 days since there were a successful people smuggling venture and no deaths at sea. Those found not to be owed protection have been encouraged, indeed paid incentives to return to their homes, as they should.

The Refugee Convention was designed to give safe haven to those seeking to flee from persecution – not a self-selecting choice of where asylum seekers wished to live. Of those who sought to come to Australia via the people smuggling trade yet found to be owed protection, they can be resettled in Papua New Guinea, in Nauru, in Cambodia and with a proposal under the way for resettlement in the United States. All four options should be entirely acceptable to someone fleeing from persecution or the threat of it.

In the meantime, our annual offer of 13,750 humanitarian and refugee visas will be increased to 18,750 – together with our offer of permanent resettlement for 12,000 refugees from the Syria conflict. Australia is committed to respecting human rights as one of the fundamental ingredients of the global norms that encourage peace and prosperity.

As an international community, we should think of human rights as being inextricably linked to economic development and therefore to regional stability and prosperity. That is why Australia is committed to upholding and promoting human rights and will do so with vigour if we are elected to the Human Rights Council.

We will share our experiences and insights and offer pragmatic advice with practical solutions.

Our voice will be heard.

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