Human Rights

I wish to speak on the importance of human rights and the Rudd Labor government’s commitment to the protection of human rights since it was elected in November 2007. We should recall that this year is the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the pre-eminent international human rights instrument which fostered the development of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

I wish to speak on the importance of human rights and the Rudd Labor government’s commitment to the protection of human rights since it was elected in November 2007. We should recall that this year is the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the pre-eminent international human rights instrument which fostered the development of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

Today is International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, which is a reminder of the harsh realities of torture. Today is also the very day in which the convention against torture came into effect 21 years ago, in 1987. The use of torture is an abuse by the state of its powers, but it is worse than that: it is a denial of the humanity of the victim. It is the antithesis of those values on which we base our social and political systems. It is degrading and dehumanising, and its elimination demands international attention and action.

The Rudd Labor government is committed to human rights and ensuring the elimination of torture around the world. The Attorney-General has announced that he is beginning consultations on Australia becoming a party to the optional protocol on the convention against torture. This optional protocol was rejected by the Howard government, which meant that Australia joined China, Egypt, Libya, Cuba, Nigeria and Sudan in voting against the protocol at the United Nations. The main content of this protocol relates to the ability of officials from the Committee against Torture to inspect Australian detention facilities and to support the domestic national institutions put in place to prevent torture.

Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee for President of the United States, is a war veteran who was a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War and was tortured in the infamous ‘Hanoi Hilton’. In 2005 Senator McCain spoke very eloquently against torture in the United States Congress when he attached an anti-torture amendment to a defence appropriations bill. That anti-torture amendment passed the Senate of the United States with 90 votes. In the lead-up to that vote, Senator McCain, when asked to reflect after his wartime experiences on whether torture should be used on terrorists said:

... every one of us—every single one of us—knew and took great strength from the belief that we were different from our enemies, that we were better than them, that we, if the roles were reversed, would not disgrace ourselves by committing or approving such mistreatment of them. That faith was indispensable not only to our survival, but to our attempts to return home with honor. For without our honor, our homecoming would have had little value to us.

The Labor Party has a long and proud history of support for human rights in Australia and the international law of human rights. It was a Labor foreign minister and later Labor leader, Doc Evatt, who helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. The Hawke Labor government signed and ratified the convention against torture, which I referred to earlier, in 1985 and 1989.

It is perhaps worth concluding by bearing in mind the words of the Chief Justice of the Israeli Supreme Court, Aharon Barak, who wrote in an historic judgement outlawing all coercive methods by the security forces of Israel:

We are aware that this decision does not make it easier to deal with that reality. This is the destiny of a democracy—she does not see all means as acceptable, and the ways of her enemies are not always open before her. A democracy must sometimes fight with one arm tied behind her back. Even so, a democracy has the upper hand. The rule of law and individual liberties constitute an important aspect of her security stance. At the end of the day, they strengthen her spirit and this strength allows her to overcome her difficulties.

We are very fortunate to live in this country free from torture. We should support the victims of torture and strive to continue to work with the international community to eliminate torture for all in the future.