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Monday, 4 July 2011
Page: 7523

Ms PARKE (Fremantle) (18:50): I thank the member for Fowler for his motion and the member for Cowan for his words tonight. The motion that we are speaking to highlights the importance of Human Rights Day and details the difficult circumstances faced by many of the world's human rights defenders. I note the member has a particular focus on the situation in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, where the human rights situation continues to be dire in terms of freedoms of speech, press, assembly, movement and association and where political activists, unionists and human rights defenders continue to be arrested, detained and subjected to unfair trials in addition to lengthy periods of incarceration.

On 30 May this year, seven activists in Ben Tre were jailed for 'attempting to overthrow the people's administration' by engaging in such activities as attending courses on non-violent protest and assisting victims of government corruption. Human Rights Watch has called for the release of a number of corruption-busting human rights lawyers and legal defenders who have been arbitrarily arrested, detained, disbarred and pressured not to represent political or religious activists. Human Rights Watch has also noted in its country summary:

Vietnam, which served as the chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2010, demonstrated little respect for core principles in the … (ASEAN) Charter to "strengthen democracy" and "protect and promote human rights and fundamental freedoms."

Earlier this year Amnesty International called for the release of Vi Duc Hoi, who was given an eight-year prison sentence for posting articles on the internet calling for democracy.

It is for reasons like these that the Human Rights Subcommittee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade has commenced an inquiry into Australia's annual human rights dialogues with Vietnam and China. One of the main aims of the inquiry will be to ascertain whether Australian parliamentarians might have an expanded role in these dialogues.

Of course, as the member for Fowler has noted in his motion, instances of suppression of freedom of speech and of democratic participation are not confined to Vietnam and China. It is important that we continue to speak up for the benefit of human rights and democracy defenders in Burma, Iran, Syria, Bahrain, Pakistan, Western Sahara, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka, Russia and other countries and that, to use Aung San Suu Kyi's words, we use our liberty to promote theirs.

In 2008 one of my favourite poets, Seamus Heaney, reflected on the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in an essay called The Poetic Redress, in which he wrote, inter alia:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

In the boldness and buoyancy of these words there are echoes of many of the great foundational texts of western civilisation, from Sophocles' "wonders of man" chorus through Christ's Sermon on the Mount on up to the American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man. So even if this First Article cannot guarantee what it declares, if its writ cannot be made to run in China or Zimbabwe or Guantanamo, it nevertheless gestures so confidently towards what human beings desire that it fortifies a conviction that the desirable can in fact be realised.

…   …   …

Since it was framed, the Declaration has succeeded in creating an international moral consensus. It is always there as a means of highlighting abuse if not always as a remedy: it exists instead in the moral imagination as an equivalent of the gold standard in the monetary system. The articulation of its tenets has made them into world currency of a negotiable sort. Even if its Articles are ignored or flouted—in many cases by governments who have signed up to them—it provides a worldwide amplification system for "the still, small voice".

…   …   …

Flouted though the Articles have been and continue to be, their vulnerability should perhaps be regarded as an earnest of their ultimate value. If, for example, an effort were to be made to enforce them by the exercise of military power—as in the effort to enforce "democracy" on Iraq—it would not only end in failure but would discredit utterly the very concept of human rights. They would be stigmatised as the attributes of an imperium rather than an inherent endowment of the species.

It is this vulnerable yet spiritually inviolate quality which makes them attractive not only to the wronged and the oppressed of the Earth, but to writers and poets as well. The Universal Declaration is not a sure-fire panacea for the world's ills; it is more geared to effect what I once called "the redress of poetry" than to intervene like a superpower. This idea of redress I discovered first in Simone Weil's book, Gravity and Grace, where she observes that if we know the way society is unbalanced, we must do what we can to add weight to the lighter side of the scale. The Universal Declaration, it seems to me, adds this kind of weight and contributes thereby to the maintenance of an equilibrium—never entirely achieved—between the rights and wrongs.

I thank the member for Fowler for once again reminding us of this international moral consensus and adding weight and buoyancy to the lighter side of the scale.