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Monday, 23 May 2011
Page: 4286

Mr HAYES (FowlerGovernment Whip) (21:50): On 30 April I was given the opportunity by the Vietnamese Community Australia to pay my respects to all veterans of the Vietnam conflict and to speak to the hundreds of people who came to Canberra to commemorate the 36th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. I thank Thanh Nguyen and the VCA executive for that distinct honour. Human rights is an issue that I believe is very important to most of us in this place, because we value life as well as the dignity of mankind.

When I spoke in Canberra I noted the experience of two men who have had a profound effect on me—both Vietnamese soldiers, one a combat officer, the other a doctor in the medical corps. Both suffered greatly at the hands of the communist government and, like many other Vietnamese Australians, both are refugees. I refer to Mr Vo Dai Ton and Dr Tien Nguyen OAM, a former VCA president. I personally know these men and I know their stories. Along with so many other Vietnamese soldiers who fought to protect South Vietnam, they have endured the horrors and hardships of re-education camps. Their belief in freedom and democracy is unquestionable, and their bravery and courage is not only inspiring but deeply humbling. Despite what has happened to them, both men have made genuine and valued contributions to their adopted country, Australia.

So, when I recently learnt of a proposal for a commemorative joint parade next year, involving Australian veterans marching together with former Viet Cong fighters, my thoughts turned to these two men and to the many other Vietnamese refugees. Regardless of the undoubted honourable intentions, I do not consider such an event to be appropriate, given the circumstances of the war and particularly having regard to the ongoing human rights abuses in Vietnam. I have written to both the Prime Minister and the National President of the RSL expressing my concerns about such an event.

At the conclusion of the Vietnam war the communist government acted with extreme cruelty to those they suspected stood against them. The actions of the regime pushed many millions of people to flee their homeland in search of freedom and security. Tragically, thousands of people did not survive that journey. These events are not confined to the pages of history or distant in our memories; they were but 36 years ago. I remain deeply concerned about human rights in Vietnam. I find it appalling that there are more than 400 people currently imprisoned in Vietnam for exercising their fundamental human rights—people whose crimes are supporting political groups not recognised by the state, criticising government policy, calling for democracy and providing legal advice to other dissidents on trial.

On 11 May I had the pleasure of organising a conference in Parliament House for members and senators to discuss the current application of civil and political rights in Vietnam. I must say, there was a strong feeling that, despite our trade and diplomatic involvement, the situation of civil and political rights in Vietnam has not substantially improved, and some claim it has even gone backwards. Representatives of Bloc 1706 human rights activists also attended in order to brief members and senators on that day. Bloc 1706 gained its name as it was formed on 1 July 2006 in support of a democracy movement that was formed earlier that year in Vietnam. Before this movement, and since, many dissidents have been arrested and jailed. One thing that Bloc 1706 is doing, which is truly remarkable, is providing financial support for the families of jailed dissidents so they can at least survive. Recently, such assistance was given to the families of three labour rights activists who were jailed for nine years for organising a strike at a shoe factory in pursuit of fair wages and conditions.

It should be noted that many unions in Australia, including the Transport Workers Union and the Australia Workers Union, have taken a strong stand on the treatment of those three labour rights activists in Vietnam. Indeed, the ACTU executive has passed a resolution strongly condemning the actions of the Vietnamese government in their jailing. Through the resources of Vietnamese Sydney Radio, I have had the opportunity to speak to a number of people currently detained in Vietnam for exercising their basic human rights. I have spoken to two Catholic priests currently detained in Vietnam, Father Ly Van Nguyen and Father Loi Van Phan, and more recently I spoke to a young woman, Cong Nhan Thi Le, a Vietnamese lawyer. Her crime was to assist a couple of poor farmers who had been dispossessed of their property. I thank Boa Khanh and Joachim Nguyen for giving me the opportunity to speak personally to these people—after all, they are true patriots of Vietnam and, like us, they believe in freedom and the dignity for all Vietnamese people.

For some years now, at the Australia-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue, Australian government officials have been expressing concern about political prisoners. I understand the diplomatic difficulty of gaining permission to visit prisoners and detainees in Vietnam who are not Australian citizens, and the recent experience of an American congressman and even more pointedly the experience of our own member for Cowan can attest to that. But if we are to genuinely press for human rights advances in Vietnam we need to press for access to those detained in circumstances we believe to be an abuse of human rights. I would like to briefly refer to the Human Rights Technical Cooperation Program, a program for enhancing advances in human rights in Vietnam. I note from the AusAID website that under this program the public security ministry is one area that is a beneficiary of this Australian aid. I seriously question taxpayers' money going to the very ministry which coordinates the arrest, jailing and mistreatment of peaceful dissidents.

Rights are not something we just talk about and then go ahead and forget. Rights are worth nothing unless they are respected. If people are jailed for simply exercising their basic human rights, then clearly those rights do not exist at all. For that reason, I wrote to the foreign minister only recently in respect of a matter concerning Mr Cu Huy Ha Vu, a Vietnamese legal scholar who was recently convicted for propaganda against the state. Mr Vu was arrested in 2009 after he attempted to initiate legal action following the approval of a controversial Chinese-built bauxite mining project in the central highlands of Vietnam. A year later Mr Vu was again arrested, this time for challenging the constitutional validity of a prohibition against class actions being taken in the courts. This is a man attempting to exercise what he understands to be his legal rights. I am particularly concerned that, following a trial that lasted only several hours, Mr Vu was sentenced to seven years imprisonment followed by a further three years probation.

Clearly more needs to be done to ensure that Australia's financial contribution to Vietnam is met with clear and substantial improvements in Vietnam's human rights record and with a view to their realising the terms of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the Vietnamese government freely consented to sign back in 1982. We, as a country that trades with Vietnam, along with other developed countries, have a right to insist that those undertakings which were consented to in 1982 be implemened and that the doctrines that go with them be respected. While I support and encourage all efforts to build harmonious relations, I believe that given the current circumstances a commemorative parade involving Australian veterans marching alongside Vietcong fighters will send absolutely the wrong message to dictatorial regimes—namely that they can continue to deny their people basic freedoms while continuing to enjoy the support of our country.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Hon. Peter Slipper ): Order! The time allotted for the debate has expired. The resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.

Main Committee adjourned at 22:00.