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Thursday, 13 August 2009
Page: 7909


Mr OAKESHOTT (11:51 AM) —I rise to support this motion moved by the Attorney-General and to support the comments that have been made by all speakers in the debate so far. Yesterday was a day of confirmation and celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Geneva conventions. To start with one family anecdote, a nice surprise for me from yesterday’s celebration was the finding of a new relative in the Hon. Robert Tickner. As of yesterday, we have now established that we are cousins of some form, probably much to the shock of half my family and much to the pleasure of the other half.

For another reason I want to give another family anecdote, and that is that I am the grandson of someone who is probably a lot of the reason the Geneva conventions were established and we have them today. My grandfather was one of the five officers and 15 other ranks who survived to the end of the Sandakan death marches, as I have mentioned previously, and to the victory in the Pacific, on 15 August, 1945. However, two weeks after that date, on 27 August, those 20 individuals were murdered at the hands of their captors. They fell into the very difficult legal gap of not technically legally being prisoners of war yet not technically legally being able to be dealt with as civilians being murdered because documents at the end of the war were not technically signed until 2 September, so there was a very difficult window of about three weeks. I would have loved to have met my grandfather and I would hope he would have loved to have met me. And that is just one such example of someone falling into a legal trap at the end of the war: not technically a prisoner of war but not technically a civilian and therefore not able to be dealt with under international law.

But out of those end of Second World War situations we saw negotiations start and we saw good principles develop through the four Geneva conventions. And the very good words in article 27 of the fourth Geneva convention give some small solace, I hope, for families in similar situations to our family who are ask: what is the point of those deaths? The point of those deaths, in some small way, is that we now have some established international law that leaves no-one behind. So article 27 is important. It says:

Protected persons are entitled, in all circumstances, to respect for their persons, their honour, their family rights, their religious convictions and practices, and their manners and customs. They shall at all times be humanely treated, and shall be protected especially against all acts of violence or threats thereof and against insults and public curiosity.

Women shall be especially protected against any attack on their honour, in particular against rape, enforced prostitution or any form of indecent assault.

Without prejudice to the provisions relating to their state of health, age and sex, all protected persons shall be treated with the same consideration by the Party to the conflict in whose power they are, without any adverse distinction based, in particular, on race, religion or political opinion.

These are good solid principles that I would hope every member of this place supports and, where possible, actively fights to protect and uphold. Whilst they are broad words—and quite often in international law we see words that are so broad that they can often be left to interpretation for the moment and really not achieve anything—I think what these four Geneva conventions over time have done, from way back in 1949, is set some broad principles which we have seen be defined by various courts of law and various international tribunals. From that slow evolution of the defining of these laws, I think today we have some really solid principles with some practical application. An example is the International Criminal Tribunal on the Former Yugoslavia, which has done some really good, sound definitions of what is and what is not a prisoner of war and all those difficult questions about—I think it is article 3—armed conflict within a sovereign nation, what is and what is not armed conflict and what does and does not fall under these Geneva conventions. I think these are now all starting to be defined and 60 years later we have a stronger document and a stronger set of principles than we had in 1949.

A good example of that is going on right now. I think Australia can be extremely proud of, and should probably talk more about, the work that is being done in Cambodia with the international tribunals in the prosecution of various principles attached to these Geneva conventions. The name Gareth Evans, for anyone who goes to Cambodia, is held in very high esteem. The Australian government generally is held in very high esteem and Australian law officials are intimately involved in what is happening now with the Duch trials and the various trials in the prosecution of these Geneva conventions.

These are not broad, symbolic, flowery statements. They have practical applications. I was lucky enough to be in Cambodia in the early days of these trials and to see villagers coming with awe, shock and wonder to stand in the court and to listen to the evidence being given over 30 years later. This said to me that it has real practical application for the hearts and minds of individuals and families all around the world. That is the upside of the delivery of these Geneva conventions and something Australia should be, in that particular circumstance, very proud of.

The downside is—the point was already made—man’s inhumanity to man and the folly that is attached to a lot of the decision making that goes on in the world and world affairs and what drives people to conflict. In the Cambodian situation, I would love every Australian to walk through those killing fields—to walk through S21—to get a real sense of the absolute brutality of the loss of principle that goes with man’s inhumanity to man when it all goes wrong. From that we drive home the importance of international conventions—and these Geneva conventions in particular—and within every single one of us the importance of the vigilance of protecting and upholding an understanding of these principles so that, whether within Australia or in any capacity where we have an engagement with the world, we do not allow ourselves, our friends, our family or our communities to go off the rails in dealing with our fellow man.

That is probably a nice link into some local work that we are trying to get off the ground, and that is the expansion of the brand of the United Nations throughout the mid-North Coast of New South Wales. Within political circles and within public debate in Australia—and I have mentioned this before in public addresses—I do think the United nations has copped some rough trade. An organisation that is doing some difficult work is an easy target at times. It is important for an area like the mid-North Coast of New South Wales, where there is probably not the amount of contact with the international community as you might find in many metropolitan communities or in Canberra, to try to engage better. That is why right at the moment we are trying to roll out the United Nations Association branches throughout the mid-North Coast, and we are getting some really good feedback from community members wanting to be involved. It gives me a lot of comfort that there is an interest and a desire within the Australian community to engage with the world as a friend, on peaceful terms, so I will certainly be following that work up and supporting it and helping wherever possible to promote the international message within the local community. It is a bit of a cliche in this place that all politics is local; in a lot of ways that is true but also, attached to that, international documents like the Geneva Conventions can be as local as you want them to be. The obligation on all of us in this place is to make these documents local, make them relevant and endorse and promote Australia’s international role of being a good fellow citizen within the world community. These documents are an excellent way of doing that.

I finish where I started, in that my example of the family story is told 100 or a 1,000 times over around the world. Unless we have international law that can prosecute when things go wrong and protect those, whether they are prisoners of war or innocents caught up in an armed conflict situation, unless we have documents in place and unless we have people in place willing to uphold those documents, the world is a worse place. That is why these Geneva conventions are so important, the 60th anniversaries are so important. I hope that all members of this chamber will take the time to do a Wiki search or get a quick understanding, if they do not have one already, or just reconfirm and then go about the business of promoting these principles far and wide.