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Monday, 22 February 2010
Page: 1331


Ms VAMVAKINOU (4:11 PM) —I rise today in support of the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Torture Prohibition and Death Penalty Abolition) Bill 2009. I want to welcome the efforts of the Attorney-General, the Hon. Robert McClelland, for introducing this very important piece of legislation that goes very much to the heart of our national judicial framework.

This bill introduces a specific Commonwealth torture offence into the Commonwealth Criminal Code, which operates concurrently with the existing offences in state and territorial criminal laws. The bill also amends the Commonwealth Death Penalty Abolition Act 1973 to extend the current prohibition on the death penalty to state criminal laws, thus ensuring that the death penalty cannot be introduced anywhere in Australia in the future.

My strong opposition to the detention and torture of Australian citizens abroad, as well as to the killing of Australians in foreign jails, is unequivocal and, in fact, very much on the record here in this place. This bill serves to ensure that Australia will never accommodate those involved in the judicial killings and torture of individuals both on our shores and abroad. This bill is a reflection of Australia’s strong opposition to any form of torture, as well as the death penalty, wherever it may occur. It sends a strong message to those who engage in such activities, who may one day imagine that they can find sanction in a modern Australia.

By enacting torture as a specific Commonwealth offence in the Commonwealth Criminal Code, the bill reflects this government’s commitment to end impunity for torture and fulfils Australia’s obligations under the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. By amending the Death Penalty Abolition Act 1973, this legislation also highlights Australia’s commitment to its obligations under the second optional protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

In speaking to the part of the bill which goes to the introduction of a specific Commonwealth torture offence into the Commonwealth Criminal Code, I want to make the following observations. The basic definition of torture is that contained in the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Torture can never be an acceptable means of extracting information or compelling people to yield to someone else’s will or to squash dissent. It is, as we all know, an act of sheer cruelty, primarily designed to degrade human beings by inflicting extreme physical pain and humiliation.

Victims of torture, if they survive—many do and many, unfortunately, do not—are often left with lifelong physical and psychological scars. Many will suffer post-traumatic stress disorder and severe depression and will almost always have difficulty readjusting to normal life. However, it is not only the individual who is the victim of torture who suffers; it is also their families and friends and, indeed, the community as a whole. In my own electorate I often come across people who have come to Australia via our Refugee and Humanitarian Immigration Program who, more often than not, are actually victims of torture back in the countries they have left, and who have come and settled in Australia. I have had the opportunity to see the kind of trauma that remains with people who have been victims of torture. This is trauma that I think remains with them for the rest of their lives. So the impact for those who survive and their families is unspeakable.

Torture as a tool continues, however, to be practised today in all too many parts of the world—and, whether practised in the name of political dogma or religious dogma, it is and always has been the tool of despots. No society, individuals or communities should tolerate torture in any form or for any reason. Australians do not support torture, and this bill is a reaffirmation of this. We should be under no illusion that torture continues to be used to this day and even, as English historian Mark Curtis says, ‘in circumstances where the perpetrators were hailed as the upholders of civilisation’. The most recent and most infamous images of the use of torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq demonstrates that the nature and outcomes of torture have not changed.

SBS’s Dateline program revealed to the world the horrors at Abu Ghraib prison. Images, some too shocking to reveal, reduced the humanity of both its victims and its perpetrators. We were all, I am sure, appalled and shocked, more so because the torture that had been inflicted on people in Abu Ghraib was actually inflicted by those who were hailed as the upholders of civilisation. In this case, they were the forces of democracy and freedom, forces who upheld the value of the rule of law and the dignity of human rights, forces whose purpose in Iraq on this occasion was to actually free the Iraqi people. But it was not just the practices in Abu Ghraib that shocked the world. Here was a situation where the world’s super power and its alliance powers resorted to sidestepping the rule of law and principles of democratic justice and employed torture techniques that matched the cruelty and degradation of the cruellest, undemocratic regimes. As such, I want to put on record that I regret the US administration’s delay in closing the infamous Guantanamo Bay military prison in which, I remind the House, two Australian citizens were detained.

The images and stories coming out of these prisons have single-handedly done more damage to the principles of freedom, human rights and democracy than many of the stories that have come out of the so-called ‘war on terror’—all the more so when they are practised under the banner of freedom. To put it simply: torture and death is the antithesis of both democracy and human rights. In 2007 I moved a motion, seconded by the member for Melbourne, the now Minister for Finance and Deregulation, the Hon. Lindsay Tanner, that called for acknowledgement that the ongoing torture and incarceration of David Hicks was a breach of both the Geneva conventions and the Australian Criminal Code. Now, as then, the ongoing imprisonment and torture of individuals in the most horrific of circumstances, coupled with the denial of any of the most basic human rights, runs counter to the principles of freedom and democracy. That is why I am so pleased to be supporting a bill that makes it an offence to commit torture.

I would also like to welcome the bill’s amendment of the Death Penalty Abolition Act 1973 to cover state laws. This will uphold and safeguard our nation’s ongoing compliance with the second optional protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, aiming at the abolition of the death penalty. Extending the application of the current prohibition on the death penalty to state laws—in addition to Commonwealth, territory and imperial criminal laws to which the Death Penalty Abolition Act already applies—ensures that the death penalty cannot be reintroduced anywhere in Australia in the future.

Australia has a longstanding policy of opposition to the death penalty. This bill is a comprehensive rejection of capital punishment and demonstrates Australia’s commitment to the worldwide abolitionist movement. It complements Australia’s international lobbying efforts against the death penalty. It is important to me, as it is to an overwhelming majority of Australians, that this parliament and, indeed, our nation as a whole be active in advocating for the abolition of the death penalty at a global level. I want to take this opportunity to encourage and urge other nations and other parliaments to act in the same way as this parliament is acting here today. There are still some 70 states worldwide that apply the death penalty, making the work of the worldwide abolitionist movement that Australia is a party to all the more imperative.

It is important that Australia stands with the European Union and other states with the firm resolve that the abolition of the death penalty contributes to the enhancement of human dignity and the progressive development of human rights. To this end, I want to welcome the Russian Constitutional Court’s decision late last year to effectively outlaw the death penalty, and I want to take this opportunity to call on its State Duma to go that one step further and ratify the protocol banning capital punishment. I would also like to call on China and the United States, as the world’s leading powers but also as prolific users of the death penalty, to follow suit and join us in the worldwide movement for the abolition of the death penalty. It should be our collective aim to end the use of the death penalty as a punitive practice, wherever it may occur.

As a member party of the Socialist International, which holds the view of the total abolition of the death penalty, Labor is committed to the pursuit of justice both at a social and a judicial level. The federal government’s unwavering opposition to the death penalty is a reflection of our humanitarian approach to issues of justice. The death penalty serves no purpose other than to compromise our humanity and violate the sanctity and dignity of human life.

In 2005, I spoke during a grievance debate on the execution of Australian Van Nguyen, who we will all remember was hanged by the government of Singapore after being found guilty of drug trafficking. I stated then that the government-sponsored execution of a human being is a crime against humanity and a breach of the UN convention. Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states:

1. Every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.

The death penalty is an archaic and barbaric practice that runs counter to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which recognises each person’s right to life and categorically states:

No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

In that same grievance debate, I stated:

It is easy for people to be unforgiving and to loathe those who they believe by their actions perpetuate the misery of drug abuse. But we must never allow such feelings to cause us to lose sight of our humanity. I cannot therefore agree with those who support capital punishment. Putting aside all the moral and legal arguments that militate against the use of capital punishment, for me personally it is a simple case of a profound belief that no human being has the right to take the life of another under any circumstances.

I said that in 2005 in this House and I say it again because I want to reaffirm my absolute belief in that statement. The right to life is a basic, inherent and instinctive feature of what it means to be human, and we must never lose sight of our humanity. This bill is important on a number of fronts. However, its underlying importance is that it judges life and just treatment as issues which are beyond political expediency.

Deputy Speaker Scott, I would like to bring to your attention Amnesty International’s description of the death penalty. It states that the death penalty is:

… discriminatory and often used disproportionately against the poor, minorities and members of racial, ethnic and religious communities.

This is strikingly clear in the United States. As the Texas Department of Criminal Justice reveals, 70 per cent of the last 100 executions were either black or Hispanic. This is an extraordinary reflection of the way in which death as an instrument of the state is handed out, often disproportionately.

As I said at the time of Van Nguyen’s execution, people-to-people campaigns calling for the end of the death penalty are not enough—they are necessary but they are not enough. This is why I am pleased that the bill before us today sets in concrete Australia’s commitment to its international and humanitarian obligations, and this legislation will now ensure that Australia is never party to violations of these fundamental principles.

As I bring to a close my thoughts on this bill, I want to make some statements in relation to an issue currently in the media. I hope and urge that members on both sides of the House reflect on the pending execution of the three Australians convicted of drug trafficking in Indonesia. This amendment bill is a timely reminder of our need to strengthen our commitment to the abolition of the death penalty and ensure that the abolition of the death penalty occurs on a global scale and in accordance with international covenants already in place.

Notwithstanding the seriousness of the crime for which the three Australians have been convicted, and in full respect of the laws that govern Indonesia, we must do all we can as parliamentarians to appeal for clemency with regard to the death sentences handed out to them. In light of the seriousness of the crimes for which they have been convicted, along with the legislation we rise to speak on, I want to finish by reflecting on the words of former South Australian magistrate Brian Deegan. The House will remember that Brian’s son, Joshua, was an Australian Rules football player who was one of the 202 people killed by terrorists in the October 2002 Bali bombings. In a letter to Indonesian authorities, Brian described himself as:

… the father of Joshua Kevin Deegan, a beautiful young man, my eldest child, who was a victim of the atrocity.

Brian was able to move beyond the emotion and the trauma of that terrible act and reflect on what justice means in a modern Australia. That is why I want to conclude with his words, which sum up all that has been said and what I and many Australians also believe. Brian said:

The Bali bombers who murdered my son last October are evil extremists … but the prospect of their judicial murder is something I want no part of … As a measure employed to dissuade potential criminals, the death penalty has been an abject failure. This is borne out by statistics that point to the commensurate rise of murders and executions in countries where capital punishment is awarded.

The argument in favour of executions remains difficult to reconcile with the universal revulsion generated by periods in history when society thought nothing of hanging a child or burning a witch. We read with disgust? or perhaps with guilt? of the stoning of adulterers, the removal of a thief’s hand or the decapitation of a blasphemer. Yet we find it palatable to break a man’s neck, to poison his veins or to electrocute him.

The bill before us demonstrates that Australia will never again deem the death penalty, or torture for that matter, palatable, wherever it takes place. I commend the bill to the House.