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Monday, 22 February 2010
Page: 1347

Ms HALL (5:25 PM) —The Crimes Legislation Amendment (Torture Prohibition and Death Penalty Abolition) Bill 2009 specifies that the Commonwealth offence of torture in the Commonwealth Criminal Code will operate concurrently with existing offences in state and territory criminal laws. The new offence is intended to fulfil more clearly Australia’s obligations under the United Nations Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The bill also amends the Death Penalty Abolition Act 1973 to extend the application of the current prohibition on the death penalty to state criminal laws. This will ensure that the death penalty cannot be introduced anywhere in Australia in the future.

I strongly support this legislation. It is about enshrining the protection of basic human rights in legislation. Since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the international community has adopted a set of comprehensive human rights—rights that enshrine human dignity, rights that a civil society values and rights that provide guidelines for governments in how they should treat their citizens. The prohibition of torture is a core value that is a human right and it should never be set aside. Nothing justifies torture.

Many arguments are put forward that support the use of torture and I reject all those arguments. Some people argue that the need to obtain information necessitates the use of torture in certain circumstances. I have only to look to what has happened in various areas of conflict and the results of those acts of torture and I come out very strongly in favour of the arguments against torture. I think that they are very succinct in setting out the case for not supporting the use of torture under any circumstances. This can include extracting a confession or obtaining information from victims or a third person. Torture can be used as a form of punishment, intimidation, coercion and discrimination. The Bills Digest on this bill states:

Despite the definition of ‘torture’ contained in the UNCAT, the legal concept of torture has not been either unified or coherent. Within the international community there have been important and ongoing conflicts over the threshold of severity of pain and cruelty, the role of the intention, the identity of the perpetrators and the positive obligations of states to prevent torture.

So I suppose that the underlying aspect is the severity of inflicting pain or suffering. It is not a criterion; it is a simple act of subjecting a person to pain and cruelty.

One of those reasons that I stated above is that we have had Australian citizens—David Hicks and Mr Habib in the United States of America in 2001 and in Afghanistan—that have been involved in and been the victims of torture. I think that as a civilised nation there is no way that we can support torture. When you look at torture and the information that is obtained under torture, I do not think that we can even be certain that the veracity of the information obtained whilst a person is being tortured can be guaranteed. I know that the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs is a person who has very strong opinions on torture and the need to ensure that people do not suffer undue torture in any circumstance at all.

Among the interesting experiments that I came across—they do not directly relate to torture—are Stanley Milgram’s experiments, which were actually looking at obedience to authority figures. In that experiment, Yale students subjected other students to electric shocks—some of them were teachers and some were students. The level of shock the participant was willing to deliver was aimed at measuring their obedience to authority. I should say that the participants were told that the shocks were not going to be painful or dangerous, but they were at a very high level. As a result of these experiments in subsequent years, it was not the people that supposedly received the shock but those people that were delivering the shock that suffered severe psychological impacts from being involved in that experiment.

The reason that I raise that experiment is to show that, with torture, the implications are wider than just the act itself and the fact that those people that are tortured may or may not give information. Even the people that are involved in the act itself are affected by it. I think that, as a civilised nation, there is absolutely no way that we can be a party to any acts of torture. No matter what the deed or the information that is sought is, torture cannot be justified.

Australia became a party to the convention against torture in 1989, and our commitment to the prohibition of torture must always be paramount, no matter what the challenge. I notice that speakers in this debate from both sides of the House have expressed strong views on this. To allow or accept torture is a slippery slope that will lead us to become a less civilised nation. A nation must always protect human rights, and the legislation that we have here today protects and delivers on that.

I might at this stage refer to a dissenting report back in 2004 by the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties. In that dissenting report, committee members noted strong support for Australia ratifying the optional protocol. I am referring to that because I think it really sets out quite succinctly why we need to ensure that torture is outlawed in this country, as is highlighted in this legislation, for all times. Members referred to the need to maintain Australia’s leadership in human rights. The report also pointed out in its final recommendation that there is no circumstance, basically, where torture is acceptable. I think that those people on the treaties committee recognised that back in 2004.

The commitment to the prohibition of torture, as I said, must remain solid. To do otherwise would compromise our nation’s moral leadership. By that I mean that we must always as a nation look to the high ground and to putting in place a legislation framework that will ensure that, as a nation, we aspire to the highest level of protections of human rights. We must not under any circumstance let the bar slip and reach a stage where we are not about ensuring and protecting the rights of people.

The Rudd government’s commitment to ensuring that torture is unacceptable was evident firstly with the signing of the optional protocol. I must say that this legislation also demonstrates very visibly that as a government the Rudd government will not and does not under any circumstances support torture in any shape or form. This legislation, I think, can be used as a blueprint for other nations as well as our own.

That brings me to the death penalty, and I wish to place on record that I am opposed to the death penalty under any circumstance at all. There is no circumstance where I believe the death penalty can be justified. Australia has a longstanding policy of opposition to the death penalty. The Labor Party, which I am part of in this parliament, has in its platform that it opposes the death penalty and believes it is inhumane, no matter what the crime is. That statement really highlights and encompasses my feeling on the death penalty.

The purpose of amendments to the Commonwealth Death Penalty Abolition Act 1973 is to extend the application of the current prohibition of the death penalty to the states. I think this is very important because it will ensure that the death penalty cannot be reintroduced anywhere in Australia. Such a comprehensive rejection of capital punishment demonstrates Australia’s commitment to the worldwide abolition movement and complements Australia’s international lobbying efforts against the death penalty.

I think it is of vital importance to note that this legislation will ensure the outlawing of the death penalty throughout Australia. This is about showing leadership. One of the reasons that I cannot support the death penalty is that there have been many cases reported where innocent people have been put to death—with the advent of DNA testing I think that they are finding more and more people who have been sentenced to death and that sentence has been shown to be incorrect. It is inhumane; no matter what a person has done, I believe that nothing gives us the right to actually take away their lives.

As the member for Lowe was saying earlier, when it comes to a crime such as terrorism or something horrendous, the simple fact that a person will be in prison and not allowed to leave that prison for life is an even greater punishment than to quickly escape the consequences of their action through the death penalty. I do not think that, as a nation, we can in any shape or form support the death penalty.

At the moment there are the young people in Indonesia—the Bali Nine—who are facing death because they trafficked drugs. That is an act that I do not support; it is an act that has the potential to endanger the lives of many people within Australia. But I do not believe, under any circumstances, that we can support the death penalty in their case or any other cases.

This legislation is good, strong legislation that will ensure that we do not support torture in this nation and that will finally ensure, once and for all, that the death penalty is outlawed throughout the whole of Australia.