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Thursday, 13 August 2009
Page: 7914

Mr FARMER (12:13 PM) —Can I say at the outset that I am very pleased to be able to speak in the debate on the motion on the Geneva conventions. I travelled at Christmas across to Egypt and had some dealings with the international Red Cross in Egypt, Nepal, Peru and India. I saw first hand the work being done by the international Red Cross. I will get into that a little bit more in a moment. In these times of uncertainty, with wars in the Middle East, with terrorism lurking on every doorstep, I find comfort in reflecting on the signing of the Geneva conventions some 60 years ago. I find hope that the initiatives shown all those years ago to create and to promote a doctrine of universal human decency are still alive today. I think that is the thing that we need to reflect upon most in this debate—that is, it is all about humanity and human decency regardless of the times or the circumstances that we find ourselves in. It is interesting to note that those same fundamental principles were the foundation of the conventions and that they remain in place as an important and relevant part of our society today.

In 1962 Henri Dunant published his book A Memory of Solferino about the horrors or the First World War and the four treaties that now make up the Geneva Conventions of 1949. If he were here I am sure Henri would be pleased to see that the rules and regulations that were dreamt of in those days have been enacted today and that his vision is taking placing and will live on well into the future. I believe that the same planned, logical thinking that eventuated in the Geneva Conventions can and should apply to politics as well. Decisions that we make today should be made with the future generations in mind. Moral standpoints that transcend party politics should not be ignored but welcomed as a compass for our policy making.

It is a testament to the first of the conventions that the Red Cross remains as strong and as prevalent as ever. I have travelled the world and I have run across half of it and I have seen firsthand the incredible work being done by the International Red Cross and the laws that are implemented on a daily basis in fields of conflict.

The Geneva Conventions consist of four treaties and three Additional Protocols that set the standards of international law for humanitarian treatment of victims of war. The singular term ‘Geneva Convention’ refers to the agreements of 1949, which were negotiated in the aftermath of World War II after having seen the horrific circumstances that took place during the course of World War II.

The Geneva Conventions comprise rules that apply in times of armed conflict and seek to protect people who are not or are no longer taking part in those hostilities. It takes care of and protects wounded and sick fighters, prisoners of war, civilians and people who are not involved in the conflict at that point in time. It protects women and children on the fields of battle from having their rights violated just because they found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time when a war has erupted around them.

The most serious crimes are termed ‘grave breaches’ and provide a legal definition of a war crime. Also considered under ‘grave breaches’ of the four Geneva Conventions are the following: the taking of hostages; extensive destruction and appropriation of property not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly; and unlawful deportation, transfer or confinement. Nations who are party to these treaties must enact and enforce legislation penalising any of these crimes.

As I mentioned early on, during the last Christmas break I had the opportunity to visit Egypt. While I was there I met with the Secretary General of the International Red Cross, Professor Mamdouh Gabr, who was heading up operations there in Egypt, and the Director General, Dr Magda el-Sherbiny. During the course of my conversations with them they took a phone call in relation to the bombing of a school on the Gaza Strip. I saw the horror on their faces as the circumstances unfolded and I saw how they dealt with those circumstances. I have to tell you, quite honestly, that the professionalism that is dished out in circumstances such as this by each and every person involved with the International Red Cross is to be admired. It is certainly something that this world cannot live without. I remember asking the professor, ‘How on earth can you possibly deal with both sides of a conflict with compassion and without feeling some form of resentment for the actions that they have taken?’ He replied, ‘We would not be who we are and we could not do the job that we are expected to do if we did take sides.’ These people risk their lives and send their volunteers into situations where conflict is happening all around them to protect and care for the injured, to save lives and to protect the people around them regardless of which side of the conflict they are on. They live and breathe the word ‘humanitarian’.

The No. 1 thing that stands out in my mind in relation to the Geneva convention is how in times of conflict—and all nations have found themselves in conflict over years gone by and probably will in the future—we need to reflect on the most important principle of all: the value of a single human life. We need to reflect on the quality of a single human life as well. We need to make sure that we always, even though we may have disagreements that bring us to arms, consider these people and their rights during any disputes that we or other nations may have. We must always uphold these rights.

That is what this recognition in this debate is all about. It is important that we place it front and centre in the minds of every single Australian, both young and old, so we never find ourselves in the situation where we have put politics, legislation, wealth or greed in front of humanity.