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Monday, 23 May 2011
Page: 4171

Mr LAURIE FERGUSON (Werriwa) (11:11): I genuinely congratulate the member for Lyne on raising this matter. For a person who from an early age was interested in other countries and events in the foreign policy area, it was a very welcome possibility, when I arrived in the federal parliament in 1990, to join the group that was just alluded to by the previous speaker. The group was already formed here, and my understanding is that it was the first in the world. I congratulate the people who established it—people like Rob Lundie, in the Parliamentary Library, who persisted over many years selling badges here once a year and basically carrying the organisation. That is another welcome event. We in this parliament do not often get involved with groups that have both parliamentary and staff members, so that is great.

I believe that the strength of Amnesty International is the perception among those who are honest and sincere that it is neutral. It is constantly belittled, attacked and vilified by regimes around the world. It is seen sometimes as an instrument of the West. It is seen as an organisation that might be undermining supposedly idiosyncratic attitudes to rights in, say, the Middle East and other nations—that somehow rights are not universal and Amnesty International is a tool of Western attitudes. It has a track record that stretches back to supporting Jews and Baptists in the Soviet Union during oppression there, taking up the cause of people who start to struggle for democracy. Today, it is a defender of Arabs against Israeli colonial measures and suppression; it is a campaigner for the rights of Arabs in the Middle East against oppressive regimes that sometimes utilise the issue of Palestine to preserve themselves.

Most people would very much regret and repudiate those regimes—Sri Lanka is a current example—that basically try to argue that there is not genuineness on the part of Amnesty International. Amnesty has the track record. It is respected for that. It is interesting to note that since its formation in 1961 it has changed its emphasis from its original one of taking up the precarious situation of those individual prisoners to looking at questions of torture, the families involved and the question of the fairness of the trials themselves. Amnesty has very much changed its level of activity over that period, but throughout it has been a very credible international source. Its receipt of the 1977 Nobel Peace Prize was certainly recognition of that.

As a former member of the parliamentary group, I perhaps have regrets that in some fashion the degree of support for the external organisation has tended to deteriorate since I arrived here. I believe that too pronounced an emphasis on the asylum refugee issue unfortunately has tended to undermine the effectiveness of the organisation in a parliamentary sense. It is far easier to have a non-partisan, inclusive organisation when you are not getting into areas that cause differences within the membership. Certainly their work on that front is merited, but I think people's ability to work together across party lines has somewhat lessened over recent years. Amnesty, as indicated by the previous speaker, traces its genesis back to Portugal under the Salazar regime, the new order there. Allegedly it was created when some people were jailed for toasting liberty there. When I read the history of the organisation—there is some doubt about that history that Benenson gave—it certainly is a reminder of what happened through the Cold War. And it is still the case sometimes now. We see an example in East Timor, with the Islamic world supporting Indonesia throughout its occupation because it was an Islamic country. Back in that period, some people were inclined to forget what was happening in Portugal because it was seen as an ally of the United States. This is one of the strengths of Amnesty, its ability to avoid international divisions between various blocs and to come through saying that there are certain inalienable rights, that there are certain things we must stand for in regards to humanity. That is something which has allowed all of us, regardless of what we think on many other issues, to come together. I join with other speakers in recognising this 50th anniversary.