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Monday, 10 April 2000
Page: 15572

Mr SERCOMBE (3:46 PM) —I move:

That this House:

(1) expresses its concerns about the Vietnamese Government's continued detention, house arrest, and harassment of political dissidents and religious leaders;

(2) further expresses its concern in respect to the restriction of freedom of speech, the press, assembly and association in Vietnam;

(3) calls on the Australian Government to take concrete steps to monitor the human rights situation in Vietnam, including requesting the Vietnamese Government to allow Australian diplomats to visit those alleged to be prisoners of conscience and to do so on a regular basis;

(4) calls on the Australian Government to make regular representations to relevant Vietnamese Ministers and officials in Vietnam and the Vietnamese Embassy in Canberra for the immediate release of all prisoners of conscience, and for accelerated progress in moves to wind back restrictions on democratic freedoms; and

(5) calls on the Australian Government to provide the Parliament with regular reporting on its human rights representations to the Government of Vietnam, on the responses by Vietnam and the overall human rights situation in Vietnam.

Mr SERCOMBE —The position of human rights in Vietnam is well documented by reputable organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. The 1999 report of Amnesty International has the following comments, amongst many others:

At least 56 prisoners of conscience and possible prisoners of conscience continued to be held throughout the year. At least, 15 prisoners of conscience were released. At least a further 10 possible prisoners of conscience were arrested, tried and sentenced. A further 40 people were imprisoned for political offences following unfair trials. Fifty-three new death sentences and 18 executions were reported, but the actual numbers were believed to be much higher.

The report indicates that in October 1998 the United Nations Special Rapporteur on religions intolerance visited the country. He was prevented from meeting most religious dissidents. Lack of official information and restrictions on freedom of expression made obtaining details of human rights violations difficult. In their 1999 report, Human Rights Watch said—and once again I will quote limited sections of it:

The Vietnamese government continued to show little tolerance for political criticism of the government, despite the release of more than a dozen prominent political prisoners in amnesties ... Political and religious dissidents faced repression and heavy surveillance, with several key dissidents remaining under house or pagoda arrest ...

The report also makes the point that international human rights organisations were not permitted to visit Vietnam during the year, nor were domestic human rights organisations allowed to operate.

I would like to refer briefly to two specific cases. One is a Dr Nguyen Thanh Giang. I will refer to this gentleman at this point but also in the context of talking about the Australian government's role in this, because this Dr Nguyen has been the subject of DFAT correspondence and in fact his name appears on the DFAT Internet site. Dr Nguyen was released in May last year after two months imprisonment, but that has certainly not been the end of the harassment that he has faced. He wrote a very moving letter to a number of leaders in Vietnam on 26 February 2000 in which he itemises a continual habit of harassment, including sudden visits, having things like computers confiscated, having his phone disconnected and the like. To members who are interested I would recommend the letter Dr Nguyen wrote to Vietnam's leaders.

Another case that attracts considerable interest in Australia is that of a most important Buddhist cleric, the Venerable Thich Quang Do, who in fact is a nominee—including by a number of members of this parliament—for the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize. It is not the first time that the Venerable Thich Quang Do has been in prison. He was imprisoned in the 1960s under the Diem regime. So it is not only this current regime that has imprisoned people for advocating religious freedoms. His case was strongly supported within the international community, including by a number of Nobel Peace Prize winners and including the Dalai Lama and Jose Ramos Horta. He was released but, in his own words:

I have come out of a small prison only to go into a larger one.

This cleric is denied freedom of movement and is deprived of the obligatory residence permit. He is under constant surveillance by the secret police. His correspondence is censored and his telephone is tapped. When the UN's Special Rapporteur on religious tolerance attempted to visit him at the monastery he currently resides in, he was prevented from doing so. I think those examples illustrate the extent of human rights difficulties in Vietnam.

This motion calls upon the Australian government to take a number of initiatives to strengthen its focus on human rights issues in Vietnam. I think Australians generally require that the values of our community, including the values of human rights, ought to form a key basis for our international role. This is an important consideration in terms of this country obtaining international respect and also self-respect. The initiatives proposed in my motion are very much in line with the views of Australia's Vietnamese community leadership. The government's present approach is indicated by a number of letters to Vietnamese community leaders during 1999, Frankly, the government's approach is not good enough. In this correspondence the government say that 13 of 17 people about whom they made representations were included in an amnesty in 1998. They also referred to Dr Nguyen, whom I referred to earlier, and indicated that his release followed a visit to Australia by the Prime Minister of Vietnam and some discussions that occurred between our Prime Minister, our foreign minister and the Vietnamese official.

The Australian government say that they `wish to follow a non-confrontational, pragmatic approach' and do not wish to `single out' Vietnam. The government also say that they provide a `snapshot' on human rights on their Internet site, and that they aim to increase awareness amongst Vietnamese decision makers by funding training programs at Vietnam's elite training academy for officials. All this means there is no need, in the government's view, for the government to report to parliament and no need for them to support human rights projects in the non-government sector or make an attempt to visit prisoners of conscience in Vietnam. Indeed, in a letter from a DFAT official to a prominent member of the Vietnamese community on 11 June last year, the following was, quite extraordinarily, said:

... we are presenting a shorter list as the core group around whom representations will focus this year.

What the government were saying was that they were going to make even fewer representations last year than they had in previous years. That simply is not good enough. It is good enough for the British foreign secretary to provide a human rights report to the British parliament. The Internet is not a substitute for the symbolic importance of this parliament giving human rights issues the status and importance they deserve.

If the government were effective, as they imply in their representations, that is a reason for enhanced effort, not a lesser effort, as the government flag in the correspondence I have referred to. If the government are implying that they can claim some of the credit for the release of Dr Nguyen and others, that ought to lead to a much better and stronger effort, not a lesser effort. Of course, one needs to take the government's claims in that respect with a grain of salt because Australia's role in those matters was a relatively small part of a widespread international effort along the lines that I referred to. The government's concerns about `non-confrontation' miss the point. Because we have a more formal, structured dialogue on human rights with China, does that mean that we are confronting China or singling China out for some sort of special treatment? No, it clearly does not mean that. More effort is required in many areas of the world on human rights. As I said, it ought to be a fundamental and key part of our respect as a nation that we give human rights issues a very high priority in the way we conduct our foreign affairs. Vietnam is one such country. It is not a matter of singling Vietnam out; it is a matter of recognising that in our region it is a country that has issues that need to be dealt with. Frankly, the government's position is not satisfactory, and Australia needs to make a substantially better effort in these areas.

It is not as if these things are some distance in the past. I referred earlier to the letter from Dr Nguyen in February this year, and new evidence of abuses regularly comes to hand. For example, I am told that only a couple of weeks ago—on 30 March—the Hoa Hao Buddhist Church tried to hold a ceremony to commemorate the 53rd anniversary of the death of its founder, Huynh Phu So. The Vietnamese government reportedly effectively stopped believers from attending. Government radio and television programs regularly warned believers not to attend. The security forces reportedly arrested at least 23 people. The security forces set up checkpoints on all roadways and waterways leading to the site of the ceremony. So it is a matter of Australia's giving human rights the priority it deserves in our foreign policy. We are in this motion asking the government to take a number of quite modest additional initiatives. If the government are as effective as they imply, the reality is they ought to follow that through. (Time expired)

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Nehl)—Order! Is the motion seconded?

Mrs Irwin —I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.