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Wednesday, 3 December 2008
Page: 12462

Mr HUNT (10:52 AM) —In supporting this motion on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, I begin with article 1 of the declaration. It reads:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

In short, this article—this provision, this motion—at the very beginning of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, summarises the fundamental proposition. It is drawn from a heritage across cultures. Whether it is the United States constitution, the French constitution or one of many other documents from around the world, it is encapsulated, it is embodied and it is brought together in this first article within the great and profound Universal Declaration of Human Rights. To give it a colloquial meaning: it is what the great British explorer Wilfred Thesiger described as giving people the best shot at ‘the life of my choice’. That is ultimately what the declaration says, it is what we on this side of the House as a political movement believe in and it is a rightful aspiration for people all around the world to pursue. In addressing this motion on the universal declaration, I want to look briefly at three things: the first is the reality of human rights today; the second is the role that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights can play and has played in improving that situation; and the third is the eternal role of vigilance that we all have in preserving and promoting those rights.

Turning first to the reality, I want to begin in Cambodia in 1998. I was fortunate enough to have had the role of Australia’s chief electoral observer during the 1998 Cambodian elections. One of the most profound experiences of my life was to witness—on the morning of the election, at 7 am, with more than a thousand people lined up for their right to vote—an elderly lady, probably about 80, who would have lived through the conflict associated with the Vietnam War and the Cambodian spillover, lived through the Pol Pot regime, lived through the Vietnamese invasion and lived through the rough transition to democracy. The way in which it was indicated that somebody had completed their vote was by placing an indelible ink print on their forefinger. The first person through this thousand-strong crowd was this elderly woman. She was shuddering and she was frail. After she completed her vote, she walked out, faced the crowd of a thousand and placed her forefinger in the air with the clear mark of the indelible ink on it, and the crowd of a thousand people cheered because they had the right to vote.

She stood for everything that that country had been through and the fact that it was making a transition to democracy and fulfilling, for the first time, the great principles and hopes set out in this universal declaration. This was a country for which the universal declaration was no mere background document. The little blue book which contained it was distributed and taught to primary school children. It was a profound document which was at the forefront of changing every notion about civil society which had been distorted and perverted during the Pol Pot years and the years of imperial occupation. For the first time, Cambodia was transformed into a genuine democracy. There are still flaws, there are still human rights issues, but today it is a very different country to what it was in 1993 at the first of the elections and in 1998 at the first of the real elections.

The second experience I want to relate is that of being in Rwanda just after that country had been through a tragic genocide. I witnessed a society which had been torn apart, which had completely failed every test of human rights. The universal declaration there was nothing more than a theoretical construct. I met families who had lost members, I saw sites which had witnessed unspeakable horrors and I talked with people who had fled for their lives. This was a country which had seen the vacation of all standards of human morality, although in the midst there were stories of great bravery, of people who had placed their lives on the line, and in many cases had lost their lives, to protect others—the most noble of human sentiments. But the system failed, the community was damaged and a million people lost their lives.

The third issue which I have faced was while working for the secretary-general’s special representative for the former Yugoslavia in 1993. It was in Geneva during the period in which the worst of the atrocities in the former Yugoslavia were occurring. There were stories of families being locked in houses and those houses being set alight, stories which I do not wish to repeat but which will stay with me for ever. But what is clear is that this was somewhere where the norms of the universal declaration were in contest, where there was a great battle. Ultimately there was a period of tragedy, but what we see in the former Yugoslavia and in the differing successor states is an attempt, a push forward, to bring a level of stability and to fight down those who would break apart the norms which were established in the universal declaration. It is a tough struggle. That brings me to what this declaration represents. It represents a simple proposition:

Article 3.

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Article 4.

No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

Then, I think very significantly, it has as one of the great bulwarks of protection:

Article 21.

(1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.

These are genuinely universal norms not just for the world today but for the world as it proceeds over the next decade, over the next generation, over the next century and over the next millennium. They are the norms to which we aspire. They are the benchmarks to which we will hold individual countries and individual governments and ourselves accountable as we proceed forward.

This brings me to the third point: it is not enough to have a document. There were powerful words in the former Soviet constitution which were most notable for the fact that they were ignored, most notable for the fact that they represented nothing more than a fabrication and a fraud upon the people and most notable because they were honoured only in the breach. So these words in this universal declaration will mean nothing unless they are backed up by a strong and powerful will amongst the international community to stand up for their enforcement, to stand up for their recognition, to stand up for the people who are the subject of the very declaration. The poorest, the weakest, the most lame are those who most need the strong, the capable and the powerful to enforce those words. That is our task, that is our duty, that is our sacred responsibility and that is my commitment, my pledge and my personal duty.