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Wednesday, 3 December 2008
Page: 12479

Ms SAFFIN (11:59 AM) —Sixty years ago, on 10 December, the nations of the world, a lot fewer than today’s 192, came together to endorse the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This document has stood the test of time. It has stood the test of universality and being based on primary principles. It traverses and transcends cultures, religions, major world events, conflicts, wars, changing alliances, global arrangements and indeed civilisations, with nearly all of the world’s nations agreeing to subscribe to its tenets—to abide by them, but, more than that, also to promote the articles which contain rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or UDHR, as we commonly refer to it.

Yesterday the Prime Minister moved his motion and it was supported by the Leader of the Opposition, and my comments today will be in that spirit of bipartisanship on this issue because it is an issue that goes to human dignity. The Prime Minister’s statement correctly notes, recalls, recognises, acknowledges and affirms the declaration. This is typical language for the occasion and typical of resolutions of the United Nations, but it is the most appropriate language for a statement on the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

I am pleased to celebrate the 60th anniversary, but each year should be a celebration of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Indeed, there are often events around the world to mark the occasion in parliaments, in communities and in many different forums. But I would hope that each day, in a seamless way, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights may be inculcated into our daily lives. That is the strength and the basis of it. The declaration recognises the primacy of the family and the essential relationships among nations and that they should be free and friendly. Sometimes we see human rights as somehow separate from our daily lives, from the parliaments and the other things that we do. We come together and talk about it once a year but do not recognise how it underpins so much of our culture, our law, our policy and our institutions. The articles contained within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are not separate from this parliament or from our family lives, our community lives and our lives with friends, neighbours and nations, but it is easy to see how it may be divorced from those parts of our lives.

Sometimes in political debate and discourse human rights is not seen as something that informs what we do. Consider rule of law, for instance. We all recognise, promote and extol the virtues of the rule of law because our country and our institutions are built on it. If you read through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the rule of law underpins it. Even if you look at the rule of law, which is about four key things, in a minimalist way it is still built into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If you look at the rule of law in what I call its ‘maximum scope’, which is put out by the OSCE, its 18 principles are all inherent in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They are part and parcel of this place—both chambers—and of our institutions. That is why it is good to see that the declaration is brought to life every day, not just on its 60th anniversary or its annual anniversary. It is not out there; it is in here, and it is good to be able to talk about it.

The honourable Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Support said that we should be mindful not to use refugees in a political way, and then the speaker after him, the member for Oxley, reiterated that point—and I think most people would agree. We in this place know exactly what each speaker means when they say that, but I submit that refugees are a political issue. That is what we deal with in our parliaments. Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says:

Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.

How do we do that? How do we give that right to people? We do it through the political process, through the political system whereby we form laws. Most countries have a law, a migration act of some kind, and that law gives expression to article 14 and the refugee convention.

But when I take a look at those acts including our own, it actually reads down that right. That is what most countries have done and that is why all the members on all sides are talking about that particular issue. We know that article 14, written as a primary principle, is correct. It is something that we all say here that we adhere to, we want to subscribe to, we want to implement, but we also know that in various situations it has been read down.

On the subject of refugees and the issue of refugees—and I am going to talk about issues and incidents and not refer to governments—all governments in Australia and elsewhere have issues to answer on the question of refugees. I would just like to note a few incidents in our history. Firstly there is the issue of detention, and we look at article 14 which says that everybody has the right to seek asylum. People come here as asylum seekers and we do not even let them identify themselves as asylum seekers. At various times in our history we have not allowed them to identify themselves as asylum seekers by saying, ‘I am a refugee.’

Then we had mandatory detention. A mandatory detention regime for people fleeing persecution is unconscionable. We have got people fleeing extreme political persecution and then they have this indignity and suffer further persecution, albeit in a safer environment but still under detention. There are other ways of doing it and I am glad to say that we have come to that in this country and people will not be put in mandatory detention just because they are seeking asylum.

Then we have that whole notion of queue jumpers. As I have said before, there is no such thing as a queue jumper. If you are suffering persecution and leaving your country to seek asylum because you fear torture, death—all of those things—then you are not jumping the queue. Many people come here on visas that are legal, and they overstay. Are they queue jumpers? That is one of the questions I always ask. When you get people who cannot get a student visa, cannot get a working visa, cannot get a business visa, cannot get other visas, what other way do they sometimes have of getting here? The whole notion of queue jumpers should be expunged from our discourse when we are talking about refugees. It is one of the things that I would encourage.

I would like to make a few other comments about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and particularly article 3 which talks about the right to life. That is one that I take seriously, and I know that other members in this place also take it seriously. For a long time—decades—I have been very active in the region in an Asia-Pacific anti-death penalty network. This is quite a wide network that operates across our countries. Opposition to the death penalty is one of those issues where, if you are opposed to it, you are opposed to it. It cannot be abridged in any shape or form. That has been my position. It is sometimes challenging, because people do commit heinous crimes. We have seen it here; we see it in our region; we see it internationally.

However, as a legislator—and that is what we are as parliamentarians; that is one of our roles—I do not have the right to pass a law to take anybody’s life. When that happens it is between a person and their maker, whoever they believe that maker to be. It is not up to the legislators. It is one of those issues. We talk about the right to life; I take it seriously and will always speak out on this issue in opposition to the death penalty. Sometimes I think about countries and systems of government—and I will not name the nations of people—that maintain the death penalty. It is hard to think about them in a kindly way.

I have for many decades written my Amnesty International letters. I am a member of Amnesty International. I do not get a lot of time for those activities now, but I dutifully write my letters—when they come—in opposition to the death penalty. They are usually on behalf of people who are waiting on death row somewhere. I know some of those people would have committed crimes that would have had a terrible impact on a family, on a person, on an individual, on a community. I know that. But my opposition to the death penalty is not one that I am willing to trade off because of the nature of the crime. It is not to do with the crime; it is to do with my fundamental belief in the right to life, which is enshrined in article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Sometimes that puts me in a position of speaking out, and it might look as if I am speaking up for certain people, but I am speaking against the death penalty. I wanted to be able to talk about that and have that as a matter of public record. It is something that we are mindful of. We have an anti-death-penalty cross-party working group in parliament. It is commendable that all the parties come together. It is not a party issue. It is one of those fundamental issues of liberty. It is nice that we come together and do that.

I want to talk about a couple of other issues and incidents, ones that have stayed with me. I will talk about the incidents and not about the governments. They are the incidents with the Tampa ship, SIEVX and the ‘children overboard’ incident. They were three events that caused me a great deal of concern and angst at the time. When the Tampa was on the high seas all sides of politics caused me great concern. With respect to the Tampa I spoke at a public rally outside Sydney Town Hall. My opening comment was: ‘This is morally wrong, this is politically wrong and this is legally wrong.’ That position stands. If we go to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, particularly to article 14 and asylum, we see there was nothing else I could say on that occasion. I did that against opposition from all walks of life, but I continued to maintain that position. Sometimes that is hard. All of us are parliamentarians. We are practising politicians. We can be subject to many forces and be pushed and pulled on various occasions.

I recently had an occasion where I had my commitment to these principles tested. I do not have enough time to detail that now. I had to reflect on it and think about it, and I went with my primary principle in advocating to keep someone in this country—in keeping with the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. With those comments, I commend to the House the Prime Minister’s statement, supported by the opposition leader. May we continue to reflect on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in our daily life and in our daily discourse and not just once a year.

Debate (on motion by Ms George) adjourned.

Main Committee adjourned at 12.15 pm, until Thursday, 4 December 2008, at 9.30 am.

The Deputy Speaker (Ms AE Burke) having subsequently fixed 4 pm today as the time for the next meeting of the Main Committee—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Ms AE Burke) took the chair at 4 pm.