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Human rights mechanisms and the Asia-Pacific

CHAIR —I welcome representatives of the Uniting Church. Thank you for coming in and giving evidence today. You have given us what is a very detailed and very interesting submission, which raises a lot of issues that are relevant to this particular inquiry. I believe that reading a paper is one thing but actually having the opportunity to ask questions and have a discussion really adds value to whatever is written down, so thank you for coming in. Do you have any further comments to make on the capacity in which you appear?

Rev. Barr —I work with the Uniting Church in Australia National Assembly, with UnitingWorld, which is the agency relating to overseas issues, and I am the Associate Director for Church Solidarity in Asia.

Mr RUDDOCK —Church Solidarity in Asia?

Rev. Barr —This is our new title. I baulked, because we were called something else up until about a month ago. I am still trying to remember.

CHAIR —What did you used to be called?

Rev. Barr —We used to be called Uniting International Mission, and I was Executive Secretary for Church Partnerships in Asia.

CHAIR —Thank you very much. Although the subcommittee prefers that evidence be given in public, should you at any stage wish to give evidence in private you may ask the subcommittee and we will consider that request. Although we do not require you to give evidence on oath, you should be aware that these hearings are legal proceedings of the parliament and therefore have the same standing as proceedings of the chamber itself. I invite you to make some open and frank comments on your submission, and hopefully we will have a lively discussion afterwards.

Dr Zirnsak —On behalf of the Justice and International Mission Unit and UnitingWorld, we welcome this inquiry and the opportunity for us to make a submission and to speak on the international and regional human rights mechanisms and models for the Asia Pacific. Our submission is drawn from our areas of work and experience in working on human rights issues in the Asia-Pacific region. The submission does not comprehensively address all the terms of reference but focuses on where we believe the two bodies can make meaningful comment based on that experience and work.

The Uniting Church has an extensive and close network of partnerships with churches in many Asian countries and in nearly every Pacific nation. Those relationships with many churches have existed for more than a century and are varied in their expression. The Uniting Church seeks to protect and promote basic human rights as being in keeping with our understanding of the gospel and a living out of the love of our neighbour and the love of God.

The two submitting bodies have worked in the following areas of relevance to the inquiry: murders, disappearances and harassment of church members, human rights defenders, trade unionists and indigenous leaders in the Philippines, which unfortunately are still continuing today; human rights abuses in the context of the civil war in Sri Lanka, with the war likely to enter a new phase with the likely defeat of the LTTE in conventional warfare leading to ongoing terrorism by the remnants of the LTTE and ongoing human rights abuses against Tamils by the security forces; human rights abuses in Papua; the recent waves of attacks against Christians in North India, and again we notice there are news reports suggesting this is sparking up again; the impact of climate change on countries in the region, especially the Pacific, where climate change will impact on people’s ability to gain their economic and social rights; persecution of Christian communities in Vietnam, China and Laos; protecting and seeking fulfilment of economic and social rights, especially in relation to the Millennium Development Goals within the Asia-Pacific region; and ending the use of exploited child labour and people trafficking within the region.

We have interpreted the terms of reference of the inquiry widely, to include consideration of human rights mechanisms and models to address economic, social and cultural rights, as well as civil and political rights. We welcome the efforts that the Australian government is already undertaking to promote and protect human rights in the Asia-Pacific region. We have noted that they have extended across governments over time.

In terms of our recommendations, we welcome the support the Australian government provides to the Asia Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions, noting that a similar recommendation is made by many of the bodies that submitted to this inquiry, and ask that the Australian government seek to enhance the role of this body by assisting in national human rights commissions to increase their effectiveness, where such opportunities exist.

We also request that the budget for the Human Rights Small Grants Scheme increase from the current just over $1 million to $4 million, which would represent 0.1 per cent of the aid budget, believing that is necessary to facilitate civil society groups having more access to that and to support their work within countries in the region. Specifically, there is a need to provide that those on-the-ground organisations are able to make application. We note that there is some AusAID staff time already provided for that function, but it could be expanded.

We would also continue to encourage the Australian government to seek to use what influence it has as a medium-sized and respected middle power globally and a significant regional power in the Asia-Pacific region to engage with countries in our region to effectively influence them towards protection and respect for basic human rights. We note such influence will vary greatly across the region. Australia needs to continue a policy of seeking the most effective way to promote human rights in each country it engages with and it is clear that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to this work. However, at the same time, the Australian government should resist any temptation to use this flexibility as a reason not to engage with countries in the region over human rights issues, despite the fact that raising human rights concerns may have an impact on trade relations or cooperation on antiterrorism and transnational crime measures.

Australia should continue to support UN special rapporteurs as one mechanism for the defence and promotion of human rights, and seriously consider where the establishment of additional special rapporteurs may be useful. In supporting the UN special rapporteurs, Australia must ensure there is financial support of the UN that allows for effective establishment and maintenance of such positions.

Australia should continue to support and emphasise multilateral initiatives that promote and defend human rights where it assesses the initiative in question is effective. The Australian government should have an ongoing commitment to give financial support to the valuable work of the International Program on the Elimination of Child Labour—IPEC—through funding that program on an annual basis, and we have suggested $2.1 million would be an appropriate level of funding to start with, which would make Australia the fourth-largest donor in that area but represents only 10c per Australian. Finally, we believe Australia needs to meet its commitment to the UN that it provide 0.7 per cent of gross national income in overseas aid.

CHAIR —Thank you very much. The purpose of this inquiry, of course, is to try to find some practical recommendations which can do something towards enhancing the human rights of individuals within this region. I have two questions. The first is that a lot of comment has been made to the effect that focusing on the Asia Pacific as one region is almost unwieldy—in fact, impossible—and that perhaps we need to reduce that down a little and focus on subregions. Given your extensive work throughout the whole region, I am interested in what you would think about that.

The second is on the discussions around a regional body. Of course, the argument is that a regional body can have some influence over individuals, member states within that region, but at the same time can also legitimise bad practice in the sense that it is so advisory that it does not actually have any impact on improving; and in fact member states can legitimise. You are members representing a significant church in the region and the classic example of that dilemma of legal rights and reality can occur with freedom of religion. Many countries will have, within their constitutions or even within their laws, the right to religious freedom, yet we know in practice they can be quite oppressive towards members of certain faiths that are not regarded as the dominant faith in that country. Given your experience, do you see any form of mechanism on a regional level practically improving that situation, or would it serve to just legitimise that difference between reality and what the laws of the country say on paper?

Dr Zirnsak —We would take the view, as other bodies have, that the Asia Pacific is too large and significant to be looked at as one region, so we would simply repeat the comments others have made: that there is great diversity across the region and that currently there are subregional groupings that already work together within that.

That said, though, certainly at the civil society level across those subregions there is work, for example, on people trafficking. Just last month a member of my team was part of a regional conference on people trafficking, which was organised by churches in the South Asia region. That was held in New Delhi but it included churches from, for example, the Philippines. It included also a church from Haiti that came across to be part of that conference and to share experiences dealing with people trafficking. Clearly there are abilities, at least at the civil society level, to work across those subregional areas.

But, to our thinking, the idea of setting up an Asia-Pacific regional human rights body probably is not a reality and we need to acknowledge that there are those subregions that already exist that, from a governmental point of view, it would make more sense to engage with. Therefore, we would say that whether the subregion enhances human rights or potentially covers for existing bad practice will probably depend on the subregion in question and its history.

We note that a number of the other submissions raise concerns about ASEAN particularly, and we would share concerns about the way in which Myanmar, or Burma, has been dealt with within the region in terms of, from our perspective, a lack of political pressure to address serious human rights concerns by that regime, but acknowledging, in the approach with different countries, that one size does not fit all. So there is a need, in different countries, to nuance what would be most effective to get them to move towards promotion and protection of human rights generally.

There would be concerns about going soft. You end up with this club where some countries decide that, by going soft on a neighbouring country, it might mean there is not pressure on them to move forward. We have experienced some of this with landmines. For example, we have raised concerns about the number of landmines in Bangladesh. Bangladesh is one of the few countries in the region that have become a full party to the convention banning anti-personnel landmines. They have kept about 13,000 anti-personnel landmines which they claim are for training purposes but they have not consumed a single one since they have signed the treaty.

We have raised concerns with them but they say: ‘Hang on. All our neighbours haven’t even signed on to this treaty yet, so we’re a lot further down the path than they are. It’s a little rich, you raising concerns about our stockpile of mines and expecting us to deal with it.’ These are some of the practical difficulties. I do not know if John wants to add to those.

Rev. Barr —There is enormous diversity in the Asia region. The area that I know well is Indonesia. There are enormous issues just within Indonesia. Looking from the perspective of the church—for example, at human rights in West Papua—there are greatly diverse understandings of or approaches to human rights issues, depending on where you are in Indonesia and how you relate to Islam. I just want to recognise that there is a lot of diversity there and a lot of complex issues that we need to take into account.

Mr RUDDOCK —I am glad you have been reading other submissions. You have probably noticed paragraph 86 of the work of the Human Rights Law Resource Centre.

Dr Zirnsak —I did not get to read that one. It was one on the list.

Ms VAMVAKINOU —You are about to be asked about paragraph 86. He has beaten me to it, but that is fine.

Mr RUDDOCK —I noted you referred to the very strong networks and partnerships that the churches had. We are interested in why there is resistance to ratification of international treaties by Pacific island countries. I am not going to ask you to expand on it, because the reasons are given in paragraph 86: their limited financial resources, lack of technical capacity, focus on other priorities, and a wish not ‘to upset internal, powerful stakeholder groups, like the church and customary chiefs’. Given that the church is obviously, according to this, a significant impediment to ratification, what you can be doing in using those networks and partnerships to effect support for ratification rather than opposition?

Senator MOORE —It might be useful to say where that has come from—the paper on Fiji—just so you know the background.

Dr Zirnsak —We certainly have been aware of issues around lack of—

Mr RUDDOCK —I thought you might have been, with the Uniting Church and its links with the Methodists in Fiji. I just remember Rabuka, who used to be an active participant.

Rev. Barr —Yes, a lay preacher within the church.

Mr RUDDOCK —Maybe that is what they were referring to. I do not know.

Dr Zirnsak —We do share concern about lack of ratification of treaties, but probably we are more aware of lack of capacity for Pacific countries and the sheer burden of the international treaties that may be thrust their way.

Going back to the landmines treaty, which we have had a lot of experience with around universalisation, and the Australian government has put a lot of effort into seeking that universalisation, this is a region that has no landmines—has never produced any, never exported any, never used any—so you would say: ‘Surely this is a no-brainer? You can easily sign on and ratify this treaty.’ The problem is the capacity within the foreign affairs departments within these countries. Often there are very limited numbers of staff having to deal with a wide range of international treaties and the expectation that they will universalise them all. From speaking to the Pacific countries, I would understand that that is far more the issue that they face, and the human rights treaties are another area where that is the case, even within the Australian government.

I recently had a conversation with Attorney-General’s Department about universalising the UN Convention against Corruption, which is an area we have a very strong interest in. Talking about the Pacific, the feedback from the Attorney-General’s area is that they are having ongoing discussions with the governments but, because of the wide breadth of that convention, there are a whole swag of issues in that convention that do not have relevance to certain Pacific countries. Getting them to spend a whole lot of resources to become compliant with aspects of a treaty that may never apply to them may waste resources that could be used for areas of corruption that need to be addressed by those countries.

Mr RUDDOCK —I think I understand those arguments, but do you think there is a problem of that sort?

Dr Zirnsak —Not that I have any knowledge of. John?

Rev. Barr —Yes, I am aware that there is. We have a long history in the Pacific. The recent events in Fiji may see things change, particularly in relation to the Methodist Church. In the past, I can remember talking to some of my own colleagues about this issue. I think it is fair to say there has been quite a range of opinions on Fiji in regard to coups in the past, and I have had people saying to me, ‘Indigenous rights are even more important than democracy.’ That debate has been going on within the church.

We are very much aware of it, and I thank you for raising that, because it is an issue that comes up in West Papua and other places. We are aware of that, and we would want to be working towards addressing it and working with our partner churches in order that they do come onside, are more serious about human rights and are prepared to ratify some of those treaties. It is an issue that has divided opinion within the Uniting Church as a whole and that we are becoming more aware of and would want to address, particularly with our church leaders.

Dr Zirnsak —We also want to raise the diversity within churches. Whilst you have talked about the Pacific, on the other hand our partner church in the Philippines, the United Church of Christ, has human rights incorporated into its basic constitutional document and is an active promoter of human rights.

Mr RUDDOCK —My view is that you are looking at some people that you would not regard in the quite the same way. You have the Mormons, for instance. A lot of the elements of what is seen to be Christian have very different roots and histories and dynamics, but, being the mischievous person I am, I would like to put those things on the agenda.

Dr Zirnsak —Sure.

Mr RUDDOCK —But the positive that I was looking for was whether there was some way in which we could support the churches to become a part of the movement for change and whether you might like to think about that.

Dr Zirnsak —Regionally there is the Christian Conference of Asia. It has a very strong focus on human rights and on gender empowerment. It is particularly looking at discrimination against women across the region and how churches both contribute to and can be a part of dealing with those issues. It also has a focus on environmental issues. As churches, we are active participants within that regional forum, the Christian Conference of Asia.

Mr RUDDOCK —And that is a big conference of churches as well.

CHAIR —Is there a document, a charter or a statement of principles or whatever that we could have a look at?

Dr Zirnsak —Yes, certainly—on both of those bodies, I suspect. The Christian Conference of Asia definitely has a broad charter on those issues. One of their strong arms of focus is those very human rights issues. As we have said in our submission, looking at support for human rights small grants, and government looking within the region to more actively provide grants to worthwhile human rights based projects, here is one way very practically that the Australian government could expand that program and make more use of it.

Mr RUDDOCK —The one I really wanted to look at, to see whether it might be able to be developed further and whether there are any hooks on it, is your proposal in recommendation 4 to continue support for UN special rapporteurs and then, you say:

... ensure that its financial support of the UN allows for the effective establishment and maintenance of such positions.

Are you saying that we could identify a person whom we might want to appoint as a special rapporteur for the Pacific and we attach funding to that for the establishment and maintenance?

Dr Zirnsak —We have not gone that far in our thinking. At this stage, we are looking broadly at the way we have seen special rapporteurs work across various areas.

Mr RUDDOCK —Would the UN be likely to appoint a special rapporteur upon achieving the implementation of UN human rights instruments and ratification of them, and put him on the payroll and send him as a UN ambassador to the Pacific, with a specific role?

Dr Zirnsak —If member states had thought that was worthwhile and supported it.

Mr RUDDOCK —Would it need the Security Council, or where would the approval come from? I just do not know. You are making this suggestion and I am wondering whether you have thought it through.

Dr Zirnsak —What we were thinking is that you already have mechanisms that establish special rapporteurs and that many have fulfilled very important and useful functions. Philip Alston’s visit to the Philippines as special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions was very instrumental in helping to shift the Philippines government at that time. There was other international pressure being brought at the same time, but his visit, from our perspective, did appear to add further weight and did help move the Philippines government. The President made a number of announcements in response to that report that helped move that situation forward. We have seen the usefulness of special rapporteurs in particular roles.

Mr RUDDOCK —Yes, but I do not know whether there was any specific money attached to the role of the special rapporteur, where a country that was interested in achieving change was able to specify that—

Dr Zirnsak —The submission was more suggesting there is a need to ensure that the funding mechanisms within the UN through which special rapporteurs may be funded are adequately resourced. In the past we have had special rapporteurs visit Australia, and on one occasion I can remember a special rapporteur from North Africa saying that he was still running his legal practice and that being the special rapporteur was a kind of part-time role that he did in his spare time, and often he had to put some of his own resources into making it work at that time. I am hoping the situation has improved.

Mr RUDDOCK —Yes, but just giving money for special rapporteurs might mean that we would have a special rapporteur for Sudan, and I am not saying Sudan is more important, but it would not be achieving—

Dr Zirnsak —Yes. To clarify the recommendation, it was not a suggestion that the Australian government would specifically earmark funding towards a special rapporteur position or set up a situation where we put money on the table to get certain special rapporteurs up.

Mr RUDDOCK —And have the UN doing it so that we are detached and not seen to be driving it? It gets rid of the colonial mentality. This is the UN that was instrumental in a lot of them getting their independence.

Dr Zirnsak —I am merely pointing out that that is not something we had thought through. The point we want to make is that special rapporteurs have played a useful role and that they need to be adequately resourced. We are aware that in the past special rapporteurs have not been adequately resourced. We did not have a specific model in mind for the mechanism to ensure that that adequate resourcing takes place. If the committee wishes to think further down that path, that would be fantastic.

Mr RUDDOCK —I see it as a possible alternative to a lot of the other suggestions about regional bodies and funding national institutions and doing it through the AusAID program. Maybe we should ask Foreign Affairs whether, in the way in which we work with the UN, we can earmark some money for something.

CHAIR —Given that it has come up as a recommendation from you, when the committee is considering its draft report and recommendations it may very well be something that we wish to explore further.

Dr Zirnsak —A point I want to make, though, is that I do note submissions by other bodies that point out that an earlier attempt to establish a human rights mechanism within the Pacific, where Australia and New Zealand were playing a leading role, appeared to have foundered because the Pacific felt it was Big Brother coming in. That is part of the caution I would be expressing.

CHAIR —Yes, that certainly is an issue that has been raised.

Ms VAMVAKINOU —Even for the rapporteur, Mark?

Dr Zirnsak —If the Pacific felt that Australia was directing money in to push a special rapporteur into the Pacific, I could imagine so.

Ms VAMVAKINOU —Yes. It could still fall foul of the same perception, couldn’t it?

CHAIR —Even if it was via the UN.

Dr Zirnsak —That is a potential pitfall. I am not suggesting that that closes off the opportunity. It may still be worth exploring, but certainly be aware of it.

Ms VAMVAKINOU —This is probably a very basic question, but on this issue of what we are trying to do, and trying to avoid the perception of being Big Brother, what is the attitude of the Pacific islanders to the churches that come in to assist and work on the ground? Is there a perception that some of the churches are being a bit Big-Brotherish as well? I remember being in Indonesia a couple of years ago and speaking to people who thought American aid was a mechanism by which the Americans were trying to impose their value system on an Islamic country and they were very adverse to the idea. They did not even want the money. They were very suspicious about a lot of the programs that were being funded. I am assuming that happens quite a bit on the ground, but I am interested in what the attitude towards the churches would be, given that our Western Christian churches are not necessarily indigenous to the Pacific islanders, let alone anyone else.

Rev. Barr —My experience is that, wherever the church has been strong in the past, there is a strong desire by local people to have the church there, and there is a strong feeling in many parts of the Pacific—and in South-East Asia, which I am familiar with—that the church has actually abandoned them; there is a sense of feeling abandoned. That is amongst communities where the church has been strong in the past, where there has been a strong Western presence, and wherever we go there is a longing to maintain and build up that relationship.

Then, of course, in countries like Indonesia—and I am talking now about authorities, local governments, Christians being a minority and the majority being Islam—there would be a perspective that we are in there to pull strings and to influence, so we have to be extremely careful about how we work. That is why we have a strong commitment to working with partner churches, with the local churches. We want to work on their terms and according to their needs and what they ask of us.

In the communities where the church has been strong traditionally, there is a strong yearning for that continuing relationship, but there is a real sense of reluctance in the broader community about the work of the church there. It is seen to be the West having influence there, and we have to be constantly aware of that.

Having said that, when you look at the church in the Pacific and in Asia, in terms of numbers and the direction in which the church is growing, it is becoming an Asian and a Pacific church. To a certain extent, we have a degree of decline here in Australia. Look at bodies like the Christian Conference of Asia and Pacific Conference of Churches: it is the Asian and the Pacific churches, particularly the Asian and the African churches, that are now dominating the world scene.

CHAIR —Absolutely.

Ms VAMVAKINOU —Absolutely.

Rev. Barr —So to speak of Christianity as being a Western thing is no longer the case. Of course, the problem is that you have the American connection and then you have churches which you might call ‘new generation’ churches which are not working with established churches, have the intention of evangelising and have a fairly pro-Western outlook. That is one of the problems in India, for example. I have recently been to India, and you have the traditional churches which are very serious about presenting themselves in an indigenous way, seeing themselves as being a local community. Then you have American churches—or sometimes from other areas—coming in with a strong evangelical push which is highly insensitive to the traditional cultures, so you get a reaction, particularly amongst Hindus.

Some of the actions that have been taken against Christians have been perceived by, say, more conservative non-Christian groups, like Hindu groups, as being a reaction to some of these more recent new generation type churches coming in, which our own established partner churches are working against and certainly are opposed to but are being seen to be part of.

CHAIR —That is a very interesting point.

Ms VAMVAKINOU —You raise something that is very important. I had not thought about it. How much of a problem have we got in our region with some of these evangelical churches? You have government on one hand trying to establish a potential model for human rights and whatever, and obviously there is the established church, the Uniting Church, that seems to have worked out a very good partnership with local indigenous communities and has an understanding of culture and sensitivities. You are doing all the right things that perhaps the politicians do not do in the way that they work with people. Maybe we can learn from some of your methods. But now you have got this other stream, the evangelical churches, that I assume would have no sensitivity or respect whatever for local indigenous cultures or, indeed, other religions, and are very fixed on imposing their own way of thinking and behaving. That kind of mirrors what we as a country are trying to avoid. We do not want to be seen to be telling our neighbours how they ought to be conducting their human rights. There seems to be this very interesting juxtaposition of the two. How much of a problem could this become?

CHAIR —What is the size of their influence?

Ms VAMVAKINOU —That could be creating problems for politicians inadvertently as well.

CHAIR —To what extent are they moving in outside of the US and Western countries? In addition to Maria’s comments, how big an issue would it be?

Rev. Barr —It depends on the country. I can see it as a real problem in India at the moment. A lot of it is to do with the developing middle class. Often it is the new generation types of churches that appeal more to the middle class, who have a fairly pro-Western view, and of course these churches will often have a theology that reinforces prosperity—the idea that God wants you to get rich. India does have a policy of freedom of religion. We are very much committed to being members of worldwide Christian bodies, like the World Council of Churches and the Christian Conference of Asia and the Pacific Conference of Churches, where we work together with other churches to maintain the values that we are committed to. I sometimes feel that there is kind of an abuse by some elements of the Christian church of freedom of religion in certain countries. How you get around that I do not know, because as church bodies, as the World Council of Churches, we would oppose that approach. We do not have authority over what happens in other areas. I guess our partner churches have to work very hard in local communities to convince people that that approach is potentially quite destructive.

Ms VAMVAKINOU —It makes everyone’s work all the more difficult, doesn’t it?

Rev. Barr —Yes.

CHAIR —So they are not necessarily part of the church solidarity in Asia?

Rev. Barr —That is right. No, that would be an independent movement. Often they are fairly independent movements within the individual countries. They do not necessarily have their base back in the USA and there are strings being pulled in the USA. Sometimes they are fairly independent movements within the countries because they are people who have been successful in business, who have got money behind them, and they will go out and do their own thing.

CHAIR —Yes, and they have built up.

Rev. Barr —So they can be quite local—indigenous.

CHAIR —What level of influence would there be in the Pacific? As we know, there is a long history of Christianity in the Pacific islands. Is this new evangelism emerging there, or not as much as in Asia?

Rev. Barr —I am not absolutely certain. I know, of course, about the Mormon influence in the Pacific.


Rev. Barr —And I am aware of places like Papua New Guinea, where there has been a very strong movement of the new generation type religions, and I am aware of 40 different denominations working in certain areas of Papua New Guinea. This often has a destructive influence because it reinforces a lot of the local divisions. I cannot give you an authoritative answer on that. I can only say that I am aware of the trend.

Dr Zirnsak —To emphasise the point: within the region, Sri Lanka is a good example at the moment where there have been accusations of unethical practices of evangelism taking place, and there has been a response then basically to press the government of Sri Lanka to introduce anticonversion laws, which would stifle freedom of religion in a way inconsistent, in our view, with the UN standards with regard to freedom of religion. So you end up with this kind of tension. Potentially, therefore, those churches that have not been accused of any unethical practices around evangelism get caught up with restrictions on their freedom of religion more broadly. That has been an ongoing debate there. Sometimes there are these outside influences, but those outside influences can come from within Asia as well—for example, there are a very large number of Korean churches.

Rev. Barr —Yes.

Dr Zirnsak —There is a wide variety of practice there, and a number of our partner churches have complained about the experience of having Korean churches move in and try to establish their own brand of church that matches what was in Korea, as opposed to other Korean churches who follow a similar model to us when they come here and look to assist the partner church on the ground in terms of their activity, and are respectful of the culture and what is already there, rather than seeking to impose their own particular model of what the Christian faith means.

Ms VAMVAKINOU —That is very interesting.

Rev. Barr —Certainly the churches that we work in partnership with in Asia and the Pacific would want to build good relationships, particularly with groups representing other religious bodies, and in a sense isolate themselves from that movement which wants to see itself as confronting. For example, the community churches in Indonesia have very good relationships with Nahdlatul Ulama, which is the largest Islamic organisation in Indonesia, wanting to build good relationships and cooperation there and wanting to encourage members of those particular churches to work in cooperation with people of other faiths, not seeing it as something that they are against.

CHAIR —That is very interesting and we could explore that for quite a while. It seems to me, as Maria said, that the Christian faith is having its own difficulties in terms of how to deal with its issues in these countries, as much as Australia is having difficulties trying to have some influence over human rights. I want to pick up on something that you said, Mark. When we are talking about rights, particularly around religion and other issues, there is the capacity question, particularly in the Pacific islands. You have already pointed out a couple of examples where certain treaties were either not relevant or other demands could divert countries away from focusing on the central issue, but we know there are some countries that, because of their size or the capacity of their government, are not able to implement or fulfil their commitment to certain international obligations.

That has been put as one of the reasons why a regional mechanism in some shape or form could actually work, because a regional body might give support to those countries that are too small to act on their own, but by being members of a broader body they could maybe fulfil their obligations on international treaties and things like that—because the treaty ratification issue has come up a few times. Looking at that concern about diminishing by watering down a regional body, is that in fact the only way in which some countries may have the capacity to comply with certain UN obligations?

Dr Zirnsak —It is certainly worth exploring. I do not know that we can give a definitive answer. I am only vaguely aware of the other models that exist. Europe is probably the one I am most familiar with.

CHAIR —It is very different from the Pacific islands.

Dr Zirnsak —Exactly. There are not too many countries in Europe that are part of that European Community human rights body that would struggle with the same level of lack of resources as do countries in the Pacific. It may be one mechanism worth exploring to assist countries to be able to ratify. Australia has offered templates that could be implemented, with some local modification, by countries in the Pacific region to become party to certain treaties. That is a mechanism that appears to have had some success, so that is certainly a possibility. Other bodies have promoted those templates as well. The International Committee of the Red Cross, for example, has also offered template legislation that can be modified to a local context and then further technical assistance down the track to implement all the provisions of a treaty.

While a regional body might assist with that, there are still going to be resourcing issues. For example, if you wanted to look at the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, fulfilment of the obligations under that treaty may be difficult for some Pacific countries simply because of lack of overall financial capacity to meet some of those obligations. That will not be resolved by having a regional body per se, but a regional body may assist. It certainly is an idea worth exploring.

Senator MOORE —There are so many questions, but I have one in the area of intercultural issues that could be linked with politics. In your case study of Papua you talk about the Indonesian government bringing in their antipornography law. In terms of process, I would think that under normal circumstances an antipornography law, which could be justified by CEDAW or CRC, would have the basis of the whole process of human rights protection. Your description of how people are seeing that on the ground, and the political impacts of that, is interesting, in terms of how terms can be used for different reasons.

I would not mind hearing a bit more about that, because you mention in a paragraph there the antipornography law being brought in as Indonesian law and then the people on the ground in Papua seeing that it could be an imposition of a political view which is Muslim based, which could impact on their own culture. We consistently talk about the need for us to be sensitive to the needs of cultural areas, but this is an area where a country on one level is doing something positive, just to put it on record. I found that an interesting dynamic.

Rev. Barr —The antipornography law is very broadly defined. I think ‘antipornography’ is an unfortunate term in many ways, because it is about much more than dealing with pornography. It is dealing with a whole lot of attitudes—towards dress and certain forms of behaviour—and to a certain extent it is seen as being about freedom of expression and information. The first thing I need to say is that things have got so bad in West Papua now that there is a deep suspicion about anything Jakarta tries to do. There is a real problem there. There is a breakdown of trust. I see that breakdown as a serious issue.

I understand that the antipornography legislation was brought out because there are huge tensions within Indonesia with Islam. Islam is developing in Indonesia. It is a very moderate form of Islam, but there needs to be a recognition of the values that Islam embraces, so I can see where it is coming from. From the perspective of Papua, there is not only a lack of trust in Jakarta but a belief—and there is some substance to this—that there is an attempt by certain Islamic groups within Indonesia to impose fairly strict Islamic values upon the wider society across Indonesia.

Papuans see themselves as being very different: they are Melanesian and Christian. So they see this legislation as yet another form of imposition upon them from Jakarta and an example of how their values, needs, identity and culture are no longer taken seriously. That is basically behind it all. Even within other parts of Indonesia, some moderate Islamic communities also felt this legislation was a bit too severe, but clearly the government and the President are trying to balance a whole lot of interest groups.

Indonesia is an emerging democracy and what has happened there in the last eight years is incredible, in terms of the move towards democracy and how they have been able to keep all these different interest groups. In around 2000 in the Maluku Islands there was a breakdown between Christian and Muslim groups, but by and large the development of democracy in Indonesia has been a great success and we ought to be congratulating Indonesia for that. I think this legislation is an attempt to keep some conservative Islamic groups onside, but the Papuans feel as though they are the victims of that and that this is yet another thing that is happening in the country which is marginalising their culture more and more. That is where they are coming from.

There have been some fairly strong reactions to that law. Some church groups are saying, ‘We will no longer consider ourselves to be part of Indonesia if this law goes through.’ There have been threats made, and if you talk to Papuans they are very serious. They believe that there are more and more steps towards their eventual disappearance as a culture group within Indonesia. That is their perspective and those are the things that I am hearing from them.

Senator MOORE —I am fascinated that this would be the kind of law that could be justified, in terms of how it would be done in the generalist area, on protection grounds, and yet the impact locally could be seen very much as a political imposition. I have only one other question, Chair, and that is to see whether the church is involved with the Asia Pacific Forum, in that part of its responsibility is to engage with NGOs. Is the church one of the NGOs that the APF engages?

Dr Zirnsak —The Asia Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions?

Senator MOORE —Yes.

Dr Zirnsak —I am not aware of our involvement. We may have to check with the national assembly. Where the federal government has organised regional forums around interfaith dialogue, we have been part of those. Uniting Church representatives have been part of the recent discussions, under both the previous and the current government. I am not sure of that particular one, nor whether there is a representation through the National Council of Churches. There is certainly dialogue between the Australian Human Rights Commission and us as churches.

Senator MOORE —Yes, there is something there. I was just not sure whether you were there in your own right.

Dr Zirnsak —I am not sure if we are involved in that particular forum.

Senator FURNER —Concentrating on Papua, your submissions indicate there are threats and intimidation directed at, generally, evangelical churches. Is that as a result of their exposure and growth in that country? Has that been broadly across the board, in other denominations at all?

Rev. Barr —It is right across all the denominations. The word ‘evangelical’ is expressed differently in Indonesia than in the West. Often, ‘evangelical’ is considered to be a conservative theological background. In Indonesia, it comes from the word ‘gospel’. It just means ‘gospel’, so the evangelical church would be considered—I do not like putting labels on things—a very mainline, orthodox Christian church. Many of the mainline reform churches in Indonesia have the name ‘Evangelical’, so it is a mainline church. Having said that, the other churches in West Papua, which include what we could consider the more conservative stream, together with the Catholic stream and even the Pentecostal stream, would also be feeling some degree of intimidation. It is related to a perception in Indonesia that the churches are pro-separatist and are pushing a barrow towards eventual independence. It is not true. The church is simply not doing that.

Senator MOORE —All churches?

Rev. Barr —No, there are some churches that would be pro independence—some of the Pentecostal churches, which have strong indigenous roots.

Senator MOORE —Absolutely, yes.

Rev. Barr —Indeed. I have spoken to some of those. But the position of the mainline churches, the Evangelical Christian Church and the Catholic Church, would not be pro-independence. They would want to see special autonomy to be implemented and would want to see themselves as being part of Indonesia, having their particular cultural rights recognised in the way that has happened in Aceh. That would be their position, but I think there is a lot of scepticism about whether that is ever going to happen. That is the big issue.

CHAIR —Unfortunately, we have run out of time. There are many things that you have raised in the discussion today that I know we could pursue a lot further if time permitted. In particular, we did not touch on, in any real depth, the issue that we as a committee are grappling with, which is different cultural practices and how they mesh with a commitment to universal human rights. Given your experience of the way certain churches have developed in that region and others have come in, I am sure it would be interesting to look at how you might have managed to deal with some of those issues, but unfortunately we have run out of time. We certainly enjoyed that discussion and it added a lot of value to what was already a very detailed submission. I think there are a couple of charters that we asked to get copies of.

Dr Zirnsak —Yes, of the Christian Conference of Asia and the Pacific Conference of Churches.

CHAIR —If you pass those on to the secretariat, they can then be distributed to all committee members. These proceedings are recorded by Hansard. You will receive a transcript. If you see inaccuracies or errors that you would like to clarify or correct, you will have the opportunity to do that. Thank you both for coming in this afternoon. We really do appreciate it.

Dr Zirnsak —Thank you for the opportunity.

[1.06 pm]