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Thursday, 10 March 2005
Page: 5

Senator BROWN (9:37 AM) —I move:

   That the following matters be referred to the Legal and Constitutional References Committee for inquiry and report by 22 June 2005:

(a)   any Australian involvement in, or knowledge of, the practice known as rendition (the transfer of people for interrogation in countries which allow torture);

(b)   any Australian involvement in, or knowledge of, the practice of torture overseas; and

(c)   any related matters.

I want to underline how strongly the Greens feel about this motion. The motion we are dealing with is about the Greens’ wish to refer to the Legal and Constitutional References Committee the horrific spectre of torture being used by democratic Western countries, like the United States, Britain and now Australia. The motion is to have a Senate inquiry into Australian knowledge of and involvement in the US Bush administration’s policy of rendition and, consequent upon that, the use of torture. This policy of rendition is, in effect, contracting out torture to second or third countries. A fleet of CIA planes has been used to ferry people who have been effectively kidnapped in second countries, including nations like our own—Sweden for one—to third nations where torture is known to take place and where the object of the transfer of prisoners is to have them tortured.

The Bush White House has made a deliberate decision that torture is to be used to extract information in the age of terrorism. This is contrary to the whole ethos of the US democratic system and indeed our parallel democratic system in Australia, which has abhorred torture and has worked assiduously to bring into place international conventions against the use of torture. What we have here is an insidious backdoor approval of torture by the US President and the US administration without there being laws consequent upon full debate by the US congress. The question I put to this parliament and the Senate is: are we going to allow ourselves to become part of that pattern of behaviour, which, besides undermining the ethos of this nation, undermines the democratic process?

Attorney-General Ruddock has said that Australia will not condone torture in any circumstance, yet there is prima facie evidence from Mr Habib, an Australian citizen who was held and tortured in Egypt, that the Australian authorities not only knew that he was in Egypt and being tortured in Egypt but supplied information to the torturers in the form of a phone list from his mobile phone, which ostensibly came from a search of his house under warrant in his absence. I do not know the rights or wrongs of Mr Habib’s situation. That is not what is germane here. Australian citizens without exception are innocent until proven guilty, and Australian citizens—and indeed anybody under the system of Australian law and order—must be protected from torture without exception.

I find it extraordinary, to say the least, that we have a situation where the government does not support this move for the Senate to investigate this critical matter. I am told that the opposition will not support it either. They can argue for themselves, but let me say this: I have not moved for an inquiry that is more important than this one. We are not a vassal of any other country. We are an independent nation, proud of our democracy and our freedoms and the lead this country has taken in extending to the rest of the world, as far as we can, the democratic principles that everybody is equal under the law and nobody shall be subject to torture. What we are seeing at the moment is a reversion of that, a roll-back, without proper debate in the parliaments involved. That is a derogation of democracy itself.

I do not know what the argument of the opposition or the government can be in saying, ‘We will not allow this to be investigated.’ We know the facts. Neither the government nor the opposition will dispute the reality that prisoners are being, at the behest of the CIA, taken from second countries to third countries where torture is not only permitted but part of the police state apparatus—countries like Egypt and Uzbekistan—countries where horrific torture, unconscionable within our own borders and indeed within the United States, is practiced. Here we have governments subverting the rule of their own countries, breaking their own law, breaking their own ethos if they become involved in such practices, in such odious throwbacks to barbaric former times.

The Howard government has a case to answer here, and we will not get answers unless we inquire. I believe that the Senate has a duty to make that inquiry. I cannot believe that the Labor Party is welshing on its duty to ensure that this inquiry takes place. One must assume that there is a misguided belief that we must not upset the United States of America. I have a belief that there is a difference between the Bush administration and the history and traditions of the United States of America. I believe it is absolutely essential—not just proper but essential—that we separate from the Bush administration when it not only condones but delivers people to torture and expends taxpayers’ money in taking part in the process of torturing individuals to extract information.

If it must be that torture is now to become part of the processes of the United States and ipso facto at least part of the debate of where we are going to in this great country of Australia, let us debate it. As the Sydney Morning Herald editorial said, let us decide where the limits are to be set now that the boundaries are moving. Let us not be cowardly about this and say, ‘Let’s not talk about it; let’s just keep it going covertly,’ as if it is not happening—which has always been part of the extraordinarily immoral power play of the torturer. If torture is going to be entertained and this CIA rendition approved of by President Bush himself is going to be ticked off by the Howard government, let this parliament debate it. Let every member of parliament say how far they will go in permitting torture, and under what circumstances and on which innocent people they will allow it to be used.

Let us have a debate about the merits of the use of torture in a world in which terrorism is a scourge, because there are compelling arguments that it is counterproductive. For example, no court will convict somebody on evidence that has been extracted through torture. For example, information extracted under torture is notoriously unreliable. For example, with people who are arrested and tortured in secret, the secrecy itself can be counterproductive—as has been surmised in the case of S11, where an operative was arrested and kept covertly; but, had that arrest been made public, the people involved in that horrific act of terrorism might have called it off.

Let these matters be debated in democratic fora. Let us not leave it to ASIO or, indeed, the bureaucracy anywhere or ministers in consultation with their US, British or other counterparts to determine these matters. If we are to be a functioning democracy, it must be debated in our parliament—and, if it is going to be debated in our parliament, it has to be debated on all the information that is available. How do we get that? We get that through an inquiry. There is and has been a failure of courage here by both the government and the opposition. There is something to hide here. A vote against this motion is a vote for hiding information—for secrecy, for denying public exposure. It is a vote which injuries democracy itself.

If this government is to entertain a role in the US government’s policy of rendition, or if this opposition is to say, ‘We do not want to trespass into the odious practice of rendition, which has been ticked off by the Bush administration,’ let them get up and say so. But let us not hide from discovering the facts, because that is cowardice, which has no place in a proper democratic forum like this.

I believe that this parliament is on trial here and the big parties have to think again about this. I ask the baseline question: what harm can be done by inquiring into the fact that an Australian citizen, Mr Habib, was arrested in Pakistan; that the Australian authorities knew about it and met him there; that he was transferred to Egypt and tortured; that it is his evidence that information used in that torture process in the torture chamber in Egypt came from his home in Sydney; and that we know the USA, via the CIA, transfers prisoners to places of torture in Egypt, Uzbekistan and elsewhere?

Are the government and opposition too weak to have this matter brought into the public arena? I put this question: if there has been no wrong here, no complicity by Australia with this policy of rendition, why should we not have this inquiry? Why should the government oppose it? Why should the opposition oppose it? There is a stench in the air. There is always a stench in the air when torture is involved, and it will not be cleared by the government or opposition saying, ‘We will not have this matter canvassed by our parliament.’ It is an extraordinary matter that this motion will not succeed.

The Greens will not accede to the matter being over and done with today. We will do all we can to get to the facts of this matter. What are we defending here? Let me put this very clearly: we are defending Australian democracy and Australia’s time-honoured abhorrence of torture. We will not have a bar of it. The price of keeping the scourge of torture from our democratic forms, our thinking and our ethos in this country is vigilance against it where it occurs. This motion is for such vigilance. I can scarcely believe that it is not going to succeed, but let the opposition and government defend their point of view.