House debates

Monday, 3 December 2018

Private Members' Business

Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide: 70th Anniversary

6:20 pm

Photo of Tim WilsonTim Wilson (Goldstein, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That this House:

(1) recognises that 9 December 2018 marks the 70th anniversary of the adoption by the United Nations General Assembly of The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide;

(2) acknowledges the important role played by Australia, in particular Australia's then President of the United Nations General Assembly, Dr Herbert Vere 'Doc' Evatt, in the successful adoption of the United Nations Genocide Convention;

(3) further acknowledges Australia's leadership as being one of the first countries to ratify the United Nations Genocide Convention in 1949, and its continued commitment to the eradication of the crime through its inclusion of the United Nations definition of Genocide in the Criminal Code Act 1995;

(4) honours the primary initiator and author of the United Nations Genocide Convention, Dr Raphael Lemkin, a lawyer of Polish-Jewish descent, who coined the word 'genocide', informed by his study of the systematic extermination of the Armenians during World War I and the Jews during World War II; and

(5) recognises the need for eternal vigilance of all countries, including Australia, to acknowledge past genocides as essential to stopping future genocides.

As the member for Goldstein, it is a privilege to be able to move the motion to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the adoption by the United Nations General Assembly of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

I have moved this motion for a number of reasons. I have done this because I have one of the largest Jewish communities in Australia, and the tragedy of the Holocaust and the legacy of that genocide remain prevalent for so many people in the community that I am proud to represent and the community to the north of mine, the federal electorate of Melbourne Ports—and I understand the member for Melbourne Ports is speaking after me. I have also done this because of my Armenian heritage and understanding of the first genocide of the modern era. It wasn't just a human genocide, in the murdering of people marched through the Syrian Desert; like with the Jewish people, there was a cultural genocide too—so not just to remove people's lives and the capacity for them to be able to continue their family line but also to erase their memory, their legacy, their culture, their traditions and their capacity to be able to hand their culture onto the next generation.

It was Raphael Lemkin, a Jewish lawyer from Poland, who coined the term 'genocide', noting that he:

… became interested in genocide because it happened so many times. It happened to the Armenians, and after the Armenians, there was a very rough deal at the Versailles Conference because the criminals who were guilty of the genocide were not punished.

Seeking to rectify this injustice, he embarked upon the process of drafting a convention that would ensure that such a crime would never be repeated.

As an Australian I am of course proud of our country's incredible role in providing relief and support to the survivors of the Armenian genocide—the first international aid effort, and particularly from the great state of Victoria and the then Lord Mayor—and our role in the adoption of the UN genocide convention, as one of the founding members of the United Nations. But, as the only member of this house of Armenian descent, I remain fundamentally disappointed that our national parliament doesn't fully acknowledge the horror and tragedy of the genocide against the Armenians. I would hope that we would acknowledge the genocide against all people where they occur. Healing is enlivened when you cauterise a wound, because you clean it and you recognise that the damage that has been done is a pathway to healing. Acknowledging and honouring those who lost their lives and making sure that those who committed the crime are held to account and no longer feel that they can get away with it without proper critique, criticism and condemnation from the international community are critical to stopping future genocides.

In addition to his work on the Holocaust, Dr Lemkin also wrote about the Ottoman government's systemic extermination of 1.5 million Armenians as well as many unfortunate Greeks and Syrians. He was incredibly moved by the stories of Armenians being forced to march into the Syrian Desert, marching to their death. It is due to Lemkin's work that we understand why we cannot turn a blind eye to genocide. Since 1948, we have seen genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and, recently, in 2003, in Darfur. There have also been genocides against the Kurds, with mass exterminations. These should not go unacknowledged or unpunished.

Our collective responsibility, as members of a community of nations and as a state beholden to the genocide convention that we honour today, is to prevent, to call out and to punish the perpetrators of genocide where it occurs in the world. But it becomes difficult to do so when we're unable to acknowledge the original sin that led to the defining of the term. It's silence that condemns those who lost their lives through an action by those who know to do better. It's silence that leaves people in pain. It's silence that ensures that that there is no proper redress for crimes committed in the past. The motion today is about calling out that silence in this parliament, across everybody, to make sure that these crimes never happen again.

Photo of Andrew GeeAndrew Gee (Calare, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the member for Goldstein. Is there a seconder for the motion?

6:26 pm

Photo of Chris HayesChris Hayes (Fowler, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the motion. I thank the member for Goldstein for his motion as we approach the 70th anniversary of the adoption by the United Nations General Assembly of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. I also acknowledge the grave injustices of the genocide against the Jewish community in the Second World War and, whilst there's an indictment against humanity, I trust we have learnt something as an international community so that we can make good on wrongs.

I take this opportunity to raise awareness about a present-day genocide that is occurring, as documented by the United Nations, in Rakhine State in Myanmar against the minority Rohingya Muslims. The current situation in Myanmar is not just mere violence or abuse; there are atrocities. It is a humanitarian crisis of catastrophic proportions were, which is resulting in the displacement of over 700,000 people into neighbouring Bangladesh. Myanmar's security forces have perpetrated the gravest crimes on civilians. The situation has been described by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch as a 'textbook example of ethnic cleansing' and 'crimes against humanity'.

Evidence from a number of investigations also carried out by Human Rights Watch have documented a series of brutal crackdowns by security forces against Rohingya Muslims, including extrajudicial killings; torture; the suffering of Rohingya men, women and children; the destruction, arson and taking over of more than 300 villages by the military; as well as endemic rape and sexual violence. It's important to note that there has been a long history of discrimination against Rohingya. The government of Myanmar continues to deny Rohingya citizenship, along with the provision of basic government services, such as health and education. However, the violence that is now occurring is of a different kind. It is now a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

Bangladesh has opened its doors to Rohingya refugees. People from Bangladesh continue to show tremendous generosity and hospitality in the face of crisis. Despite the challenges that the nation faces domestically, Bangladesh has shown itself to be a compassionate and caring nation. Bangladesh is not a rich country by any means and is not well-equipped to handle the influx of refugees of this magnitude. While agencies such as UNICEF, Oxfam and Save the Children are working hard on the ground to secure humanitarian assistance and basic services for Rohingya, the large number of displaced refugees make the task much more difficult.

As the late Kofi Annan, former General Secretary of the United Nations, Nobel Peace Prize recipient and, importantly, former chair of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, said:

We recognise that the challenges facing Rakhine State and its peoples are complex and the search for lasting solutions will require determination, perseverance and trust.

While I'm pleased that Australia is playing a crucial role to find lasting peace to this humanitarian crisis engulfing Rakhine State, clearly a lot more needs to be done. I call on the government to take a stronger stance on the authorities in Myanmar and to implement the recommendations of the advisory commission by reinforcing our commitment of support for the unimpeded humanitarian access to all parts of Rakhine State as well as the refugee camps in Bangladesh.

For those of us who supported Aung San Suu Kyi in her quest for peace and democracy in Myanmar, it is incredibly disappointing to witness her silence and, worse, her feigned ignorance concerning the ethnic cleansing of the Rakhine population. We must work closely with our regional partners to ensure that the government of Myanmar recommits to the pursuit of peace and a process for national reconciliation. The situation before the Australian government and the United Nations is urgent. We cannot merely play the role of bystander in the hope of change. Clearly, as part of the concerned international community, and by having a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, we have an obligation to act and not simply despair when basic human rights are at stake, particularly when it involves people within our region and within our sphere of influence.

6:30 pm

Photo of Julian LeeserJulian Leeser (Berowra, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Today I rise in strong support of the motion of my friend the member for Goldstein to acknowledge the 70th anniversary of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. This was a significant moment for the world, where it was unanimously agreed that the horrors inflicted on people on the basis of their race, national or ethnical origin, or religious grouping would become a crime of international law.

Seventy years ago the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was approved by General Assembly resolution 260A(III) on 9 December 1948. Australia's then foreign minister, Dr HV Evatt, was in the chair of the General Assembly when the conventions were passed, and Australia was one of the first countries to adopt the convention.

The convention made genocide a crime under international law so that it should be both prevented and punished. The convention defines genocide in article II as:

… any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Article III made the following acts punishable:

(a) Genocide;

(b) Conspiracy to commit genocide;

(c) Direct and public incitement to commit genocide;

(d) Attempt to commit genocide;

(e) Complicity in genocide.

The year 1948 was within three years of the end of the Second World War, a war which saw the Holocaust, the Shoah, in which the murder of six million Jews at the hands of the Nazi regime and its collaborators took place. This figure represented nearly two-thirds of the Jewish population of Europe. In April 1945, General Dwight D Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe, wrote about Ohrdruf, a subcamp of Buchenwald he'd just visited. Eisenhower must have been an amazing leader and a man of extraordinary foresight. He said:

The things I saw beggar description … The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were so overpowering … I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations to 'propaganda'.

Eisenhower organised delegations of politicians, journalists and filmmakers to view firsthand what had happened in the death camps in order to bear witness to what was then—and it's hard to imagine now—a sceptical public. One journalist was asked by a colleague if the scenes in the camps were as bad as they were described in the newspapers. 'No,' he responded, 'they were worse.'

Sadly, in the 70 years since the Holocaust, the denial of it has been growing around the world, especially in the Muslim world. Even in the West, younger generations are more ignorant of the Holocaust than they should be. As a member of this House, I've been outspoken on the importance of both the recognition and the prevention of genocide and of upholding human dignity as a fundamental human right. I've spoken out against the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, of Yazidis and Kurdish minorities, as well as drawing the House's attention to human rights abuses in North Korea, including the murder of mixed race children.

On this, the 70th anniversary, we are reminded of the importance of recognition in an act of prevention and prosecution. Let me say in this House that I think the world has been too slow to recognise and call out the Armenian genocide a century ago for what it was. It's time every nation in the world, including our own, recognised the Armenian genocide for what it was. It's time the Erdogan regime in Turkey owned up to their own history as well. Unlike my friend the member for Goldstein, I'm not of Armenian heritage, nor do I have a large Armenian constituency in my electorate. But the cause of the Armenian people on this point is absolutely just. The death of 1½ million Armenians has been dismissively referred to as 'victims of war', 'civilian casualties' or 'collateral damage'. Those very euphemisms were the same used by Nazi perpetrators of the Holocaust. Who could forget Hitler's infamous line, 'Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?' That's why it's important to call these genocides out for what they are.

My friend the member for Goldstein spoke about Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur and the former Yugoslavia. I, like him, think of the Kurds, both the Kurds who have been subjected to genocide during the Iran-Iraq war and in subsequent times as well, where we continue to see their murder. If 'never again' is to be anything more than a slogan, it must be a call to action. That call to action must be a call for recognition and to stop denial, a call for more education, a call for greater acknowledgement of the genocides that have occurred. If we don't do that, we're failing to learn from history and, in effect, desecrating the memory of those who did not live to see the future.