House debates

Monday, 18 February 2019

Private Members' Business

Senator Leila De Lima

6:29 pm

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

I move:

To move—That this House:

recognises the Australian Parliament’s ongoing commitment to the global promotion of democracy, human rights and respect for the rule of law;

notes with concern the existence of a policy of extrajudicial killing in the Philippines, an issue which has escalated with a nationwide drug campaign based merely on suspicion, providing police and vigilante groups with a ‘licence to kill’;

notes that Philippine Senator Leila De Lima, the former Secretary of Justice, has been a notable critic of President Rodrigo Duterte’s policy of extrajudicial killing;

notes the deteriorating plight of Senator De Lima, who since 24 February 2017 has been arbitrarily detained without trial, charged with drug related offences on the strength of untested statements of convicted drug lords, police officers and prison officials;

further notes that the conditions and circumstances of her arbitrary detention have restricted her:

freedom of movement; and

capacity to carry out her duties as an incumbent Senator of the Republic of the Philippines, including the very fundamental and critical right of a legislator to attend parliamentary hearings and cast her vote on legislative measures;

also notes that President Duterte is on record having made a number of attacks against Senator De Lima, publicly vowing to destroy her;

further notes that the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention of the United Nations Human Rights Council, handed down a ruling in November 2018 confirming the injustice of Senator De Lima’s arrest and has recommend a number of measures be adopted by the Government of the Republic of the Philippines, most notably, her immediate release; and

calls on the Australian Government to use all diplomatic measures to urge the Philippine Government to:


release Senator De Lima from incarceration; and

remove all undue personal and work restrictions that have been placed on her;

ensure the conduct of a fair and transparent trial, consistent with the rule of law; and

permit Senator De Lima to fully discharge her office as a duly elected Senator.

Knowing that the international community, especially Members of the Australian Parliament, continue to monitor the Philippines situation, including my case, and call out the exercises of the regime, is what keeps me going and fighting.

I've decided to use the words of Senator De Lima herself when she wrote to me, highlighting the situation she faces because she's been an active voice against the excesses of the Philippines president and a voice for the need for attracting the attention of the international community to the situation in the Philippines.

I move the motion in the chamber today as we approach two years since Senator De Lima was first detained on the 24 February, 2019. Senator De Lima has been a notable critic of President Duterte's murderous war on drugs, publicly speaking out against his policy of extrajudicial executions. Extrajudicial killings have been the principal human rights concern in the Philippines, an issue which has escalated in the nationwide drug campaign. Summary and lethal justice based merely on suspicion has claimed the claimed the lives of thousands of people with some sources claiming the number could be as high as 20,000 over the last two years.

A key aspect of President Duterte's policy of extrajudicial killings is reliance on a watchlist of suspected people. These lists in effect provide the police and somehow various vigilante groups with a licence to kill. The lack of due process in police operations and the fact that these deaths are not being properly or transparently investigated is of great concern.

My trip late last year to the Philippines, where I engaged with students at De La Salle University in Manila and with various institutions in defending human rights, was particularly confronting. Despite the extreme measures employed under President Duterte's war on drugs, the fact is that all indicators show that drugs in the Philippines have actually increased.

Interestingly, there appears to be little effort in targeting those at the top end of organised crime syndicates and, notwithstanding President Duterte's close relationship with the Chinese leadership, nothing seems to have curtailed the supply of drugs or precursor chemicals into the Philippines.

Apart from the grave issues surrounding the policy of extrajudicial killings, President Duterte has also launched a crackdown on civil society, threatening to abolish the Human Rights Commission, banning news organisations that are critical of him, attacking UN envoys and, more recently, withdrawing from the International Criminal Court.

Only last week another outspoken critic of President Duterte's war on drugs Maria Ressa, a veteran journalist and CEO of the Philippines news organisation Rappler, has now also become a victim of the crackdown. Putting the issue in perspective, an emotional Ressa outside a Manila court last week said:

It's about two things: abuse of power and the weaponisation of the law. What we are seeing is death by a thousand cuts to our democracy.

In comparison to Ressa's case, the treatment of Senator De Lima is far worse. Senator De Lima, a prominent Filipino lawyer and staunch human rights defender, has been incarcerated for two years, based on trumped up and no doubt politically motivated charges. The recent UN Working Group against Arbitrary Detention carried out a thorough investigation of her situation. The working group concluded that:

Ms De Lima's deprivation of liberty resulted from her personal convictions and public statements regarding extrajudicial killings in the Philippine … the authorities have displayed an attitude towards where which can only be characterised as targeted and discriminatory.

Here in Australia, the Philippine community has made enormous contributions to the fabric of our nation. As such, we don't see events in the Philippines as impacting on people in some faraway place but rather as affecting those that we regard as extended family. Therefore I reiterate my call for fairness and decency to be afforded to the people of the Philippines and urge the government of the Philippines to release Senator De Lima from her incarceration and allow her to properly continue her work as a senator. (Time expired)

Photo of John McVeighJohn McVeigh (Groom, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Do I have a seconder for the motion?

6:34 pm

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

I'm seconding the motion, and I'll speak.

Photo of John McVeighJohn McVeigh (Groom, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Member for Goldstein—another pregnant pause, have we?

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

It's a great privilege to rise in support of this motion and discuss these important issues raised by the member for Fowler. In fact, he and I occasionally work together, particularly on human rights challenges around the world, particularly in relation to Vietnam. It's an issue that both of us are very concerned about, as is making sure that we have a global community where people are free to stand up, exercise their voice and exercise their freedom, because freedom is not something that is gifted by a government; it is a God-given right. It is people's freedom to be able to choose how to live their lives. I don't care how they do it so long as they adhere to that old Lockean principle of doing no harm to others.

Obviously, in my former role as Australia's Human Rights Commissioner, I had the great privilege of working on lots of different human rights issues, whether it was in Vietnam and speaking in the Australian embassy to bloggers holed up—against the will and wishes of the Vietnamese government—to stand up for their free speech and being able to criticise their government and for their freedom of religion or it was in Europe, speaking at an EU conference talking about the challenge around data privacy, encryption and national security laws. That was just after the Bataclan theatre attack, so it was topical and relevant. It might have been in Thailand with one arm of the United Nations, talking about the freedom of LGBTI people to live their lives freely across the world, or in the United States, particularly talking about the challenge around religion and freedom. I was very privileged to be able to represent our great nation at the launch of the Free & Equal campaign at the United Nations in New York.

This issue sits amongst a patchwork of many global human rights challenges, because one thing is that the task of advancing the cause of human rights never ends. There is always a threat to people's freedom somewhere on earth—always. That's because human beings are fallible and flawed and also because there are always people who want to use centralised power to crush people or individuals. They want to impose their will because it's easier than persuasion, reason and leadership.

When we look at challenges in our own region, particularly in countries like the Philippines, it raises an eye and a brow for many people in here because we are disturbed by the deteriorating circumstances that exist in the Philippines, particularly around the extent of arbitrary detention and limitations on freedom of movement of political officials. Also, of course, there has now been a long history of efforts by the government and the President to be able to impose their will, in some cases in horrific circumstances.

That's the basis on which I rise to support the motion and the resolution. I'm very conscious of the political sensitivities that emerge between our two countries. Of course, we try to get along with our neighbours and the countries in the region, but, if we're to be credible voices in the international community, we shouldn't be afraid of standing up either. We can't do so in isolation; we need to work with other countries in the region and partners in the region to deliver a comprehensive approach of persuasion, to work with the Philippines government to make sure that it understands its obligations not just to the international community but, more critically, to serve the best interests of the citizens of its nation.

The best way to do that is that, yes, you need to have strong laws and you need to enforce them—people should respect the rule of law; it's one of the foundations of having a proper country with a human rights framework—but a country is not built from technocrats or bureaucrats or political officials down. Mr Deputy Speaker, while I respect your great and illustrious office, we here do not run this country; it is the 25 million Australians who run this country. We merely serve them and represent them to fulfil and deliver a rule of law to enable them to live their lives. In every other country there is no difference because the contract that sits between citizens and their government is that the government is there to serve them, not to direct them or impose on them. We are not mere puppets or vehicles to achieve some centralised force or impose order on others.

We know that there are great challenges around the world. There are perpetual threats to human rights everywhere. We have to be very mindful of working with our neighbours and very constructive partners, but we also can't turn a blind eye to the reality when we see senators detained on non-bailable charges. These are serious issues. We as legislators here have to defend the right of legislators elsewhere for their freedom and to stand up for the type of country they want.

6:41 pm

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

I seek leave to make an additional contribution.

Leave granted.

I thank the member for Goldstein for his contribution. The case of Senator de Lima is a clear example of what happens when a government seeks to circumvent the rule of law. In emphasising that, the evidence against Senator de Lima consists of untested statements by convicted drug lords, police officers and prison officials. Therefore, I believe it's important that we put Senator de Lima's situation into context.

As Chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights, Senator de Lima investigated extrajudicial killings carried out by the Davao death squad in Davao City under the leadership of then Mayor Duterte. As secretary of justice, Senator de Lima was responsible for putting a former president and three senators behind bars and subjecting several other congressmen to criminal charges associated with corruption. Senator de Lima also authorised the raid of Bilibid prison in an effort to target a drug network that existed within that facility.

In 2016 Senator de Lima filed a motion in her parliament to conduct investigations into the extrajudicial killings that were taking place under the newly-elected President Duterte's drug policy. This was the tipping point that led to her removal as chair of the Senate committee and subjected her to trumped up charges of trading in illegal drugs, although they were subsequently changed to charges of conspiracy to commit illegal drug trading—the latter causing her incarceration. Clearly, if the police are given impunity for killing people on the basis of mere suspicion to appease the president's policy, I'm sure for those in authority making a false statement would be far less onerous and, therefore, easily forthcoming.

This is what happens when you set aside the rule of law. As the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention reasoned, 'there is no explanation for this other than her exercise of the right to express such views and convictions as a human rights defender'. While it's important for leaders to show commitment where there are threats to the wellbeing of the community, such as a drug epidemic, nevertheless, actions should be proportionate, be evidence based, incorporate appropriate oversight and, most importantly, be compliant with the rule of law.

Surely an attack on human rights is an attack on our collective humanity. We must never remain silent when human rights are being attacked. Silence only encourages those who seek to undermine the human rights principles, structure and democratic institutions that underpin our societies and allow for the creation of strong and inclusive communities.

It's for this reason that we as parliamentarians and concerned members of the international community cannot afford to remain silent in the face of blatant attacks on systems of justice and really, for that matter, the rule of law itself. I reiterate my call on the Australian government to use all its diplomatic measures to urge the Philippines government to immediately release Senator De Lima and ensure that any subsequent trials that she has to face are conducted in a fair and transparent manner, consistent with the rule of law and subject to appropriate international oversight.

I believe for those of us of goodwill it is important that we work together with our neighbouring nations to ensure respect for the rule of law. What we must appreciate is that, when the rule of law is being sidelined, we are going to see the curtailment of human rights as an inevitable result. As Desmond Tutu once said, if you are neutral in situations of injustice you have chosen the side of the oppressor.

Debate adjourned.