Senate debates

Tuesday, 10 December 2013


Human Rights Day

9:27 pm

Photo of Lisa SinghLisa Singh (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary to the Shadow Attorney General) Share this | Hansard source

It was in 1950 that the UN General Assembly declared 10 December as Human Rights Day. This day—today—was established to bring into focus the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the standard we should work towards achieving for all people of the world. Today we acknowledge and celebrate the people who work tirelessly to achieve a global standard in human rights. In Australia, these include organisations such as Human Rights Watch, the Human Rights Law Centre, Amnesty International Australia, Australian Lawyers for Human Rights and the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law. Many others are included, but in particular I congratulate all the recipients of the 2013 Human Rights Awards.

Our focus on this day remains as relevant to our current world as it was in 1950, as human rights atrocities continue to plague our modern society. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, state security forces, rebels and foreign armed groups have committed numerous and widespread violations against citizens. War crimes including executions, rapes and child recruitment continue throughout the region. National elections that symbolise a new beginning instead become the focus of acts of violence, with an unknown number of opposition party supporters killed or imprisoned. The simple act of voting becomes a life-or-death situation for many civilians.

I wish these were isolated incidents, but we continue to see armed conflict and human rights violations in Darfur, Burma, Tibet, against the Uyghur people and in many more parts of our globe. In Darfur, the Sudanese government continues to flout international humanitarian law by targeting villages indiscriminately with no regard for hospitals or schools or civilians. Today I want to recognise the impact of human rights particularly on women in these regions. Women are targets of sexual assaults and are often shamed by their communities. The voice of women is vital for a groundswell of positive action, and we need to help support these women in areas of crisis as they work towards creating better communities and prospects for themselves and for their children.

Human Rights Day is an important reminder for the parliament to reflect upon the need for further reform of how Australia can protect our own human rights. Today is also about highlighting the importance of international days to embrace all nationalities, cultures, ethnicities and religions.

My commitment and support for human rights from work and activities before becoming a senator and my time in this place have continued my resolve to stand up for a just and humane world free of discrimination and for equality. One example of that comes from my involvement with the Australia Tibet Council. I had the privilege last year of travelling to Dharamshala in India, which is the exiled capital of Tibet. This experience gave me an undeniable insight into the desperate plight of Tibetans and to understand more fully the human rights abuses taking place in our global community. I had the pleasure this evening of joining some of the Tibetan community here in Australia in Parliament House to recognise the struggles that continue for their families and friends living in Tibet.

It was on 22 October 2013 that the UN Human Rights Council reviewed China's human rights record as part of their universal periodic review. This was the second review for China and it allowed for a review of the recommendations and pledges made by China during the 2009 session as well as encompassing a review of the overall human rights record of China. Sadly, from all reports the overall human rights situation in China, particularly in Tibet and also against the Uygur people, has continued to deteriorate over the last four years. I take this opportunity to highlight the important region of Xinjiang in China where the native Uygurs continue to fight religious intolerance and discrimination. Labelled as terrorists, their plight has become increasingly difficult.

Repressive policies and the continuous suppression of fundamental human rights are causing immense suffering. Tibetans have peacefully struggled and held hope of obtaining freedom—freedom of religion, freedom to celebrate their culture and language, and freedom of expression. Since China's first UPR in February 2009, Tibet witnessed its very first self-immolation by a young 20-year-old monk by the name of Tapey. This act of desperation was Tibet's first in its 60-year continuous suppression of human rights. Tapey should never have lost his life. He should never have had to resort to such an act. In 2009 the loss of his life was already one too many, and since that time there have been many more.

I wish I could report that his life was the only one taken by self-immolation, but they have continued to increase since 2009 and a confounding 122 cases have been confirmed to date. This is no small number and it clearly shows the desperation and repression of those in Tibet. In what is another constraint to human rights, recent reports confirm friends and relatives of self-immolators are now being subject to sentencing by Chinese authorities for alleged association with the self-immolators.

Tibet's spiritual leader, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, has travelled the globe seeking compassion and peaceful solutions for his country in exile. This year I once again had the privilege to meet His Holiness here in Australia. His struggle for liberation of Tibet has always strongly opposed the use of violence. His Holiness understands the power of universal responsibility for all things and through his leadership he has actively pursued peaceful solutions to human rights abuses.

Today is the 24th anniversary of the conferment of the Nobel Peace Prize on His Holiness. In 1989 the Norwegian Nobel Committee declared His Holiness worthy of this prestigious prize. I believe, and I am sure many will agree, that his leadership through non-violent action and spiritual guidance to the Tibetan people is most commendable and worthy of global recognition. During his acceptance speech the Dalai Lama spoke of cultivating a universal responsibility and said:

I believe all suffering is caused by ignorance. People inflict pain on others in the selfish pursuit of their happiness or satisfaction. Yet true happiness comes from a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood. We need to cultivate a universal responsibility for one another and the planet we share.

These words are valuable and worth reflecting on, particularly today as we mark Human Rights Day and celebrate the anniversary of the establishment of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Today as we acknowledge Human Rights Day we should acknowledge the ongoing struggle of those living in Tibet. We should not only acknowledge but also commit to act on their behalf.

Australia recently had the honour of hosting Aung San Suu Kyi. Today I am reminded of her words, 'Please use your liberty to promote ours.' Her story is one which should inspire Australians. Despite being placed under house arrest for 15 of the past 21 years, she has steadfastly continued her dedication to nonviolence in pursuing a democratic and free society for Myanmar.

In Australia, Human Rights Day is a day when we can reflect on the rights we enjoy in our country, the rights and freedoms we so often take for granted. It is also a day when we can make a commitment to be a voice for those who have been silenced and for those we are yet to represent.

Since eight this morning the Australian flag on Parliament House has flown at half-mast as a mark of respect to the late Nelson Mandela AC on this special day of Nelson Mandela's memorial service. At the moment of his passing I felt the world stopped as it recognised it had lost one of its greatest peacemakers, who through all his own adversity united so many. Yet, for the people of South Africa, it was the first time in 95 years they had awoken in their land without Mandela. And so I give my deepest condolences to his family and to the people of South Africa, who, like so many around the world, are in mourning.

Despite spending a quarter of his life imprisoned and the harsh treatment he endured there, Nelson Mandela remained unwavering in his commitment to bring reconciliation for the people of South Africa and to achieve racial unity through the end of black and white segregation, the policy known as apartheid. And, despite being imprisoned, he continued to influence so many in his efforts for racial unity.

Mandela was a true legend on showing the way on the power of forgiveness and what it can bring to so many and on how forgiveness can triumph over hate. When freed after 27 years, he focused not on anger towards the white people of South Africa but on unity, freedom and injustice. He said:

… as long as poverty, injustice and gross inequality persist in our world, none of us can truly rest.

It is that inspiration that has given so many people the energy and belief that they too can play their part in helping change the world. And, for that, his courage, his fearless pursuit of freedom, his decency and humanity, he belongs in the company of other great fighters for justice, equality, human dignity and the end of racial prejudice: Steve Biko, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. His profound words that united so many are what will always remain with us. They have left an indelible impression in our hearts and minds, like when Mandela said:

No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.

I am proud of the role Australia played in support of Mandela and his struggle, from the leadership of Prime Ministers Whitlam, Fraser and Hawke. I am particularly proud to be part of a party which stood by him through his struggle, through Prime Minister Bob Hawke playing an important role in supporting sanctions to help bring down apartheid and standing by him through the years of his imprisonment. I also praise the trade union movement in Australia, who were among the first to call him a freedom fighter and recognise his struggle. When Nelson Mandela came to Australia in the 1990s, he thanked Australia for its support for economic and sporting sanctions against South Africa. He particularly thanked the union movement for the political pressure they put on the South African regime to have him released.

I pay tribute to Tata Madiba, to his incredible service to humanity, peace, justice and freedom. I give thanks for his contribution in life and for his inspiration to so many that continues to live on in us today.

Senate adjourned at 21:40


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