Putting a human face on human rights
Toward the end of last year, 150 asylum seekers drowned in a boat accident off the coast of Indonesia. It served as a stark reminder of the extreme risks vulnerable people often take in seeking a safer life and the often fatal consequences.
Twelve months later, the Australian Government has outsourced its obligation to protect such vulnerable people - re-establishing the Pacific Solution in the name of ending these dangerous boat journeys and saving lives. Under this policy, some of the world’s most vulnerable people are now languishing, on Nauru, in leaking tents, in repressive heat - with no end in sight.
What we are left with is a severe lack of accountability and a the clear threat that the human rights abuses which occurred on Nauru and Manus Island, only a matter of years ago, are set to repeat themselves.
Last month, a United Nations review of Sri Lanka’s human rights record revealed that post-civil war attempts to strengthen human rights have been marred by horrific cases of continued imprisonment, torture and persecution of its ethnic minorities.
Is it any wonder that when faced with such horrific circumstances, the choice to escape, even if it means a dangerous journey, is ironically the only viable option for survival?
So the boats have not stopped, lives continue to be at risk, and the government’s undeniably punitive refugee policy can no longer be legitimised as deterrence.
Instead, as the Government sends innocent children to Manus Island, quashing their most basic human rights, children in places like Pakistan are perceived as serious threats because of their defense of human rights.
This was the case of Malala Yousafzai – the 14 year old Pakistani girl who was shot by the Taliban for bravely and determinedly seeking an education.
It’s instances like these that remind us that it is too often the innocent and vulnerable who bear the brunt of policies and conflicts pursued for power retention or political point-scoring.
The extremely volatile situation between government forces and rebel groups in Syria has seen large scale assaults that have resulted in the deaths of over 28,000 civilians and children (according to latest figures by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights).
This, however, has made it more apparent that even where Governments have failed to ensure peace and security for their people, civilians refuse to be sidelined.
Thousands of Egyptian men and women, with the very same unrelenting spirit that helped the country witness its first civilian President elected while the world held its breath in solidarity, have taken to the streets again in protest of President Morsi’s decree granting himself expanded powers placing him above judicial scrutiny.
Indeed, the past year has introduced us to many faces, risking life and limb to fight for what they believe in - even when met with intimidation, imprisonment and violence.
Earlier this year, Iranian human rights activist and Executive Chairperson of the Centre for Human Rights Defenders, Narges Mohammadi, began serving a six-year prison sentence in Tehran’s Evin Prison. Imprisoned activists and dissidents are not only subject to mock executions, torture and sleep deprivation, but their family members are routinely threatened, insulted and tortured to discourage them from publicly talking about the ordeals of their loved ones.
Fellow human rights advocate and mother of two Nasrin Sotoudeh has also been locked up, mostly in solitary confinement, since 2010.
On 9 January 2011, she was convicted of ‘spreading propaganda against the system’ and ‘acting against national security’. She defended juveniles facing the death penalty, represented prisoners of conscience and human rights defenders on trial.
In Burma, despite the Government’s release of more than 500 political prisoners this year, the path to democracy and freedom remains a struggle as the overall number of political prisoners is again on the rise and the plight of the Rohingya minority remains unaddressed.
Whilst prisoners of conscience have been released, including U Myint Aye, Co-founder of the Human Right Defenders and Promoters network,and lawyer and human rights defender Saw Kyaw Kyaw Min, hundreds of mostly men and boys from the Rohingya community have been detained, with nearly all held incommunicado.
Countries like Burma and Malaysia, which recently announced a review of its use of the death penalty entailing a moratorium on executions for drug offenses, must go beyond merely commuting death sentences. They must follow in the footsteps of neighbouring Singapore and join the worldwide trend towards the complete abolition of the death penalty (for all offenses).
At a time of such unprecedented upheaval and change globally, Australia needs to take a leading role in addressing human rights issues on home soil, in the region and internationally. Our political leaders must uphold human rights obligations, or risk an international reputation for cruelty.
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