Religious Freedom Adjournment

In my maiden speech in this place, I talked about democracy, the value of democracy, what we should be doing and what are democratic behaviours. I quoted an ancient philosopher, Aristotle, who indicated that democratic behaviour is doing those things that protect and defend democracy and the values that it represents. In Australia, one of the great values that we have is freedom. We have freedom of speech, we have freedom of the media and we have freedom of religion. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights points to the fact that every person should have the freedom of their own religion, belief or conscience and, in fact, the freedom to not have a religion at all or the freedom to change a religion if they wish to.

Here in Australia, the working out of those freedoms we see every day. As a member of parliament, you often get invited to community events—whether that be by members of the Buddhist community or the Hindu community. Just recently, we had the National Mosque Open Day here in Australia, where people could interact with members of a different religious group. Not all the world, though, enjoys that freedom, and that does have its impact on Australians. I have spoken here before about John Short, a South Australian who has lived and worked in Asia for many years and was arrested at the start of this year in North Korea, purely on the basis of his faith—not to mention the hundreds of thousands of people who are incarcerated in North Korea purely on the basis of their faith. Graham Staines, an Australian who had worked for decades in India with lepers and the poor, was burned alive with his sons in 1999 purely because of his faith. More recently, we see in northern Iraq and Syria, particularly in places like Mosul in June-July this year, that Christians, Shabaks, Turkmen, Yazidi, Shiah and others have been murdered through crucifixion and beheading, have been expelled from their homes and have been subjected to violence because of their faith.

The extreme of this we see in a case like ISIL or Daesh in northern Iraq, but, where societies have not worked actively to preserve the freedoms that things like article 18 give, we see the long-term impacts. A lady called Asia Bibi is a current case in Pakistan. She is in her mid-40s. Working in a field, she chose to have a drink of water from a bucket. She happens to be a Christian; the other women who were there said that, by her dipping her cup into that water, she had made it unclean. They got into a debate about faith and, because she defended her position as a Christian, they accused her of breaking their blasphemy law. That law makes it a crime to in any way speak against Islam or the Prophet Mohammed. She has been in jail for some time now and, just recently, the highest court upheld her death sentence. So she is now due to be executed by hanging for no other crime but her faith and the fact that she dared to speak out in defence of her faith. She was hauled into court, in fact quite violently at the time, by people in her community. That has been upheld by their legal system.

One of the problems that people in Pakistan face, and there are many others in this situation, is that, once that freedom is let go of and once you start getting laws like blasphemy laws and groups who seek to impose their solitary view of the world as being the only right view, you start getting pressures that extend beyond the legitimate government of the day. One of the problems that advocates in Pakistan have, whether they are human rights advocates, defenders of a particular faith, members of parliament or members of the judiciary, is that they find themselves under threat. In the case of this lady, a member of parliament who stood up for her was executed. Somebody walked into his office and shot him. You often see judges in courts that release people who have been accused of blasphemy then physically attacked and threatened because of that. The whole role of advocacy becomes quite difficult for those people because it is not just that the law of the land applies but that people in the community feel empowered to take it into their own hands.

So it is incumbent on the international community in those cases to step up, shine a light onto that and start advocating with the authorities in those countries to preserve what nearly all nations have signed up to in theory, which is article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In June this year, I was privileged to go to the United Kingdom for the inaugural meeting of a group known as the international parliamentary panel for freedom of religion, belief and conscience. This was put together by two core groups. The UK parliament, just as we have ‘friends of’ groups—friends of the defence industry, friends of Israel, friends of mining et cetera—have all-party groups and there is an all-party group there for freedom of religion and belief. In the United States there is a US commission, which is a formal government body whose charter is to work with, support, encourage and engage in dialogue with other nations as well as to inform the congress, the Senate and the executive about issues around religious freedom. These two groups have brought together this international parliamentary panel. We had the initial meeting in the middle of this year and, just a weekend ago, in Oslo, we had the formal launch of the group and the charter that goes along with that. Some 30 parliamentarians from around the world—from Argentina, Brazil, Burma, Canada, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Germany, Italy, Malaysia, Nepal, Norway, Pakistan, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Turkey, the United Kingdom and Uruguay—were there in Norway at the Nobel Peace Center for the formal launch of the IPP and the signing of the declaration.

The intent of this group, being a parliamentary group as opposed to an arm of government, is that, rather than having to seek governments’ permission to speak up—because governments often have to deal with the broader diplomatic issues and sensitivities—these parliamentarians are working to an agreed, coordinated agenda to raise awareness in their own countries but, importantly, also to coordinate in writing to ambassadors and, indeed, to heads of nations to raise concern where they see an issue in their nation. To date, since Oslo, letters have been sent to Burma about issues faced by the Rohingya people on the basis of their religion, as well as letters to the Prime Minister in Pakistan raising concerns about the blasphemy laws and the lack of freedom of religion and belief in that country.

I welcome the fact that people from the parliaments of so many diverse nations have chosen to participate. There are a range of people who do not have a particular religion and those who come from the Islamic religion as well as Christians who are members of this panel. I recognise that, for people from countries such as Australia, where we enjoy freedoms of religion, it is not an impost—it is not a threat to us to go to those things; it is an opportunity to contribute. But, for some people who attend and dare to challenge the norms in their countries that a citizen there should be free to choose to change their religion or to not have a religion, it is literally a matter of life and death.

As we become more aware of those situations overseas, I think it is important not only that we advocate where we can to support them and to bring that civil society, that civility, to all nations, but also, more importantly, that this spurs us on every day to look for those things that are the important elements of the freedoms we enjoy here in Australia that underpin our plural, liberal, secular form of government that gives all Australians the freedoms to belong and to participate and to make sure that we defend those.