10 June 2020


Australia has a distinguished history in the promotion of human rights throughout the world. As a people, we believe that all men and women are born free and equal and that respect for their inherent dignity and entitlement to inalienable rights underpins both peace and prosperity. Our commitment to this principle is by no means fleeting; rather, it is enduring. Indeed, Australia was an original signatory to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, and we played an active role in its creation as one of the eight nations who were responsible for its drafting.

Since that time, we have worked constructively towards the advancement of this most noble cause. Whether it is through our commitment to the provision of humanitarian aid to the developing world or through our interventions abroad as part of the United Nations peacekeeping operations, Australia has much to be proud of in its history. However, as a developed country and, despite our size, a global leader in this respect, we have more to do and we can never shirk away from our undertaking. Where human rights are being ignored—whether at home or abroad—we have an obligation to speak up and to speak out in defence of those who cannot. We have an obligation to support those who strive merely to live freely and with dignity. This is not always an easy undertaking. Sometimes speaking up and speaking out can be regarded as inconvenient, and sometimes it comes at a price. But surely no price can be too high to pay to do the right thing. I also add that no price is too high to pay for the right to determine one’s own life and to live peacefully in a community with others.

The world has watched on in disbelief at the current situation unfolding in Hong Kong, where people who value freedom and democracy have seen this increasingly taken away from them. The People’s Republic of China is a friend of Australia and Australia is a friend of the People’s Republic of China. But even friends sometimes need to have difficult conversations with each other. As a nation, we welcome our Chinese brothers and sisters taking their place alongside other nations of the world in peace and in harmony. However, in China the ruling Communist Party routinely suppresses the rights of its own people to participate in decisions about their nation’s future. It suppresses their rights to speak freely, to worship freely, to organise and to assemble.

For many years the sheer scale of this has been hidden behind a carefully constructed curtain of disinformation and secrecy, but now, as it erupts onto the streets of Hong Kong, we see it live in our homes. This cannot be ignored, especially as we acknowledge in the past week the 31st anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre and one year since more than one million people marched in the streets of Hong Kong to defend their freedoms enshrined in the basic law. It should also be noted that Hong Kong has hosted an annual memorial to the Tiananmen Square massacre for three decades.

We must expect better from our friends. We must demand better of ourselves. For the sake of our economy and our exporters of goods and services we must seek to diversify our trade relations with other nations of the world to prevent dependency on any one economic relationship, so that Australia is never placed in a situation where we are used as a weapon to secure our silence against injustices that occur around the world.

As we have seen in recent times, decisions are impacting our barley, our red meat, our tourism and, over the last 24 hours, our education sector. Our economy does not need this kind of uncertainty into the future. As we start to recover from the coronavirus pandemic, those who struggle for their freedom should know that they have a steadfast ally in Australia. Those who face persecution in Hong Kong, a place with whom we share enduring values and ties through the Commonwealth of Nations, should not be denied refuge here in Australia, where their rights will be respected and upheld. I have hope that during these times they are simply temporary, and let’s hope that they are.

I have hope that the Communist Party will come to see that respect for human rights serves as an asset for the development of any country, rather than a hindrance. But until that time comes we must realise that our commitment to the advancement of human rights as a nation cannot be divorced from our trade relationships, and that while this may not always be the most convenient choice it certainly is the right one that we must take. Australia stands with people everywhere, including the Chinese people, seeking to realise the aspirations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to live a better standard of life in dignity and to their fullest potential.