Human Rights in Syria

I spoke in parliament last night about recent human rights abuses in Syria.
Syria, 1 June 2011

Syria is a nation not unlike ours. We both have a population of approximately 22½ million people. We both have long and ancient cultures that are internationally recognised as cradles of civilisation. We both have abundant energy resources in the form of natural gas and oil. But that is where our stories diverge.

Unlike our fellow countrymen and women, Syrians are being killed and arrested for wanting a voice in the government of their country, for wanting their government to be based on democratic principles such as freedom of speech, the right to peacefully assemble, equality under the rule of law and the right to choose one's own leaders. These killings and arrests have to stop. The Syrian human rights organisation, Swasiya, estimates the number of civilians killed to be at least 1,100 since pro-democracy protests started in Deraa on 18 March.

In May, Syrian security forces went into the central city of Homs to suppress pro-democracy activists. A 12-year-old boy was killed as a result of the use of tanks and machine-gun fire against civilians. The situation has continued to worsen. Recently, Reuters reported that 27 civilians were killed over three days as Syrian security forces used tanks to crack down on pro-democracy protesters in the Lebanese border town of Tel Kelakh.

The tragic irony is that the Syrian constitution guarantees in article 25 that freedom is a sacred right. It also promises that the role of the state is to protect the personal freedom of its citizens and to safeguard their dignity and security. The killing of civilians and acts of intimidation and violence are intolerable and must stop. The Australian government has taken a number of steps to pressure the Syrian regime to cease the violence and implement genuine political and economic reform with imposed targeted financial sanctions against those responsible for ordering human rights abuses and the lethal suppression of peaceful protests.

We are bringing pressure to bear against key regime figures responsible for this violence and suppression and have imposed an embargo on arms and other equipment used in the repression of Syrian civilians. We have co-sponsored a resolution in the United Nations Human Rights Council condemning the use of lethal force against protestors. The foreign minister today wrote to the President of the United Nations Security Council referring the Syrian leadership to the International Criminal Court.

Since protests began, diplomats and human rights activists say that as many as 8,000 people have been jailed or are simply missing. Leading dissident Riad Seiff was arrested and imprisoned in 2001, 2008 and, most recently, on 6 May this year. His supposed crime? To build a new political movement—through the Damascus Declaration—to compete with the ruling Ba'ath Party. His movement is based on human rights, pluralism, press and academic freedoms and the building of a civil society.

The right to express one's views and protest peacefully is a right we in Australia take for granted. It is such a part of our heritage and national values that to question our right to do so meets with fierce opposition. Yet in Syria this fundamental democratic and human right comes at a deadly cost. The Syrian people have shown remarkable courage in demanding this for themselves. As one Syrian man, Mohammed al-Dandashi, told journalists, 'They are punishing us for demonstrating against the regime.'

President al-Assad should stop the brutal and fatal suppression by his security forces and support the legitimate democratic aspirations of Syrians by making simple yet profound choices: stability over instability, growth over decay, peace over violence, trust over suspicion and confidence over fear. These are the characteristics of a modern nation that is a responsible global citizen and whose people are empowered to take advantage of the opportunities this century presents. These are the choices now faced by President al-Assad.

I am proud to be part of a government that, when it sees abuses and violations of human rights here or overseas, takes decisive action because it is the decent thing to do. Perhaps Syrian poet and dissident Faraj Ahmad Bayrakdar best described the overwhelming desire of his people for democratic and universal human freedoms when he wrote from within Saydnaya prison, 'Freedom is a homeland and my country an exile.'

By coincidence, Joe Hockey spoke on the same topic straight after me. His speech is well worth reading.

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