It was the United Nations who proclaimed this date in 1997 to remind us that torture is a crime under international law and that according to all relevant instruments it is absolutely prohibited and can never be justified under any circumstances. The prohibition on torture forms part of customary international law. This means it is binding on every member of the international community, regardless of whether a state has ratified international treaties in which torture is expressly prohibited.
The systematic or widespread practice of torture constitutes a crime against humanity. Torture may be physical or psychological and can take many forms, such as beatings, sexual abuse, solitary confinement, sensory deprivation and being forced to witness othersincluding loved ones, being violated, tortured or killed. The common characteristic of all torture is its intention to destroy the subject's essential humanity and sense of human worth.
Living in a country like Australia, it may be tempting to consider this a theoretical issue, a phenomenon which does not affect us, but not all Australians are exempt from having experienced inhumane, degrading treatment and torture. Today we have many citizens and residents who have fled cruel regimes and conflict zones. STTARS, the Survivors of Torture and Trauma Assistance and Rehabilitation Service, which operates in Adelaide, is an excellent not-for-profit organisation which was established by GPs and psychiatrists in 1990 and assists people from a refugee and migrant background who have experienced tortured or been traumatised as a result of persecution, violence, war or unlawful imprisonment prior to their arrival in Australia. There are of course other Australians, such as David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib, who were Australian citizens at the time they experienced torture. Tomorrow is a timely occasion to remember, too, what they experienced to ensure that their experiences are never repeated.
As history records, David Hicks was imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay detention centre as one of its first inmates shortly after it opened in January 2002. He was ultimately detained there for five years. Hicks's experiences during those years are now well known. If we make a conscious effort to consider what he underwent, we realise that the facts about his incarceration and treatment at the hands of our US ally remain horrifying. David Hicks was subject to years of incarceration before he was even charged. During that time he experienced systematically cruel and degrading treatment at the hands of the United States. For long periods he was deprived of communication with the outside world. He spent more than eight months in total isolation in a small cell, with no sunlight or stimulation. Overall he was detained for more than five years. During that time he was beaten, handcuffed for long hours, deprived of sleep and he described mental and physical torture of a kind which the FBI has subsequently acknowledged did indeed occur at Guantanamo.
I still remember the evening in 2006 in Adelaide when I heard a presentation from his military lawyer, Major Michael Mori, a man who became a hero to many because of his quiet courage in standing up against the might of US military authorities to demand basic justice for his client. He described David's plight-deprived of human company in his cell. Even the few, sporadic letters he was allowed to receive from home were censored, so that any endearments or expressions of support or love from his family and those who loved him and wanted to help sustain him were censored-redacted with thick black pen. It struck me then-I distinctly remember it-what a calculated act of cruelty that was. It took my breath away that someone would consider so carefully such deliberate acts to dehumanise and crush a man's will. Guantanamo Bay was a human rights black hole and is still operating today.
The circumstances surrounding David Hicks's incarceration remain a dark spot on the Australian government's record of protecting its citizens' human rights. His detention and treatment raise fundamental questions for all of us about the role of the Australian government at the time and the ongoing responsibility of any Australian government, past, present or future, to protect its citizens and defend the rule of law both at home and abroad. The Australian government at the time, led by Prime Minister John Howard, failed to adequately protect the legal and human rights of one of its citizens. It made no protest when David Hicks was arbitrarily detained without charge and without access to a lawyer for more than two years; and, in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, it maintained that he was being detained in safe and humane conditions and in accordance with the law.
There are still strongly held views about what David Hicks may or may not have done. But what I am talking about tonight is much bigger than David Hicks. After all, in Australia we take pride in the fact that we do not scale down our legal standards or deprive a person of a fair trial or basic human rights because of what we happen to think of them or their alleged crime. We expect our government to apply the law fairly and consistently and to protect our rights as citizens, no matter who we are or where we might be.
The Howard government's support for Hicks's incarceration and prosecution by US authorities continued despite the US Supreme Court's finding that the first military commission process was invalid as it was contrary to international law and basic principles of a fair trial, something that independent legal experts in Australia, the US and Europe had been warning for years. In 2007, Hicks was charged again, this time under a revised military commission process, which was still soundly condemned by many. With growing public concern in Australia and an election looming, there is disturbing evidence that the Howard government called in a favour with the Bush administration to expedite the indictment of Hicks. This saw him finally plead guilty to a concocted offence that did not exist at the time he was taken into US custody.
The Australian government's support of the sham military commission processes and its complicity in Hicks's detention and degrading treatment were in stark contrast with the stance taken by other governments. No US citizen was held in Guantanamo. The then British Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, publically CHAMBER declared that the process was unacceptable and would not provide a fair trial by international standards. Britain and Europe insisted on the repatriation of their citizens.
So, on the eve of the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, I repeat the Australian Greens' call for an independent inquiry into David Hicks's case and the Australian government's role in his detention, treatment and unfair trial. I strongly urge the Attorney-General and all members of this parliament of good conscience who were disturbed by his treatment at the time and know the importance of upholding the rule of law and the right to a fair trial to support and act on this call for an inquiry. After all, as Australians we have a right to know how this breach occurred and why. We have to know and trust that our government is willing to stand up for the rule of law; we have to know that the government is willing to defend the human rights of its citizens; and, most importantly, we have to know that safeguards are in place to ensure that something like this does not happen again. As we look around the globe and see Australian citizens subject to the legal courses of other nations, we must know that our government will ensure that their human rights are defended as much as possible and without fear or favour, whether it is Melinda Taylor, Julian Assange or any other Australian.
The Greens have consistently been calling for better human rights protection in Australia, and it is critical that the government of the day, whatever its complexion, be prepared to protect and defend the fundamental legal, democratic and human rights of its citizens, whether we are at home or venturing abroad. In a country such as Australia, such a commitment must be absolutely non-negotiable.