Melissa Parke MP – grievance statement in response to reported comments by the Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, implying that Israeli settlements in the West Bank “may not be illegal under international law”

photo of Melissa Parke MP
March 3, 2014

…the Israeli settlements constitute a war crime under the Fourth Geneva Convention and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, both of which Australia is a party to. …It is essential that Australia not undermine either the established international rule of law in this area or the consensus on a two-state solution, particularly at a time when Australia has the presidency of both the UN Security Council and the G20.

Full speech

Ms PARKE (Fremantle) (17:19): I would like to take this opportunity of the grievance debate to raise a number of issues of concern. The first is the tragic and desperate situation of the Rohingya in Burma, described variously as the most unwanted, the least loved and the most persecuted people in the world. I thank Dr Hla Myint and the Rohingya Intellectuals Community in Australia for their advocacy. The dramatic civil and political transformation of Burma has continued apace, with the army leadership becoming politicians, Aung San Suu Kyi and the opposition entering parliament, hundreds of political prisoners being freed and Western sanctions being lifted, with the consequent opening up of markets and tourism. It has seemed as though Burma is fast leaving its horrific past behind.

Unfortunately, this is not the case for the approximately one million Rohingya, a largely Muslim ethnic minority, who live in the impoverished western state of Rakhine, or Arakan. Despite most Rohingyas having lived in Burma for generations, they are not regarded as legitimate inhabitants by the Burmese majority, who see them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Indeed, the Rohingya were specifically excluded as citizens in the 1982 citizenship act. In 2012 at least 200 people were killed in clashes between the Buddhist Rakhine and Rohingya Muslim communities. Tens of thousands of Rohingya remain displaced, many in squalid and inhumane camps where there is a lack of safe drinking water, limited healthcare services, chronic malnutrition and restrictions on movement outside the camps. A November 2012 article in The Economist reported a ‘vicious and bloody campaign of ethnic cleansing by the Rakhine that is intended to drive Rohingya out. Rakhine politicians say frankly that the only alternative to mass deportation is a Burmese form of apartheid’.

In April 2013, Human Rights Watch released a report entitled All you can do is pray: crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Burma’s Arakan state which describes the role of the Burmese government and local authorities in the forcible displacement of more than 125,000 Rohingya and the ongoing humanitarian crisis. The report found that the Burmese government is systematically restricting humanitarian aid.

In October 2013, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Burma tabled a report at the UN General Assembly noting that hate speech was leading to intercommunal violence in Arakan. The special rapporteur found that Arakan was in a state of ‘profound crisis’ and that few steps had been taken to contain the violence, with the government failing to properly investigate allegations dating from June 2012 in relation to extrajudicial killings, rape and sexual violence, arbitrary detention—often involving torture and ill treatment in addition to deaths—and the denial of due process and fair trial rights.

Frequent incidents of violence against Rohingya have occurred since 2012. In January this year, 48 Rohingya men, women and children were killed, along with a Buddhist policeman, in Du Chee Yar Tan village in the remote northern part of the state. The government has only acknowledged the death of the Buddhist policeman. Medecins Sans Frontieres reported that they had treated 22 patients who had been injured in the incident. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay called on the authorities to carry out a full, prompt and impartial investigation and to ensure that victims and their families received justice. Ms Pillay noted:

By responding to these incidents quickly … the Government has an opportunity to show transparency and accountability, which will strengthen democracy and the rule of law in Myanmar.

Unfortunately, rather than take this opportunity, last week the government has instead ordered Medecins Sans Frontieres, which has operated in Burma for more than two decades, to halt its Burmese operations. Tim Robertson, writing for on 14 February this year, noted

No public figure will dare criticise what is becoming an active campaign of ethnic cleansing for fear of what it will mean for his or her popularity.

The one person, almost universally respected and loved, who could help put an end to the murder, rape, torture and marginalisation of Burma’s Muslim minority is Nobel Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi. She has by far the most popular influence in Burmese politics, but rather than speak out against the violence, she has made vague comments that tacitly endorse the government’s deliberate inaction on this crisis. What hope do the Rohingya have if Burma’s best-known “peace activist” won’t speak out?

Emanuel Stoakes, a freelance journalist writing for Al Jazeera, refers to experts including Professor William Schabas, the former president of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, who have judged the Rohingya to be at risk of genocide. Stoakes asked whether ‘Myanmar’s new international friends have the courage to call for a full investigation by the UN before more monstrous crimes and vapid denials come to pass’. Last year US President Barack Obama warned President Thein Sein that the campaign of violence against Muslims must stop. In June last year then Australian foreign minister Bob Carr offered $9 million to help the Rohingya and called for efforts to resolve the underlying causes of the unrest in Rakhine state. While those statements are welcome, it is apparent that significantly more pressure must be brought to bear by the international community, including through an international and impartial investigation into the events in Rakhine state and, inter alia, the potential reimposition of sanctions in the absence of any indication from the Burmese government that the rights of the Rohingya will be respected.

The second issue I want to address in this grievance debate is the harsh legislation introduced in Uganda that contains a maximum penalty of life imprisonment for homosexuality.

The new law also makes it a criminal offence to not report people suspected of being gay. The law’s sponsor, Ugandan MP David Bahati, had included the death penalty in the original bill introduced in 2009. Ugandan Minister of State for Ethics and Integrity at that time, James Buturo, told Reuters that the government had reconsidered this and thought: ‘a life sentence could be better because it gives room for offenders to be rehabilitated. Killing them might not be helpful.’ The anti-gay law has led to one tabloid, Red Pepper, last week naming Uganda’s ‘top 200 gays’. Three years ago, similar reporting in Uganda of names and images of people alleged to be gay led to the brutal murder in January 2011 of Uganda’s most prominent gay activist, David Kato. I note the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, has called this a ‘tragic day for Uganda and for all who care about the cause of human rights’. The World Bank has postponed a $90 million loan as a result of the law’s passage but, thus far, the Ugandan government has responded with defiance, saying it ‘showed Uganda’s independence in the face of Western pressure and provocation’. As also noted in The Economist this week, local media have made anti-gay sentiment synonymous with patriotism. According to Amnesty International, homosexuality is illegal in 38 of 54 African countries. Homosexual acts can be punished by death sentences in Mauritania, Southern Somalia, Sudan and Northern Nigeria. It is to be hoped that this shocking and unacceptable state of affairs, as epitomised by the latest new law in Uganda, can be addressed, reversed and ultimately dismantled.

Finally, I wish to speak in this grievance debate on the issue of illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Last week, my colleague the member for Calwell made an eloquent speech commemorating 2014 as the International Year of Solidarity with the Palestinian people, as declared by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on 16 January. As someone who has worked and lived in Palestine, and as someone who believes in the international rule of law, I share the member for Calwell’s concern about statements by the foreign minister to the media suggesting that Israeli settlements in the West Bank may not be illegal under international law. As I noted in a speech in this place in December last year, this view is overwhelmingly contradicted by the international community including the International Court of Justice, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the UN Security Council, the UN General Assembly and the High Contracting Parties to the Geneva conventions. Dr Ben Saul, Professor of International Law at Sydney University, writing in The Conversation on 24 January noted that the Israeli settlements constitute a war crime under the Fourth Geneva Convention and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, both of which Australia is a party to. Even Israel’s closest ally, the United States, regards the settlements as illegitimate, while closer to home some of our near neighbours, including Indonesia, Timor-Leste and Malaysia, see this as a matter of great injustice.

The use of the term ‘settlements’ belies the true nature of these urban aggregations as permanent cities. These cities consume most of the precious water in an arid region. They are surrounded by large buffer zones and accessed by Israeli-only highways, all guarded by Israel defence force soldiers, thus expanding the total land area effectively confiscated from the Palestinians. As acknowledged by one of the settlers featured on the Four Corners program entitled ‘Stone Cold Justice’ which aired on 10 February this year, the deliberate creation by Israel of so-called facts on the ground through settlement building is for the purpose of rendering a future Palestinian state physically impossible. In that program, Daniella Weiss said: ‘With our many talks with Ariel Sharon, and with my work with Ariel Sharon, there was a clear understanding—a very clear planning of spreading the communities, the Jewish communities, in the way that there will be no option for a Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria.’ This planning is evident in the mushrooming of settlements throughout the West Bank and in their strategic placement that divides sections of the West Bank from one another. This is the truth behind the settlements—and the reason they are so categorically rejected under international law. It is essential that Australia not undermine either the established international rule of law in this area or the consensus on a two-state solution, particularly at a time when Australia has the presidency of both the UN Security Council and the G20.

I am grateful to have had the opportunity during this grievance debate to address three matters of international human rights significance. Each represents an example of humankind’s capacity to visit cruelty, ignorance and intolerance upon itself, because when any of us fail to respect basic human rights, we feed a cancer that can arise anywhere, anytime, with terrible consequences for human safety, liberty and wellbeing. Australia has a role to play in applying its influence and advocacy against human rights violations, wherever they occur, and in seeking greater influence and effectiveness in that cause.

Link to parliamentary Hansard