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The Australian government's new stance on human rights?

By Murray Hunter - posted Thursday, 26 September 2013


The Malaysian political activist and lawyer Haris Ibrahim was refused a visa to enter Australia by the Australian High Commission in Kuala Lumpur indicating a possible new attitude on the part of the Abbott Government towards human rights and freedom of expression in South-East Asia.

Haris Ibrahim was scheduled to speak to academics at the Australian National University in Canberra on 29th September. He was also scheduled to visit Sydney on private business and attend another speaking engagement in Melbourne.

Haris Ibrahim is the founder of ABU or Anything But UMNO, referring to the main political party in the ruling coalition. He along with two opposition members of parliament has been charged with sedition over remarks made at a May 13th forum about the recent election in Malaysia, a law almost defunct in Australian jurisprudence.

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It is standard practice for Australian Immigration not to divulge the reasons for rejecting any application for an Australian visa, however speculation from an unnamed source from the organization Global Bersih, a body concerned about free and fair elections in Malaysia cites the Australian Government belief that Haris Ibrahim poses a "high risk" if he is allowed to enter Australia, as many issues he may bring up could be very sensitive to the Malaysian Government.

This case shares some parallels with the case of historian David Irving a few years ago. David Irving held strong dissident views about the holocaust and his proposed visit was strongly opposed by the Australian Jewish community on the grounds that his public views would give merit to his views.

Ironically their opposition gave Irving a high public profile for a lecture tour that may have otherwise been very low key.

Australian Immigration denied him a visa but upon challenge in the High Court, this decision was unanimously overturned on the principal of allowing "free speech". In this case the then minister Gary Hand personally made the decision to deny Irving a visa, but his decision was faulted on procedure, i.e., It was not likely Irving would instigate direct violence, but other groups in Australia opposed to his views would more likely be the culprits, making a legal difference.

What is important here is that the notion of free speech was upheld by the highest court in the land in the case of applications for visas to enter Australia.

Thus it could be asked does Haris Ibrahim's proposed visit to Australia pose a 'high risk' to whom?

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Australia does not have a formal extradition treaty with Malaysia and yes it could be deemed that Haris Ibrahim is a 'risk', if it was his intention to flee Malaysia.

However Haris Ibrahim was actually away from Malaysia at the time he was informed of the visa decision, and has freedom of entry and exit from Malaysia without any interference by the local authorities there. There is no risk of violence or of inciting violence in the Haris case, and it appears the only risk on Australian territory is about what Haris Ibrahim might actually say that could be deemed sensitive to the Malaysian Government.

More likely, this visa decision in the first few days of the new Abbott administration more rightly indicates the government's attitude and policy in action towards governments in the region. Based on this decision, what we may be likely to see during this administration is the government going out of its way to placate South-East Asian Governments in the area of human rights and civil liberties, in the interests of good government to government relationships. The new Abbott government did not want to rock the boat with Kuala Lumpur in these early days of the new administration.

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About the Author

Murray Hunter is an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis.

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