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Charlie Hebdo case reveals limits of Australia's support for free speech

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COMMENTS

12 January 2015 09:22

The deadly and tragic terrorist attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo brings into sharp relief a foreign policy conundrum that we may no longer be able to simply sweep under the carpet. The problem surrounds the hypocrisy of advocating freedom of speech as a fundamental right and yet failing to criticise Middle Eastern allies who do not see it that way.

Australia is, thankfully, a country where freedom of speech is taken seriously. It is also one that sees it as something more than simply a domestic issue, and considers it a fundamental human right. Indeed, in her September 2013 speech to the UN General Assembly, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop stated that 'Australia has been at the forefront of defending human rights globally and regionally in support of equality and fundamental freedoms', including 'freedom of speech.' The Prime Minister has also said that he is a passionate supporter of freedom of speech.

The Gulf states, however, have a different view when it comes to freedom of speech. This has not hitherto stopped us from establishing good relations with them. We have been close partners and have used facilities in Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and the UAE to host our military personnel at various times over the last two decades. And in the current fight against the dangerous intolerance that Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra advocate, we welcome help from Gulf states which themselves fail to observe what we consider fundamental rights of free expression.

In the UAE, for instance, there is an unwillingness to countenance criticism of its political leadership, a characteristic shared by Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman. However, as an attack on free speech, it is difficult to top the sentence handed out to Saudi blogger Raif Badawi: 10 years imprisonment, a fine of more than a quarter of a million dollars and 1000 lashes.

Now, I'm not naïve enough to suggest that we only choose friends or trading partners among countries who share all of our values. We would be a righteous but impoverished and marginalised country. But that shouldn't stop us from publicly expressing concern, even outrage, when we believe one of our trade or security partners so egregiously transgresses what we consider fundamental human rights such as freedom of speech.

What is most disturbing about the public silence from Canberra on the Saudi case is the fact that the US State Department issued an uncharacteristically terse criticism when it said that:

We are greatly concerned by reports that human rights activist Raif Badawi will start facing the inhumane punishment of a 1,000 lashes, in addition to serving a 10-year sentence in prison for exercising his rights to freedom of expression and religion. The United States Government calls on Saudi authorities to cancel this brutal punishment and to review Badawi's case and sentence.

The PM said after the events in Paris that 'We have to be prepared to speak up for our beliefs. We have to be prepared to call things as we see them.' Surely a public statement condemning the actions of the Saudi Government would be a good way of giving substance to those fine words.

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