Wednesday, 14 March 2012
Over the last year, global attention has turned to the Arab world. We were shocked by the self-immolation of a young Tunisian street vendor that started the revolts that led to the toppling of Ben Ali in January. We cheered as young Christians and Muslims took to Tahrir Square in Cairo to protest against the denial of democracy and ultimately force a long overdue regime change. A new generation of young Arabs felt that political tyranny meant they had no hope, they had no voice, they had no freedom and so they had no future. They set out to change this. But, for some, the Arab Spring is still an Arab Winter.
In April last year in Syria a young teenager just 13 years old was tortured and murdered by Syrian authorities. His name was Hamza Ali Al-Khateeb, and he has become the enduring symbol of the struggle against the tyrannical and murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad. Almost a year ago I spoke about Hamza here in this House. But in the last year Hamza's story has become all too common. Not a day goes by without more stories of torture. The Syrian army continue to shell neighbourhoods in Homs, Hama and Damascus, snipers sit atop roofs across the country shooting at unarmed and peaceful protesters, and protesters are routinely tortured.
And no-one is spared. Masked gunmen dragged Ali Farzat, Syria's most famous cartoonist, from his car after he drew a cartoon comparing Assad to Gaddafi. Those gunmen and the government were so scared of statements such as these that they repeatedly smashed his hands. He was warned that was only the beginning. He was told to cease and desist. His hands will never fully recover, but that was obviously the aim of the brutal attack.
No amount of tyranny will stop the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people. Funeral processions are some of the easiest targets. No-one is spared—not women, not children, not the elderly. There is no doubt that the direction for these orders came from Bashar Al-Assad. We know this because of the numerous Syrian intelligence officers who have defected in recent months. Prisoners are repeatedly burnt with cigarettes, bashed and their bodies dismembered and returned to their families.
For me, the scenes are often far too brutal to watch. Just last week a video appeared on YouTube of an empty street with a lost three-year-old boy running aimlessly in search of safety, only to be shot at by Syrian snipers in a nearby building. At last a young adult male ran onto the street, creating a human shield between the snipers and the toddler. These are brutal people who are willing to fire on a three-year-old boy—a three-year-old boy. His rescue by his fellow countrymen shows that, in a state of tyranny, there will always be good people.
But we need to do more than watch. The world needs to act, and so does our new Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator Carr. President Assad is a butcher. We need to be more active as a nation in standing up to tyrannical leaders wherever they may be located. As I have said previously in this place, there are more than 300 Australians buried in the soil at the Commonwealth war cemetery in Damascus, and they deserve more than this. All those years ago they died for a belief that we share today—a belief in democracy and freedom and the integrity of the individual. President Assad is demeaning the legacy of our diggers. So Australia has a fresh opportunity. The issue of Syria will be Bob Carr's most significant test. Bob Carr has the opportunity to stand up and say that Australia will not put up with the actions of Assad.
I welcome the former foreign minister's refusal to accept the prospective Syrian ambassador, who, I understand, is a close friend of President Assad. I urge the continuation of this policy. But we can go further. Foreign minister Carr should immediately expel the Syrian charge d'affaires in Australia, Jawdat Ali—again, a close personal friend of Assad. Mr Ali needs to tell President Assad the depth of disgust Australians have about what is happening in Syria. The shadow minister for foreign affairs has met with the charge d'affaires and let him know in no uncertain terms what the coalition thinks.
This butcher of Damascus cannot be allowed to rule any longer. The 300 Australian soldiers buried in Damascus who died for freedom deserve more than this. More importantly, the people of Syria need the help of the world. Our new foreign minister must stand on the side of freedom and democracy. That is what he will be judged on.