Today I’d like to share the insights of one of these people, Irene Khan, Secretary General of Amnesty International and the 2006 recipient of the Sydney Peace Prize. On October 31, Khan was interviewed by Tony Jones on the ABC’s Lateline program.
In this interview, Khan discusses the recent controversial remarks about women made by Australian Muslim leader Sheik Hilaly. She also talks about the problems she sees in contemporary Australian society – especially in relation to the treatment of refugees and the Australian government’s failure to sign a series of protocols including the optional protocol on torture, along with the government’s failure to criticize the United States for human rights abuses.
“[It’s from my] sense of admiration for Australia,” says Khan, “that I’m trying to shake things up here. The world needs Australia, an engaged Australia, and not an Australia that’s turning away from the international system”.
Following are excerpts from Lateline’s interview with Irene Khan.
Tony Jones: You’ve arrived [in Australia] just in time for this fierce debate on Sheik Hilaly’s Ramadan sermon which clearly states that women are Satan’s soldiers wielding the weapons of seduction. . . . Is this a particularly Islamic perversion, these kinds of comments?
Irene Khan: I wouldn’t put it [as] Islamic. What it does reflect is a kind of patriarchal authoritarian society where women are seen as sexual objects, a society where the whole emphasis is on woman’s body as a piece of property that is owned by others and therefore women cannot control their lives, cannot control their bodies. What he’s reflecting is that kind of thinking which is, in my view, medieval because things have moved on.
Tony Jones: You’re a visitor here and it’s a hard question to ask you but what do you think should happen to [Sheik Hilaly]?
Irene Khan: Well, I think people like him should not be given the privilege of being considered as leaders because . . . I think there’s a question on the part of the Muslim community and there is a question on the part of the larger community as to how much space do you give to views that reflect only a very narrow part of the community. The Muslim community is a very large community with many diverse points of views, very diverse history from Morocco to Indonesia. To have a single voice like this to be seen representing the community I think is actually to create a situation where your religious identity takes over all other identities and you’re seen as this Muslim person with this kind of a very narrow point of view.
Tony Jones: You’ve seen in Britain where you live a similar phenomenon but does it worry you looking at what’s happening here, to see how much the debate about what’s Australian and un-Australian in terms of cultural values has crept into this whole debate?
Irene Khan: Well, I think there are a few red herrings in this debate. One is the issue of what women wear because that’s an issue of freedom of expression, and women should be free to wear what they want to wear, whether they want to wear a veil or not. The second issue here I think is this sort of identifying people by their religion only and not through multiple identities that everyone has. And the third one, and this is a very important one, is to try to find out what are the global values on which you want to build multiculturalism. You cannot build multiculturalism only on your cultural values or on my cultural values. We have to have something that’s broader and common and universal. Here as a human rights activist, of course, I believe human rights provide that type of values because it’s universal. It applies to everyone and there needs to be more recognition of what it is that we have together, not just as Australians, or British, but as human beings. And from that perspective, learning to respect each other.
Tony Jones: Here in Australia, of course, the very idea of multiculturalism has itself entered the debate. People from the Prime Minister on down are questioning whether multiculturalism is, in a fact, a good thing.
Irene Khan: I would say multiculturalism is not a choice for government policy anymore. Multiculturalism is an aspect of global society. We live in a globalised world where we expect to have a free market and free flowing goods and ideas and we want to retain our own culture and have a single culture. I'm sorry, it doesn’t work that way. The challenge for political leaders and other leaders is how do you manage that multiculturalism. It’s not a question of putting into place something else.
Tony Jones: It’s very hard, isn’t it, because how do you manage it in a situation like this where someone is saying things which are clearly outside of the values of the mainstream of the country which distort those values so clearly that people are upset and worried that that is now ingrained in Islam.
Irene Khan: I think the first thing is education. There needs to be a lot more education of what is universal and what is peculiar. I think women’s rights and equality of women and respect for women is, for me, a universal value. It’s not something peculiar to Australia and it’s not something that is denied in Muslim societies either. So it’s, in my view, what [Sheik Hilaly] says is an aberration of even his own culture and religion. So there are fundamental and common ideas of justice and equality and respect that exist and one has to start from that point of view and begin the conversation of what is it that’s common about us rather than what [are] different shades of us and to move away from the extremes to the middle ground to give space to [a] plurality of voices, different people speaking . . . including women themselves.
Tony Jones: In your speech accepting [the Sydney] Peace Prize you make some pretty harsh observations about Australia generally and its reputation as a country of “the fair go”. What is the main problem that you see?
Irene Khan: Well, what I see is that Australia is a country with a very rich culture and history of engagement at the international level of being generous to refugees, of participating on human rights debates. But in recent years, Australia has been withdrawing from that, turning inwards. Its policy on refugees, particularly with mandatory detention is a very harsh one, it has rejected Kyoto protocol, for example, on environment and so on, turning away from that and that's very dangerous because I think the world needs an Australia that is engaged and open and willing to play its part as a member of the international community.
Tony Jones: You don't see the Kyoto protocol as some sort of human rights issue, do you?
Irene Khan: It’s not a human rights issue but it's a very important issue of international cooperation.
Tony Jones: You’ve been very critical of the Government for failing to sign a series of other protocols including the optional protocol on torture, and also for not criticising the United States for human rights abuses. Now, those comments are going to play into a political debate here, you must be aware of that.
Irene Khan: Well, I think issues like torture, prohibition against torture is not politics, it’s a fundamental principle of humanity and Australia as a member of the international community, should speak out against it. Australian citizens have complained of being tortured. [David] Hicks is one of them. There’s another case of Mamdouh Habib. These are Australian citizens who claim to have been tortured and it’s Australia’s responsibility to speak out . . . because Australia was one of those countries that actually participated in the international convention that banned torture. So it has this history, this contribution it has made to develop international standards, and it should now not only live by them but make sure others live by [them] too.
Tony Jones: You ironically link all of these criticisms to the key Australian value of mateship. Tell us why you chose to do that?
Irene Khan: Well, I think it’s a very powerful sentiment [and] principle that you have here in Australia about mateship which is about solidarity . . . about sticking together. And in the international world today, there are problems from refugees to terrorism, to environment to human rights where you need that kind of international solidarity and that is where I find that the Howard Government while pushing forward mateship as a key value, [as an] Australian value, does not itself show that same degree of mateship at the international level.
Tony Jones: It's a pretty bold strategy for a visitor who’s won a peace prize to come here and lecture Australians on how to deal with its own values like mateship, you’ve done that deliberately, obviously?
Irene Khan: Well, I believe Australians like straight talking. I mean you guys talk straight from the shoulder, you say how things are and you like to hear how things are. I’m sure you will take it in that spirit.
Tony Jones: You’re prepared for a torrent of not only support, in some quarters, but angry responses in other quarters, and the normal pieces and editorials and so on, saying: who is this woman coming here to Australia and telling us what to do?
Irene Khan: Actually I admire Australia. I've worked here in South-East Asia on refugee cases in the 1980s and I saw how generous Australia was, how many refugees have made their homes here. I’ve seen the way in which Australian diplomats negotiated at an international level and brought into place a human rights principle and the contribution they made to international law and international system. And so it is from that sense of admiration for Australia that I’m trying to shake things up here because we need – the world needs – Australia, an engaged Australia, and not an Australia that’s turning away from the international system.
To read Tony Jones’ interview with Irene Khan in its entirety, click here
See also the Wild Reed post, Richard Flanagan Wants a Gentler Australia.