THE PUBLIC Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) and Australian Lawyers for Human Rights have spoken out against what they consider to be a flagrant disregard for the rights of freedom of speech demonstrated by Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer.
The groups condemned the Minister over the indefinite withdrawal of an invitation to the Falun Gong to attend meetings of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) with human rights organisations in Australia. The invitation was withdrawn when the Falun Gong expressed its intention to stage a protest in conjunction with one such meeting.
Director of the PIAC, Robin Banks, said the irony of the religious group being excluded from a meeting about human rights obligations, for exercising their right to protest, could not be ignored.
“It’s an extraordinary step to say ‘a public protest is fine, but don’t think you can come to our meeting’,” she said.
DFAT was acting within its rights, as the host of the meeting, to renege on its invitation, but as part of the Government, which is required to comply with Australian human rights standards, it had committed a breach, Banks said.
“Freedom of speech is a vital element of democracy. The Australian Constitution recognises freedom of political communication. The Government should be acting to support and promote the exercise of this freedom,” she said.
“Its failure to do so brings into question the strength of this Government’s commitment to human rights and the democratic process itself.”
A spokesman for DFAT said the decision had been made on the basis that the protest was considered to be inconsistent with the cooperative nature of the meeting. “We had invited them along to discuss their concerns with us and the wider [non-governmental organisation] community.”
Banks said it was also a cause for concern that the community and media at large did not appear to be “outraged” by the limitations being placed on the Falun Gong’s freedom of speech — the group has also been banned from protesting outside the Chinese embassy since 2002.
“It’s a concern, also, about what this means for the rest of us,” Banks said.