It’s very good to see my counterparts again, Ann and Kyung-wha, wonderful to join you virtually again. We have been taking the opportunity in these times of COVID-19 to catch up virtually in some very valuable exchanges.
Secretary General, can I thank you, and International IDEA for hosting this webinar with His Excellency the Ambassador of Sweden to the Republic of Korea. I think our discussion today provides a good platform for democracies like ours to reiterate the importance of key values and principles of transparency, of accountability, the rule of law, the international rules based order and human rights. Importantly we can’t afford to let COVID-19 distract us from the need to both protect and promote these principles, and to call out instances where we see they’re being undermined. But these are core values and principles which guide Australia’s engagement, particularly as a member of the UN Human Rights Council, as we do emerge from this crisis and look to recovery.
To this end, we warmly welcomed the World Health Assembly’s consensus on the need for an independent, impartial and comprehensive evaluation into COVID-19. We called for such a review because as a democracy we know that openness and transparency are essential to learning the lessons of the pandemic. Now we look to countries like Sweden and Korea to work with us to improve global pandemic prevention and to build the capability of key multilateral agencies like the World Health Organization (WHO).
So while democracies are dealing with the pandemic’s impact and grappling with the challenges of recovery, we have seen some actors use this as an opportunity to undermine democracy and to promote a much more authoritarian agenda, and the Secretary General made broad reference to some of those. One in our own region here in the Indo-Pacific is the decision by China’s National People’s Congress to pass new national security laws that will be imposed on Hong Kong. With a number of international counterparts, particularly from Britain, from Canada and from the United States, we have expressed deep concern about this decision which was taken importantly without the direct participation of the Hong Kong people. There is genuine concern that the legislation will undermine one country two systems, that it will erode human rights and individual freedoms that have been guaranteed by the basic law and by the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration.
Further, we see the particular importance of online information during the pandemic, which has created space for disinformation. That disinformation is literally, specifically, purposefully designed to sow order and distrust and that has happened in multiple examples around the world.
So we are all being tested. Australia will always support the right to peaceful protest. But even peaceful gatherings like the Black Lives Matter protests that took place in Australia across the last weekend in support of the global movement, even they are – as we see them – forcing societies and governments to make difficult decisions. Decisions about the balance of respect for civil and political rights with the safety of communities, indeed including the safety of protesters themselves and this is a matter of some discussion and debate including here in Australia at the moment. But ultimately that’s where democracies are able to show their strength, their true strength, with openness, with accountability and with respect for individual human rights. Democratic systems can encourage the confidence of their populations, even in the midst of a crisis.
I wanted to cite an example around gender equality as well as one example of a human right, which is a strong feature of liberal democracies which empower women’s leadership, which enhance their safety, their security and their economic opportunity. Gender equal policies enable us to lead to more prosperous and sustainable societies without the disparities which are often common in authoritarian regimes. Many would say that democracies may sometimes look imperfect and they like most things in life are rarely 100 per cent perfect. But with the airing of disagreements, with the admission of mistakes where they’re made, they can be stronger for it because self-governed people ultimately have the trust in a common mission. That is being proven again through the COVID-19 crisis and hopefully will support our process as individually and together we work towards recovery.
Thank you very much.