Paul Keating famously said in 1996 that when you change the government, you change the country.
The truth of this statement is being demonstrated with dizzying speed in the United States, where the newly elected Trump administration has pledged to reverse President Obama's reforms to healthcare, climate change action, immigration and much more. Many of President Trump's policy decisions will be domestic in nature but others will challenge the international system in fundamental ways.
Of all the changes that have been heralded by the Trump administration, the President's advocacy for the re-introduction of US-sanctioned torture of suspected terrorists should be among the most concerning.
As one of the US' most resolute friends and allies, it is important that we make clear the implications that any such policy would have for those of us who are working jointly with the US in counter-terrorism operations overseas. Under our legal and military operations frameworks, our personnel would not be permitted to participate in interrogations that utilise torture. Our laws don't allow for it -- and nor do our values.
President Trump's claim that torture 'works' could set a dangerous precedent in the way prisoners are treated in war zones around the world, including our own soldiers and civilians. If implemented, this policy would undermine the United States' claim to global leadership, which since World War II has been founded on its constitutional vision as a nation that stands for justice, the international rule of law, the protection of inalienable human rights, and the building of better world on these foundations.
Torture is wrong, and that fact is so self-evident that it shouldn't have to be said. It also doesn't 'work' in extracting reliable confessions. It is an abhorrent relic of the darkest chapters of human history, and in 2017 there is simply no place for torture as a policy of democratic governments.
The United Nations Convention against Torture, which has been signed and ratified by the United States, expressly prohibits inflicting suffering on a person for the purposes of extracting a confession. It is clear that any return by the United States to waterboarding or other types of torture, last seen during the George W. Bush administration, would be in violation of this convention, and of the progress back to global leadership the United States has made since the revelations the Abu Ghraib scandal.
Australia and the United States are friends with a long-standing relationship founded in our common values and aspirations. It is a friendship that has benefitted both countries. But this does not mean that we should remain silent if the United States should it fail in its duties as a good global citizen. To the contrary, it would be a weak and cowardly Australian government that would be too afraid to tell our American friends when we believed they were acting against their own interests; it would be an abrogation of that friendship.
It is an abhorrent relic of the darkest chapters of human history, and in 2017 there is simply no place for torture as a policy of democratic governments.
It is deeply concerning that it has been nearly a week since President Trump's latest comments about torture 'working' and neither Australia's Prime Minster, Foreign Minister or Attorney-General have rebuffed them.
At no time and in no situation is torture acceptable -- and Prime Minister Turnbull should tell President Trump this, frankly and fearlessly. He has stated that his newly appointed Defense Secretary, James Mattis -- who is known to oppose reinstatement of torture as a tool of interrogation -- can override him on this issue. Surely our much vaunted friendship with the United States allows our Government to advocate similar opposition.
As a liberal democracy committed to the rules-based international order established in the wake of the unspeakable atrocities of World War II, Australia should be working to persuade the United States to uphold its international obligations and its long history of democratic leadership. The international legal framework established through bilateral and multilateral agreements is one of the cornerstones of the relative peace and prosperity of the post-World War II international system. As members of this system, Australia should be encouraging the new United States Administration to walk a path that protects global peace and stability and safeguards hard-won advances in human rights.
Australia is a great friend of the United States and this relationship gives us a unique position to provide constructive criticism to the Trump administration. When President Trump threatens to authorise torture, it is Australia's responsibility to express our opposition.
Yes, Australia stands with the United States on many things, but we cannot stand idly by and watch our friends condone torture. Failing to challenge the Trump Administration's policies that are inconsistent with our own values does not serve either nation, because it is contrary to the long-term prospects of global and regional peace, and ultimately Australia's own prosperity and security.
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