By Kerry Smith, Sydney
Members from a variety of community and solidarity groups campaigning for human rights in Australia and overseas came together on December 11 to mark International Human Rights Day in Sydney.
The event, organised by the Latin America Social Forum (LASF), included representatives from a number of Latin American organisations. These included: the Pablo Neruda Cultural Centre (CCPN, Chile); the Free the Cuban Five Committee; Peace and Justice for Colombia (PJFC); the Committee for Human Rights in Guatemala (CHRG); Grupo Ibiray-Fondo Raul Sendic (Uruguay); the Honduran National Resistance Front in Australia (FNRP); the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN, El Salvador); and the Australia-Venezuela Solidarity Network.
Also present were the Cuban Consuls, Reinaldo Garcia Perez and Maribel Espinosa. Venezuelan ambassador Nelson Davila was unable to attend but sent a message of solidarity.
Campaigns for human rights in Australia were marked by activists from the Refugee Action Coalition (RAC), the Canterbury-Bankstown Peace Group (CBPG) and the local Aboriginal community.
Representatives from groups campaigning for human rights in other countries, such as the Gaza Defence Committee (GDC), Thai Red Australia (TRA), the Australian Tamil Congress and the Free Aceh Movement, were also present.
The event was kicked off with a welcome to country and presentation by local Aboriginal activist Cathy Eatock, who talked of the systemic discrimination and human rights abuses that Indigenous people still face in Australia.
Eatock spoke about the erosion of Indigenous land rights so that mining companies have unhindered access to resources, how the federal government’s Northern Territory “intervention” is negatively impacting on Aboriginal communities in the outback, and the continuing Aboriginal deaths in custody. There has been a death in custody every month for the past 10 years.
RAC activist Mark Goudkamp explained that under the Julia Gillard Labor government, the number of refugees in detention centres is now higher than ever (5400 people). He said the plight of refugees continues to be ignored, despite three detainees in Villawood Detention Centre committing suicide this year.
Former Guantanamo Bay detainee Mamdouh Habib denounced the Australian government’s treatment of Wikileaks spokesperson Julian Assange, as well as its ongoing occupation of Afghanistan.
Raul Bassi from GDC spoke about the continued violation of human rights in Palestine (under Israeli occupation), and Dr Sam Pari outlined how the Tamil people in Sri Lanka continue to be subjected to forced detention and systematic terror, and denied the right to equality and self-determination.
Lek from TRA explained that in Thailand, following the 2006 military coup and bloody crackdown against the mass “red shirt” democracy protests last year, there are still 500 activists in jail, without access to lawyers.
Lek said the Thai military is raiding villages across the country, hunting down and either arresting or killing Red Shirts. He called on people in Australia to boycott Thai Airways.
There was a screening of School of the Assassins, a documentary on the US training school for many of the generals involved in the brutal military coups and contra wars across Latin America in the 1970s and ’80s. The school continues to provide classes on torture and human rights abuses to Latin American soldiers.
After the screening, speakers outlined some of the advances and steps backwards for human rights in Latin America.
Elizabeth Rivera from PJFC noted that Colombia continues to lead the way in violating human rights. The assassination, torture, disappearance and jailing of activists continus unabated.
Jorge Gonzalez from CCPN pointed to the plight of Chilean miners. Gonzalez said that despite the media hype surrounding the rescue of the 33 miners trapped underground, have seen 42 of their workmates killed in workplace accidents this year, with no real action taken to address the situation.
The fight for human rights is a political battle, said Gonzalez.
Adriana Navarro, a lawyer and Cuban solidarity activist, explained that five Cubans continue to be held unjustly for the simple “crime” of trying to stop right-wing terrorists groups from organising more attacks on Cuba, which have already claimed the lives of many people.
The five men have at times been held in solitary confinement and have been denied family visits. Navarro urged everyone to participate in the “Five days for the Cuban Five” campaign, which began on December 10, by sending letters to US president Barack Obama calling for their release.
LASF activist Federico Fuentes said it is impossible to talk about human rights violations in Latin America without starting with the situation in Honduras since the 2009 military coup that deposed elected president Manuel Zelaya. Fuentes read out a long list of violations provided by the FNRP in Australia.
Fuentes also read out some of the information provided by the CHRG about the alarming increase in violations of human rights in Guatemala, particularly the complete disregard for the right to life and safety which has left the population in a state of generalized terror.
Regarding El Salvador, the FMLN provided information about the attempts by the FMLN government to tackle the wave of assassinations, kidnappings and torture being carried out by groups linked to narcotrafficking.
Fuentes said International Human Rights Day was not only a day to denounce human rights violations, but also to remember those that have made significant efforts to defend those rights.
From Grupo Ibiray-Fondo Raul Sendic, information was relayed about the recent passing away of Maria Esther Gatti, who spent most of her 92 years fight injustices, including as part of the Grupo Ibiray project in Uruguay.
Mention was made of the recent diploma of honor awarded by the Guatemala Network for Peace and Development to LASF activist Victor-Hugo Munoz, who also received a gift on the day for his tireless work in defense of Cuba.
Fuentes noted that we couldn’t forget that important advances had been made in regards to human rights in other countries.
He pointed to the vital role that revolutionary Cuba has played for more than five decades in empowering people and providing international solidarity, Fuentes also read out some of the achievements of the Venezuelan government, outlined in the message from Davila, in meeting the United Nations Millennium Development Goals to reduce hunger and poverty.
Fuentes also pointed to the role of Bolivian president Evo Morales, who led the charge in defense of the rights of Mother Earth at the recent international climate summit in Cancun, Mexico.
Longtime Latin America solidarity activist John Queripel argued that the revolutionary changes happening in Latin America were giving many people hope that a better world, where human rights are respected, is possible.
The event was a great success for information sharing, building links and invigorating everyone to continue to struggle for human rights here and everywhere: something the LASF pledged to do with the support of all those present.