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Advance Australian cares, ex-LAWASIA chief says

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Cite as: (2003) 77(10) LIJ, p.23

Former LAWASIA president Dr Gordon Hughes believes Australian lawyers should play a more prominent role in the Asia-Pacific region.

LAWASIA’s immediate past president Dr Gordon Hughes has called on Australian lawyers to take more of a leadership role in international issues.

Speaking to the LIJ days before his term as LAWASIA president was due to expire on 5 September, Dr Hughes said the Australian legal profession had not been as active as it could have been in expressing its views and advocating causes internationally, especially in the Asia-Pacific region.

“Certainly, bodies such as the Law Council of Australia (LCA), the Law Institute and other law societies all actively monitor international developments and they all receive delegations and send delegations to various counties in the region.

“But I’ve never been convinced that there is in place an aggressive program to pursue specific agendas and to thoughtfully influence the outcome of legal issues in other countries,” Dr Hughes said.

He welcomed moves toward a national profession, saying that the Australian legal profession was best served by speaking with one voice and that the one voice needed to be the LCA.

Dr Hughes said that Australian lawyers did not always understand how influential their views could be and how appreciative lawyers from neighbouring countries were of their support.

“But that influence can only be weakened when the voice is fragmented.”

Dr Hughes spoke to the LIJ after a hectic two-year term as LAWASIA president.

His term coincided with a period of enormous world uncertainty caused by the rise of terrorism and the forceful response by the US.

All of which has led Dr Hughes, a former Institute president, to solemnly describe his term as being “quite frankly, a lot more work than I expected it to be”.

He became president of LAWASIA six weeks after the MV Tampa sailed into Australian waters carrying asylum seekers, a month after the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York and one day before the US invaded Afghanistan.

A year after his election, terrorists struck in Bali killing 202 people including scores of Australians. Then in early 2003, Australia joined the US and Britain in invading Iraq to depose its leader Saddam Hussein.

While these events suggest a high degree of lawlessness or ignorance of the rule of law, Dr Hughes said the fallout was that law associations such as LAWASIA now had an even more important role to play.

“We have reached the situation, not only in Australia but in numerous countries in the region, that the views expressed by politicians are very much tainted by their political views and, in some cases, their populist views.

“The public increasingly needs to look to the legal profession for an objective assessment of what is right, what is wrong, what’s legal and what’s not legal.”

Dr Hughes’ apparent cynicism of the motives of politicians stems from the difficulties certain Australian government policy positions, such as its active pro-war stance on the Iraq conflict, caused him when dealing with representatives from LAWASIA’s 25 other member nations.

Yet, he maintains that only one federal government policy stance caused him some personal discomfort. That stance related to asylum seekers.

“Certainly this issue more than any other has excited informal discussion amongst my colleagues from other countries on the LAWASIA Council,” he said.

It led the LCA to sponsor a motion on asylum seekers that the LAWASIA Council unanimously adopted in October 2002.

The thrust of the resolution was that all governments should observe certain basic principles when dealing with asylum seekers, including that conditions for entry be explicit and non-arbitrary and that asylum seekers should not be deprived of their right to be the subject of a habeas corpus hearing.

Dr Hughes said the decision by the Australian delegation to introduce and sponsor the resolution negated the ill-feeling on the issue felt by member nations towards Australia.

When asked what his proudest achievements as LAWASIA president were, Dr Hughes listed the establishment of a lawyers congress in Afghanistan in July 2003 and the support given to the lawyers of Nepal after the murder of that nation’s king and other members of the royal family in 2001.

He said he was also content with the results of extra attention by LAWASIA on Indochina, which has led to seminars being given in Vietnam.

Both relationships had been under great strain for political reasons.

Yet, despite these advances, Dr Hughes warned that the rule of law in the region was under greater pressure now than it had ever been.

He said it was up to international organisations such as LAWASIA to re-emphasise the importance of the rule of law, the independence of the legal profession and judiciary and the basic fundamental tenets of international law.

Jason Silverii

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