The vulnerability of the person in respect of the State

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The case of Dr Haneef is drawing to a close. Although he has been humiliated and his reputation trashed by Australian authorities, he is now out of gaol. It is time to look back. I would like to focus on one of the very minor features of the case — the lack of public comment by churches, and specifically by the Catholic Church. The silence is understandable. But the human issues that are raised by Dr Haneef’s treatment lie at the heart of the Gospel.

The public issues of the case have been well canvassed. They concern the sweeping and ill-defined range of anti-terrorism laws, the secrecy that may prevent anyone revealing that someone has been detained or those accused from knowing the charges against them, the threat to the ability of the courts’ ability to offer redress to those unjustly deprived of liberty, and the accountability of Government for its punitive actions.

Churches will naturally hesitate to speak strongly on these issues. They are complex and require some knowledge of governance and jurisprudence. Nor do they deal directly with issues but with a person accused of aiding terrorists. It is easy to trust the Government’ assurance that more is known of the case than has been revealed.

Issues like this, too, may seem to be less about faith than about politics. When religious leaders also consider that their criticism of government actions by religious leaders is pretty ineffective in influencing their people or the government, it is no wonder that they keep silent.

Nevertheless, silence on this issue risks compromising the Gospel. At the heart of Christian faith is the revelation of how deeply God loves each human being, and so how precious each person is. The heart of human dignity lies in the invitation God makes to each human being to live faithfully, and in the capacity of the person to respond. The most precious gift that human beings have is their freedom to respond freely.

That freedom to respond also underlies the human need for community. The groups and institutions that people form, particularly the State, must respect their freedom to respond. They may not treat human beings as things that are simply the objects of regulation but as free subjects of their own destiny. That demands particularly a system in which punitive or discriminatory measures taken against people can be responded to effectively.

To create such a system is one of a society’s largest challenges. Because the State has the power to make law, to ensure compliance with law and to sanction its violation, persons who seem to stand in the way of the State are inherently vulnerable. They risk being silenced by force in a way that treats their response as irrelevant.

The vulnerability of the person in respect of the State is usually addressed by a legal system that allows the claims of the Executive arm of the State against individuals to be tested independently. Persons accused of wrongdoing have access to the courts to respond to charges and to appeal against decisions of the Executive that have harmed them.

Access to independent judicial review, then, is not simply an institutional framework which some states incorporate. It safeguards the necessary conditions under which people can respond. It is therefore of central interest to Christian faith.

In Dr Haneef’s case these conditions for ensuring freedom of response have been breached. He has been detained without possibility of responding to secret charges made against him. His visa was also revoked on grounds to which he could not respond. Such arbitrary treatment inevitably causes cynicism about the partisan political motives that may have inspired it, and brings security legislation into deserved disrepute.

These are the grounds on which I argue that we should expect a reasoned Catholic response to the treatment of Dr Haneef. It is the more needed because Catholic leaders have recently spoken strongly against the legalisation of abortion and of therapeutic cloning. Catholic resistance to this legislation rests on the principles at stake in Dr Haneef’s treatment. Opposition to abortion and cloning claim that it prevents the natural growth of the human embryo or foetus into a responsive human being. The treatment of Dr Haneef deprived him of his due ability to respond.

Many arguments directed against the Catholic position on these issues, too, are similar to those used to justify Dr Haneef’s treatment. They claim that despite their natural potential, embryo and foetus are expendable if their survival conflicts with the interests of the mother or with the possibility of making significant medical discoveries. Similarly, people argue that Dr Haneef may be imprisoned and his visa stripped from him without opportunity to respond if there is a possibility that he poses a security threat. In both cases, what makes human beings precious can be sacrificed for other ends.

It is not easy to argue for the practical corollaries of the belief that each human being is precious. It runs against the cultural tide. But the argument will be lost if it is not conducted with integrity. That requires defending the dignity of those suspected of terrorism as well as of the unborn.

 

 

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Existing comments

With respect,one could hardly describe the absence of public comments by the churches,specifically, the Catholic church as "one of the very minor features of the (Haneef) case".

In Gospel terms, the church has only recently been re-visiting the story of the Good Samaritan. To me at least, the silence of the churches on this issue has been damning: akin to crossing the road to avoid being confronted by the casualty on the pavement.

The churches have an obligation to speak up and, as I have said before, it is a sad irony that while it's entrusted to communicate the Word, the church proves singularly unable to do so when it needs to be heard.

Again, I'd argue with the phrase "Churches will naturally hesitate to speak strongly..."We didn't see that hesitation in Jesus.
Shouldn't He have a place in deliberations like this?Did he have no experience with jurisprudence and governance that could be drawn upon?
Church ranks include a host of such experts, apart from the clergy , and they surely have "some knowledge of governance and jurisprudence"....

If Australia's religious leaders do indeed consider that their criticism of government actions is "pretty ineffective" it shouldn't be used as a reason for silence but rather the best motive ever for enlivening itself.Silence doesn't risk compromising the Gospel -it does compromise the Gospel.

In Andrew 's reference to abortion lies another contradiction: the church trumpets the sanctity of life in the womb....but when that life is outside the womb and moving among us it takes on an altogether different image.Its value becomes suddenly and sharply downgraded according to a whole host of benchmarks and yardsticks that are put in its path.One example is the reluctance of the church to clearly affirm the right of a spouse to protect himself or herself from the risk of fatal infection where the partner is infected with HIV.

The Haneef case also offered a golden opportunity for the Christian church leaders to approach their Muslim counterparts so that the ugliness and risk of the flames of racial discrimination could be quckly stamped upon.

The are two sides to the war against terror...one is meant to safeguard society against death and carnage...the other is meant to separate and shield the innocent from the guilty.When the guilty and the innocent are allowed to merge without comment,as they clearly have in the Haneef case, we're all just left with the terror.
Brian Haill | 02 August 2007


There are many worrying dimensions about this case. I imagine most people recognise the need for special powers to be available to the security agencies to cope with the potential for terrorism. And, regardless of what the ultimate conclusion of the case involving Dr Haneef, it is disturbing to see the carelessness with evidence by the prosecutor at the bail hearing, the clearly political stance taken by the Ministers with an involvement in the case and, in particular, the apparent lack of judgement, balance and concern for the individual displayed by them.

Personally, I was prepared to accept the terrorism legislation (with major misgivings) at the time, accepting the assurance that they would be applied with due care. This case shows that those responsible for exercising that due care cannot be relied upon to do so.
Mark Tweeddale | 02 August 2007


Thank you for addressing the problem Andrew, but why do you say that churches "naturally hesitate to speak strongly on these issues"? Are they really any more "complex" and requiring of more "knowledge of governance and jurisprudence" than those issues on which the Church regularly speaks with conviction - conception, abortion, sexual preference and the right to die?

As Brian says, this was a golden opportunity for the Church to speak up for the rights of a Muslim man. What ever little influence it might have had on government, it would have been much greater than the influence that anything said by Muslim leaders would have had. Instead, it "passed by on the other side". Nothing could be better calculated to cause Muslim Australians to feel even more isolated.

And for what benefit? Does the Church believe that the Government will look more favourably on it for this silence?
Warwick | 03 August 2007


Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!
Jim Jones | 03 August 2007


I can only agree with all your thoughts on this issue. We live in maligne environment and so the churches(all of them) have a sacred duty to speak out agains these actions against our long held 'habeaus corpus' law. There are other more sophisticated ways of ensuring inquires can be carried out.
Jenny Raper | 03 August 2007


Brian Haill cites Jesus as an exemplar. This is always appropriate. However, I think we need to remember that there is a difference between inclination and ability and that Jesus was both human and divine. His insights and expressions of them derived from both natures. To put it plainly, He did it a lot better than we can, though we keep trying.

I interpreted Brian Hamilton's "Churches will naturally hesitate to speak strongly" as a generosity of spirit in a commentary whose overall thrust was to say the Churches should speak out. This soft side of his commentary can be justified when the legislation and actions upon it are recent and novel to our society, as distinct from the abortion debate for instance that has been around for a long time.

I agree it is important that the Church urgently equip itself for comment on this and related topics.
Paul Jurd
Paul Jurd | 04 August 2007


In general, I agree with Brian Haill that a feeling of ineffectiveness is no excuse for silence. However,I keep hoping and praying that Church leaders will have the honesty and humility to ask themselves why they seem to have so little effect on social values and legislation in modern society. Take, for instance, the thorny issue of abortion. I think that, in view of the Church's history and its power structure, many people feel that the teaching on abortion has less to do with respecting life, and more to do with keeping women "in their place".If it was about the preciousness of every life, (including, presumably, women's lives) you would think that the Church would be EQUALLY strong in its concern for the mother's health and well-being, especially if she is in a situation of violence or
severe disadvantage. Yet is has
largely been through the influence of the feminist movement that we have seen changes in attitudes and in
the law towards domestic and sexual violence, feminists have set up women's health centres, women's shelters, etc. - and it has also been largely due to feminism that abortion has been legalised. It's no wonder many ordinary people feel a bit cynical towards the Church!

Before anyone says that I can't be a true Catholic if I criticise the Church like this, let me say that I
love the Church, and I feel genuinely distressed when the Church (or at least the hierarchy) seems to have lost sight of what Jesus was
truly on about. While it's true that God's love for each person is at the heart of the Gospel, Jesus's concern was not particularly directed towards those who were most weak or vulnerable. He most of all showed love and concern to sinners,
and in particular to those who had become alienated from God by the legalism and self-righteousness of the religious leaders of his day.

Dare I suggest that Church leaders consider whether they are part of the problem rather than the solution?

Cathy Taggart | 05 August 2007


I think that it is disgraceful that the government can ruin a man's reputation, career and livelihood without a word of proper explanation nor of apology. So much for respect of the individual and upholding his dignity. At the very least the church should have protested about this man's being held for 3 weeks and then releasing him without so much as an apology. No wonder he got out of Australia as soon as he could! M.K.
Margot Kerby | 10 August 2007


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