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Christine Milne: Australia must stop appeasing the Rajapaksa regime in Sri Lanka

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Christine Milne 12 Feb 2014

The Leader of the Australian Greens, Senator Christine Milne, gives a speech in parliament about human rights abuses in Sri Lanka and the need for an international investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity during the Sri Lankan civil war.


Senator MILNE (Tasmania-Leader of the Australian Greens): I rise today to draw to the attention of parliament the forthcoming meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Committee.

A meeting will be held in March where a resolution by the United States of America will call for the support for a full independent inquiry into war crimes in Sri Lanka. I believe it is time that Australia stepped up and supported that call. In that context I seek leave to table the Public Interest Advocacy Centre's international report on the International Crimes Evidence Project entitled Island of impunity? Investigation into international crimes in the final stages of the Sri Lankan civil war.

In talking about Sri Lanka, I want to point out that this is a country that I love. I first visited it in 1982 and was taken by the friendliness of the people, the rich culture, the fabulous food and the wonderful environment. It is a great country. I revisited again in 2012 after the end of the civil war and I was horrified by what I saw. Sri Lanka is now an elected dictatorship. It is not a democracy as it would purport to be. It is controlled by the Rajapaksa family and the dictatorship is effective because of the 18th amendment that was passed which effectively gives that family control of the country into the future. It is worth noting that, in total, 29 members of President Rajapaksa's extended family hold senior positions within the government, civil service, media and industry. President Rajapaksa and two of his brothers, a defence secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and the Minister of Economic Development, Basil Rajapaksa, control at least 45 per cent of Sri Lanka's budget and manage five government ministries. The son of the President is currently in the navy and another brother is the Speaker of Sri Lanka's parliament.What I saw there is a country where there is no longer a capacity for free or fair elections . The military effectively controls the north and the east of the country and, while peace is apparent, it is a facade, because the conflict goes on. There is the alienation of intellectuals throughout the country. People disappear in white vans and they are tortured. Many are never seen again. They are from all areas of life and ethnicity, and the reason they disappear is that they speak out against the government. There is no allowing of new political parties. In terms of the judiciary, you have the appalling situation that, since the end of the war, the Rajapaksa government has centralised power in the executive of the military, dismantled existing checks on presidential and military power and culminated in the impeachment of the Chief Justice.

The International Crisis Group has called this a fatal blow to the already slim opportunity to re-establish independent institutions and the rule of law. The International Crisis Group report further stated that the dismantling of the independent judiciary and other democratic checks on the executive and military will inevitably feed the growing ethnic tension resulting from the absence of power-sharing and the denial of minority rights. But not only that; you now have the Rajapaksa regime effectively controlling propaganda throughout the country. There is repression of the Tamil minorities. There are billboards everywhere that advocate for the power of President Rajapaksa. It is evident that the media messages are controlled so that the rural poor in particular are kept in line with what the President wants. While I was there I bought a painting called This is not a White Van. It is now hanging in my office in Parliament House. I bought it to draw attention to the disappearances.

The Australian Greens stood up strongly and urged the former government to not recognise the credentials of the current Sri Lankan High Commissioner to Australia, Thisara Samarasinghe. He was a commander in the Sri Lankan navy during the last days of the war when extreme atrocities were reported. The former government did accept his credentials, and I believe that he will be subject to investigation in terms of the atrocities that were carried out at the end of the war. He was the chief of staff of the Sri Lankan navy in 2009 when the navy carried out the shelling of Tamil women and children in designated safe zones. In my view, this government ought to review the recognition of those credentials. The Australian Greens also rejected the idea of Australia attending CHOGM in Sri Lanka. We called for a boycott because we did not believe Australia ought to be recognising that regime. It is really time that Australia took strong action.

I want to go particularly to the Public Interest Advocacy Centre's report, Island of impunity? Investigation into international crimes in the final stages of the Sri Lankan civil war. It was developed with the intention of providing key decision makers with independent and credible analysis of allegations of international law breaches committed in the final stages of the Sri Lankan civil war, focusing primarily on the period September 2008 to May 2009. That report has now received substantial international coverage and deserves to. I have tabled it and seek the support of people to actually read it and come to understand how serious this is, that we have in our region a country in which there are people being tortured as we speak, where human rights abuses go on and where a blind eye is being turned by a number of people.

The suggestion is that one of the reasons the United States and Indian governments in particular have not taken on this issue as they might is that China has now moved in effectively to support the Rajapaksa regime. So it is because of the geopolitical context that this is being allowed to go on.

I will go through the allegations. During the armed conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, human rights abuses and violations of international law were widespread. It is alleged that in the final years of the conflict war crimes and crimes against humanity were committed by both government forces and the LTTE. In the aftermath of the conflict there was hope that the Sri Lankan government would investigate the serious allegations of war crimes and human rights abuses, but although the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission was established by the Rajapaksa government as a result of international pressure the promises of this action plan remain unfulfilled and no tangible action has been taken by the government in response to the allegations. Hence the report's title, 'Island of Impunity'.

The Rajapaksa government has opposed an international inquiry into war crimes and abuses and has been backed in this stance by the main political opposition in Sri Lanka. The current situation has been described by Amnesty International as a 'persistent climate of fear'. While the Sri Lankan conflict might have ended in 2009, the high level of human rights violations in the country remain critically high. The Sri Lankan government shows no real will to account for past crimes and combines that with new attacks on those calling for accountability.

The report compiles a range of evidence that illustrates that an international investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity is warranted. The available evidence suggests strongly that war crimes and crimes against humanity were committed. Although the evidence suggests that members of both the Sri Lankan security forces and the LTTE were responsible for serious violations of international law, including international human rights law, overwhelmingly the evidence gathered suggests the vast majority of crimes were committed by the Sri Lankan security forces. This includes allegations of attacks in and around civilian areas; restriction of civilian movement; denial of humanitarian assistance; killing, conscripting and enlisting of children; rape and sexual violence; torture and cruel treatment and enforced disappearances. The report also highlights ongoing post-conflict violations, including rape and sexual violence, torture and disappearances.

The United States, Canada and the United Kingdom have all led in their condemnation of the Sri Lankan government to investigate war crimes. In February this year, I am pleased to say, the United States announced that it would table a new human rights resolution against Sri Lanka. US Assistant Secretary of State Nisha Biswal said:

There hasn't been sufficient action taken by the government to address the issues of justice and accountability.
... ... ...
The culture of deterioration of human rights gives us great concern when churches and mosques are burnt down and people feel that they cannot practice their faiths freely and without fear. ... I believe the urgency that has gripped the international community is justified.

The British Prime Minister has also made some very strong statements, as has the Prime Minister of Canada, but where has Australia being in responding to these gross violations of human rights? The answer is: nowhere. That is simply to do with domestic politics, because the current Prime Minister is more interested in a domestic message about stopping asylum seeker boats than in dealing with the international disgrace that are human rights abuses and with the need for an independent investigation into war crimes in Sri Lanka.

Even though there is now proven to be corruption in the Sri Lankan navy, with regard to people smugglers giving advice to the Australians on the management of people smugglers, we have seen the Prime Minister give two patrol boats to the Sri Lankan navy to intercept asylum seekers. He has refused to criticise Sri Lanka's human rights record, praising Sri Lanka for bringing more freedom and more prosperity. He was praising President Rajapaksa. He went on to say that, while his government-that is, the Australian government-deplores the use of torture:

... we accept that sometimes in difficult circumstances, difficult things happen.

That is the most disgraceful statement that an Australian Prime Minister could make, because it is a clear signal that Australia will turn a blind eye to human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. It is unacceptable, and I hope that this parliament would reject it.

The United States has announced its intention to move a resolution in the upcoming meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council. Australia must follow that lead and co-sponsor the resolution. President Rajapaksa has largely ignored the previous two resolutions adopted by the UNHRC calling for Sri Lanka to investigate war crimes committed by the security forces and by the separatist Tamil Tigers. The fact that, five years after the conclusion of the war, we still have no serious attempt by the Sri Lankan government to address the crimes proves that Australia should not back away from this. We need leadership now. It is essential that the world stands with Sri Lankans who have demanded full accountability for what happened during the war. I urge members and senators to read the case studies. They are appalling. There were shocking attacks on civilians; rapes and other forms of sexual violence were used to intimidate and destroy populations. In terms of post-conflict violations, there are several new witness testimonies alleging that after the conflict concluded the Sri Lankan security forces destroyed forensic evidence of international crimes, including that human remains from mass burial sites have been exhumed and covertly destroyed.

It is time for an independent and comprehensive international investigation into the allegations of breaches of international law. The Australian Greens put this to the parliament. We must support this. We must get behind the resolution coming up at the meeting of the UNHRC in March. More particularly, Australia must stop appeasing President Rajapaksa and his regime. It is effectively a dictatorship, carrying out human rights abuses and total restriction on democracy in that country. We in this nation cannot turn a blind eye. I call on the Prime Minister to stop the appeasement and instead take a stand for human rights in the international community.


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