Adjournment speech: 26 May 2011
Just two years ago the 26-year civil war in Sri Lanka between the Sinhalese ruling elite and the Tamil minority came to a catastrophic end. Up to 40,000 Tamils had been massacred in the five months before 18 May 2009 and some 300,000-plus were in the process of being imprisoned behind barbed wire in mass camps.
Since then, allegations of disappearances, sexual abuse, torture and extrajudicial killings at the hands of Sri Lankan Government officials following the war have been rife.
The 2009 war is often referred to as the war without witness. The Sri Lankan Government administered a complete media blackout for the entire last five months of the war. Aid organisations were forced out in late 2008. The blackout has continued in the camps ever since. It was only because of the courage of some British journalists that evidence of atrocities was initially brought to light.
The response by Australian Government leaders to the war in Sri Lanka, when compared with those of the United States of America, the United Kingdom and some European leaders, has been shamefully minimal. As Sri Lanka is a country in our region we should have taken a leadership role.
Since entering New South Wales Parliament I have spent significant time with the Sydney Tamil community. I have often heard of the complete sense of betrayal by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd the community felt. They were shocked that even after the war, with their family and friends imprisoned like livestock, the Australian Government has been more worried about a tiny minority of Tamils who came to Australia on a boat than the conditions faced by hundreds of thousands in camps that drove so many Tamils to such desperate measures.
Shamefully, this silence continues.
A few weeks ago the United Nations released the report of the Secretary-General’s panel of experts on the final stages of the armed conflict. The report states:
The panel found credible allegations which, if proven, indicate that a wide range of serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law were committed both by the Government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, some of which would amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
It also states:
The Government shelled on a large scale in three consecutive no-fire zones, where it had encouraged the civilian population to concentrate, even after indicating that it would cease the use of heavy weapons … most civilian casualties in the final phases of the war were caused by Government shelling.
Finally, the report noted:
The conduct of the war represented a grave assault on the entire regime of international law designed to protect individual dignity during both war and peace.
… I hope the disturbing new information contained in this report will shock the conscience of the international community into finally taking serious action. As the report itself says, addressing violations of international humanitarian or human rights law is not a matter of choice or policy; it is a duty under domestic and international law.
Despite that, Australia has remained silent.
In March the United States Senate passed a resolution calling upon Colombo, the international community and the United Nations to set up an international mechanism to inquire into war crimes allegations. It also called on President Obama to formulate a Sri Lanka policy that would reflect Washington’s views on human rights and democracy besides economic and security interests.
Even the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, has called for an independent investigation into war crimes in Sri Lanka. He stated:
We need to see an independent investigation. Everyone has read the papers and seen the TV footage, but we need an independent investigation to work out whether [this] is right.
It is astounding that the Australian Government continues its silence on Sri Lanka and the war. Is it our bilateral trading relationship with the island nation, or upsetting the power struggle between China and India in the Indian Ocean that has led to this?
In another disturbing development, Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe recently was approved by the Australian Government to become the next Sri Lankan High Commissioner in Canberra. Admiral Samarasinghe was chief of staff of the Sri Lankan Navy when in 2009 it shelled Tamil soldiers and civilians who were trapped in what had been declared a safe zone. The navy then blocked attempts by the International Committee of the Red Cross to evacuate injured men, women and children from the safe zone.
Yet the Australian Government has accepted that man’s credentials as a diplomat.
As retired diplomat and political commentator Bruce Haigh recently wrote in the Drum,
it is a crying shame that the Australian Government has refused to stand up for international human rights and has settled for low standards by accepting Admiral Samarasinghe’s credentials.
… it is now time for Australia to step away from the soft diplomacy it practices with Sri Lanka and openly call for an international independent inquiry into war crimes that were committed in the island, with trade sanctions and travel bans for Government officials being imposed if Sri Lanka fails to follow.
Last week on 18 May I stood in Martin Place with more than a thousand people to remember the tens of thousands of Tamil civilians who have been killed for simply voicing their wish to live freely, with respect and dignity.
A generation of Tamils have been killed, brutalised and marginalised right under the gaze of the world, including Australia, and those who have been left behind are subject to a brutal military rule.
I also remember the thousands of men, women and children who lost their lives in that civil war.
I hope that soon the survivors are respected and remembered by the Australian Government as it belatedly raises its voice for justice for the Tamil people.