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Adjournment speech: Sri Lanka, No Fire Zone, war crimes, enhanced screening and CHOGM

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 25 Jun 2013

Adjournment Speech 25 June 2013.

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (01:00): The politics of Sri Lanka are becoming highly relevant in Australia. We have a clear responsibility to understand the situation of the Tamils and the response of our government. The 26-year-long civil war in Sri Lanka ended on 18 May 2009. In that year, an estimated 40,000 Tamils were massacred, most of them while trapped in a series of no-fly zones set up by the government. About 380,000 Tamils were imprisoned by the Sri Lankan government in barbed-wire-ringed camps in which abuse, kidnapping, torture and sexual violence were rife. I have met Tamils who had to escape these camps to ensure their survival.

More than three years later, international human rights organisations are still producing alarming reports about the continuing human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. But, instead of putting pressure on Sri Lanka to stop its terror tactics, human rights violations, intimidations and extrajudicial killings, Australia flaunts a friendship of cooperation and collaboration that gives the Rajapaksa regime encouragement to resist reforms and expand its international engagement.

In February 2013, foreign minister Senator Bob Carr told me at Senate estimates that there was no evidence that since 2010 returnees were 'being discriminated against or arrested, let alone tortured'. That same month, February 2013, Human Rights Watch produced a report titled 'We will teach you a lesson': sexual violence against Tamils by Sri Lankan security forces. The report details 75 cases of alleged rape and sexual abuse of Tamil detainees that occurred between 2006 and 2012. Men and women reported being raped multiple times, with army, police and pro-government paramilitary personnel frequently participating.

In April this year, Amnesty International released a statement saying: The Sri Lankan government is intensifying its crackdown on critics through threats, harassment, imprisonment and violent attacks … It went on to say that a document called Sri Lanka'sAssault on Dissentreveals how the government, led by President Rajapaksa, is promoting an official attitude that equates criticism with treason in a bid to tighten its grip on power.

In April 2013, ABC's 7.30 ran a story about a Tamil man living in Melbourne who was abducted, raped and tortured by Sri Lankan army intelligence officers when he returned to Sri Lanka for a visit.

My office has been in contact with a Tamil who was imprisoned with other Tamils in Sri Lanka after the war ended in 2009. They were all gang-raped over a number of months. DIAC is aware of this case.

How much more evidence does foreign minister Bob Carr need to prompt a reassessment of Australia's position on Sri Lanka?

The Australian Federal Police have spent approximately $540,000 training the Sri Lankan police in the 2012-13 financial year. The training courses have included management of investigations, development for individual police officer programs, criminal intelligence analyst training, money-laundering investigations training, and train-the-trainer programs. When I asked the AFP in Senate estimates if they were aware of the allegations made against the Sri Lankan police of widespread use of torture and rape in detention, I was told, 'Of course the AFP is conscious of those.' Considering Australia is funding Sri Lankan police training, the public would expect our government to hold the Rajapaksa regime to account for allegations of deaths in custody and torture and rape by the Sri Lankan police. Being 'conscious' of such acts is definitely not good enough.

My request for examples of where the AFP have interacted with their counterparts in Sri Lanka to recommend changes to address these ongoing allegations about torture and rape were taken as questions on notice. I may not receive these answers till February 2014. While these allegations stand, no-one who has fled persecution in Sri Lanka and sought asylum in Australia should be removed or deported back to Sri Lanka, which is ruled by a regime implicated in war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Time and again the Australian government has shown that human rights in Sri Lanka is not a priority, only stopping Tamils leaving the country is. Enhanced screening is the latest example of Labor's attempt to downplay the brutal crimes of the Sri Lankan Rajapaksa regime to suit its domestic political agenda. It is also another disgraceful act by the Australian government in its treatment of asylum seekers.

Rachel Ball, the Director of Advocacy and Campaigns at the Human Rights Law Centre, has written about enhanced screening: Processes under the Migration Act exist to determine whether asylum seekers require Australia’s protection from torture or persecution, but ‘screened out’ asylum seekers never make it through the gate. They are denied access to the Australian legal system. Instead, they are interviewed with no legal advice, no information about their rights, no transparency and no independent review. The Government appears to be using a quick and dirty process to bypass fundamental human rights protections.

Ms Ball goes on to say: We don’t know what questions are asked in the screening out process and we don’t know what answers are given. We do know that many of those who have been returned are immediately imprisoned in Sri Lanka and left at the mercy of those they claim to fear.

Reports I have received indicate enhanced screening is used only for those arriving from Sri Lanka. Since August last year 1,035 asylum seekers from Sri Lanka have been sent back involuntarily. UNHCR's Richard Towle has called the enhanced screening arrangements 'unfair and unreliable' and has said they form part of 'an ever widening suite of deterrent measures'.

Emily Howie, who is a Leebron Fellow at Columbia University in New York and a lawyer with the Human Rights Law Centre, wrote about enhanced screening on 17 June this year: This truncated and secret screening process is being used to bypass proper and fairer assessment procedures under Australian law. Even when due process is followed, decision-makers in the immigration department often get it wrong. Last year, the Refugee Review Tribunal upheld 82% of appeals against negative decisions by the immigration department in respect of Sri Lankans who arrived by boat. The only thing "enhanced" about the truncated screening process is the likelihood of irreversible mistakes being made, resulting in people who fear persecution being forcibly returned to their persecutors.

ABC 7.30 on 10 June ran a story in which a Tamil asylum seeker, Nathan, said his brother, who was subjected to enhanced screening in Australia, was jailed upon his removal to Sri Lanka in December. He was beaten and deprived of food for many days. Enhanced screening must stop. It is a process that fails to ensure that Australia is not returning refugees to a place where they are at risk of persecution, torture, cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment. Australia has clear international obligations under the UN Convention against Torture, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as well as the Refugee Convention.

Another example of Australia's unfair and inhumane treatment of asylum seekers was revealed in the May Senate estimates. I asked why there was a delay in meeting the request of 14 Tamil men on Christmas Island who had repeatedly asked to be reunited with their wives and children, who were also detained on the island. The reunions happened the next day. It should not take a question at Senate estimates for the Australian government to act. The Australian government should abide by its international obligations and act with humanity.

I would also like to acknowledge the 52 refugees that Australia has locked up in indefinite detention because ASIO has deemed that they are a threat to national security. I and, I am sure, the many people who campaign for refugee rights are thrilled and relieved that Manokala and her son, Ragavan, and the Rahavan family, including their three children, have finally been released after their horrifying imprisonment in our detention centres. I visited both families in detention and each time I saw the growing mental and physical toll this detainment has taken on both adults and children.

Our work for those held unfairly under the adverse security assessments is not yet done. Ranjini and her three children are still in prison in Villawood and there are 51 others in the same situation. My colleagues and I will continue to campaign for a change in Australia's cruel immigration practices that allow such a situation to occur in the first place where there is no clear evidence of terrorist activities.

With regard to the human rights abuses taking place in Sri Lanka, there are mechanisms to let Sri Lanka know that we are not willing to turn a blind eye to the Rajapakse regime's blatant disregard of human rights and justice. One of these is the upcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting that will be held in Sri Lanka this November, after which the Sri Lankan government will assume chair-in-residence of the Commonwealth for two years. The Australian government should follow the example of Canada and say, 'If CHOGM goes ahead in Colombo without an improvement in the human rights situation there, the Prime Minister will not attend.'

On 22 April this year the International Bar Association's Human Rights Institute launched its fact-finding report on Sri Lanka in Britain's House of Lords. British barrister Sadakat Kadri, commenting on the CHOGM, said that the Commonwealth: … needs to consider very carefully whether Sri Lanka is an appropriate venue for the CHOGM and whether it is an appropriate chair in office for the two years after that, because Sri Lanka will become the body that represents the Commonwealth and its core values around the world.  Mr Kadri added: There is a very real danger that if the CHOGM meeting goes ahead in Sri Lanka — the present government will consider it a licence to continue along the course that it has so far proceeded and fail to uphold the Commonwealth’s values.

Former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser has also added his voice to Canadian Prime Minister Harper's strong call.

In recent years I have called many times for Sri Lanka's High Commissioner to Australia, Thisara Samarasinghe, to be recalled and, if not, then for our Prime Minister to expel him. I repeat this call again. Mr Samarasinghe was a commander of the Sri Lankan navy during the last days of the war when civilians, trapped in the government designated 'no-fire zone', were shelled from the sea.

The following sentence has been taken from page 28 of the report of the Secretary-General's Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka: From as early as 6 February 2009, the SLA—the Sri Lankan Army—continuously shelled within the area that became the second NFZ—No Fire Zone—from all directions including land, air and sea.

I emphasise that shelling occurred from the sea at the time that High Commissioner Samarasinghe was a Sri Lankan navy commander. On 17 October 2011 the media reported that the International Commission of Jurists named Mr Samarasinghe in a submission containing allegations of war crimes. This submission was sent to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions, as well as to the offices of the Prime Minister and the Minister for Foreign Affairs. I confirmed this in Senate Estimates. The charges were later dropped by the AFP, who said they had evaluated information in the submission and had decided that they would not investigate the allegations against Mr Samarasinghe. In trying to understand this decision by the AFP, what should be noted is the AFP's close working relationship with the government of Sri Lanka to stop Tamil asylum seekers fleeing to Australia.

If the Prime Minister does attend the coming CHOGM scheduled for Sri Lanka in the face of broad community opposition, the very least that she and all those in the Australian delegation should do is watch the recently released film No Fire Zonedirected by Callum Macrae, a filmmaker with 30 years experience. Some of this film was screened recently in this parliament. This documentary about the final awful months of the Sri Lankan civil war is chilling. The evidence of war crimes is stark: trophy photos from soldiers' phones depicting killings, rapes and extreme abuse, and testimony of those who lived through these crimes. This is some of the most disturbing video footage I have ever seen. The evidence has been verified with a great deal of precision.

No Fire Zone is direct evidence of war crimes, summary execution, torture and sexual violence. It is also direct evidence of why Tamils are fleeing Sri Lanka and are seeking asylum in Australia. I appeal to those in the Labor, Liberal and National parties who support enhanced screening and other tactics to limit the number of Tamil refugees coming to this country to please watch No Fire Zone. There is a link between refugees coming from Sri Lanka to Australia: the aftermath of dealing with war crimes and the ongoing oppression and discrimination occurring in Sri Lanka. We all have a responsibility to be informed about these events, to work to ensure war crimes committed in Sri Lanka are investigated and to grant all asylum seekers their rights.;query%3DI...

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