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Christine Milne: Australia must support the international investigation into war crimes in Sri Lanka

Speeches in Parliament
Christine Milne 26 Mar 2014

The Australian Greens Leader, Senator Christine Milne, uses a speech in the Senate to call on the Abbott government to support the international investigation into war crimes in Sri Lanka.

Senator MILNE (Tasmania-Leader of the Australian Greens) (19:11): As I stand here in the Australian Senate tonight, at exactly the same time there are people standing in Geneva at the Human Rights Council debating a resolution which is a move by the international community to have an independent investigation into the human rights atrocities and abuses and war crimes that occurred at the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka. In fact the resolution says:

... to undertake a comprehensive independent investigation into alleged serious violations and abuses of human rights and related crimes by both parties in Sri Lanka, during the period covered by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), and establish the facts and circumstances of such alleged violations and of the crimes perpetrated with a view to avoiding impunity and ensuring accountability, with assistance from relevant experts and special procedures.

This is a critical motion before the Human Rights Council being debated as I stand here in the Senate. Yet the Australian government, disgracefully, has not signed on as a co-sponsor, and it is unclear whether Australia will even support this motion that has gone forward. Diplomats from Australia's key allies-the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union and Canada-worked very hard to garner support for this motion. Hardly surprisingly, the Sri Lankan government, which opposes the resolution with its forces standing accused of the majority of deaths, does not want a proper investigation into these crimes. Sri Lanka is supported in its opposition by China, Venezuela, Cuba, Russia and Burma. Australia should be a constructive player at this critical moment for human rights in our region, but instead of that we are not. We are on the side of the appeasers, and that is a disgrace.

I stand here tonight thinking, as well, of the people in Sri Lanka who continue to be subjected to torture and disappearance. On the wall in my office I have a painting called This is not a white van. It is written in English, Sinhala and Tamil. It is there to show, very clearly, that people are disappearing in Sri Lanka because they stand up against the regime. Reports have come out from many investigations, including our own Public Interest Advocacy Centre in Australia, which brought out a report earlier this year entitled Island of impunity? Investigation into international crimes in the final stages of the Sri Lankan civil war. Just over the weekend, a video came out detailing Sri Lankan army torture of women. Sri Lanka's army has now admitted its soldiers have abused and tortured female recruits-a rare admission of guilt after years of allegations about the treatment of Tamil rebels during the uprising. There is horrific footage of torture.

Also over this last weekend, a report came out from the UK's Bar Human Rights Committee-and it is shocking in its coverage of the abuse of Tamils. It describes how they were beaten with pipes, burnt with cigarettes and branded with hot objects. It describes physical and sexual assaults in graphic detail, including the case of one woman who was sexually assaulted with a baton and endured seven gang rapes.

Yet Australia is working with the Sri Lankan government in trying to prevent people from fleeing torture in Sri Lanka. Australia is working with the Sri Lankan authorities to block the escape of asylum seekers. Australia provides intelligence, patrol boats and other financial resources to the Sri Lankan navy and police to help them intercept the boats. Sri Lankan authorities claim to have blocked 4,500 Sri Lankans attempting to leave. Not only that, those who do escape and arrive in Australia by boat are sent into offshore detention, declared to be economic refugees and sent back-which is against all principles of international law.

It is a disgrace that Australia, a country which used to have a proud human rights record, is putting its 'stop the boats' domestic policy ahead of behaving with any decency in international negotiations on human rights. The rest of the world at the UN Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva cannot believe that Australia is demonstrating such cowardice and such appeasement of the Rajapaksa regime. It is my view that the Rajapaksa regime is the closest thing to a totalitarian dictatorship masquerading as a democracy that we have in our region. Once the international investigation into war crimes takes place, the behaviour of the Australian government will be a matter of real shame.

A letter has been written to Tony Abbott, the Prime Minister, in recent days. It was signed by John Dowd, Chancellor of Southern Cross University and former Attorney-General of New South Wales; Gareth Evans, former Minister for Foreign Affairs; Malcolm Fraser, former Prime Minister of Australia; Owen Harries, former Australian Ambassador to UNESCO; Geoffrey Robertson, Master of the Bench; Gordon Weiss, an adjunct professor at Griffith University; Thomas Keneally, the Australian author; and Bob Brown, former Leader of the Australian Greens. These people have all written to the Prime Minister to say to him: 'For goodness sake, uphold international law. Let's have an investigation into some of the gravest crimes under international humanitarian law. Let's demand accountability.' That is the very least a civilised country, a democracy like Australia, should be demanding of the Rajapaksa regime.

But we are not doing that. We are actively sending people back to torture and we are preventing people against whom crimes are being committed from leaving Sri Lanka. You cannot say that people in the Australian parliament did not know. If they do not know then it is studied ignorance, because the reports are here-report after report demonstrating the level of abuse-and they are horrific.

I am devastated that my country has failed to stand up in the UN Human Rights Council debate on the Sri Lanka resolution. I hope that Australia will, at the last minute, be shamed into supporting the resolution being put forward. If we do not stand up and do that, I think this government is going to be judged very harshly in the future.

When the Sri Lankan government sought to have the credentials of its high commissioner-former Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe-recognised by the former Rudd government, I argued that his credentials should not be recognised. He is an alleged war criminal, having commanded Sri Lanka's navy in the northern and eastern zones where the navy fired on unarmed civilians, killing many; fired on the hospital; and committed shocking atrocities. Yet Australia recognised his credentials-and they continue to be recognised by this government. Any international investigation into Sri Lankan war crimes will include an investigation into the Sri Lankan High Commissioner to Australia-and so it should.

There are no excuses for Australia's failure to stand up for human rights. I want to put on the record that the Australian Greens stand with those other countries-including the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada-in supporting the resolution for an international investigation into war crimes in Sri Lanka. I hope that investigation exposes the extent to which the Australian government has engaged in appeasement and has refused to face up to the war crimes of the Rajapaksa regime-war crimes that will shock us all when their full extent is revealed.

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