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Op-ed: Australia must act beyond self-interest

Media Release
Christine Milne 27 Mar 2014

If we needed any more evidence that a large part of the Abbott government's foreign affairs agenda is motivated purely by domestic power games over refugees, we need look no further than the current session of the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva.

A vote is due there tonight on a resolution endorsing an international investigation into war crimes and human rights abuses during the Sri Lankan civil war.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has confirmed that Australia was refusing to co-sponsor the US-led resolution, unless the Rajapaksas were praised to provide "balance." In doing so, Minister Bishop has isolated Australia from the rest of the world, and capitulated to a regime that continues to commit flagrant abuses of human rights.

Sri Lanka is a country that I love. Having visited first in 1982, I was taken by the friendliness of the Sri Lankan people, the rich culture and the unique environment, but overwhelmed by the poverty of so many. When I returned after the civil war in 2012, I was horrified at what I saw.

Sri Lanka had been broken by its civil war, not only by bullets and bombs, but by the grip of authoritarianism that had taken hold in its aftermath. Sri Lanka is now effectively a dictatorship controlled by President Rajapaksa and his family. They have systematically centralised power, ended the rule of law, militarised the island and silenced voices of dissent. People disappear in white vans and are tortured, many never to be seen again.

These facts have been well documented and established by human rights organisations around the world. Earlier this year, the Public Interest Advocacy Network released a report that made a strong case for an international probe into war crimes and crimes against humanity during the war. Despite pressure on the Rajapaksa government to initiate this process internally since the conclusion of the conflict, they have failed to do so. Grave allegations remain ignored, and the time for an international investigation is long overdue.

Australia's refusal to co-sponsor the Human Rights Council resolution for an investigation, and appeasement of the Rajapaksa government for base self-interest, isolates us from the rest of the world.

The United States, Britain and Canada have all been leading the push for an international investigation, recognising the importance of holding those who commit such atrocities to account. As British Prime Minister David Cameron has said, "there are legitimate accusations of war crimes that need to be properly investigated. That is actually what the Sri Lankan government, in its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation exercise, found - there were more questions to be answered. But it hasn't effectively answered them. They need to be answered."

The Canadian Foreign Minister, in explaining their boycott of the recent Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, highlighted that, "Canada didn't get involved in the Commonwealth to accommodate evil; we came to combat it." Australia should not accommodate evil, either.

As a leader in the region, closely tied to Sri Lanka through economic and political relationships, we are in a unique position to positively influence this process. Instead, the Abbott government has chosen to capitulate to the Rajapaksa regime. Tony Abbott has turned a blind eye to human rights abuses in Sri Lanka, saying in relation to torture that, "we accept that sometimes in difficult circumstances, difficult things happen." Australia wants to collaborate with the Rajapaksas to stop people leaving Sri Lanka and to return them regardless of the abuse they have suffered. It is the, "out of sight, out of mind," modus operandi of the Abbott government. This is completely unacceptable, and shirks the responsibility Australia has to hold those that commit grave abuses of human rights to account.

Australia must stop appeasing President Rajapaksa and his regime. It is time for an independent and comprehensive international investigation into the allegations of breaches of international law, and Australia must be part of this call. I urge the Prime Minister to stop the appeasement and instead take a stand for human rights in the international community.

By Greens Leader Senator Christine Milne

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