EDITORIAL: Sydney Morning Herald
The arrest of two of Sri Lanka’s most prominent human rights activists, Ruki Fernando and Father Praveen Mahesan, by the nation’s security forces last week was orchestrated to send a message.
Coming before this week’s United Nations Human Rights Council vote for an independent investigation of crimes against humanity during the finale of Sri Lanka’s civil war, the arrests were meant to show those alleging human rights abuses were, in fact, sympathisers of violent extremists.
Soon after the pair were detained, Sri Lanka’s government sent a diplomatic note to missions in Geneva, where the UN is in session, alleging the two men had been consorting with a hardcore ”terrorist” faction of the Tamil Tigers.
However, the arrests prompted outrage which forced the Sri Lankan government to release the men two days later, albeit with their phones and computers confiscated and on condition they did not talk to the media.
In the end, Sri Lanka sent an entirely different message than intended. That is, its government has an authoritarian bent, crushes dissent and remains in denial about the well-documented claims of human rights abuses.
The last months of the war between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam, or Tamil Tigers, was savage. As many as 40,000 civilians died as Sri Lanka’s security forces routed its adversaries. Both sides have been accused of war crimes: the Tamil Tigers of recruiting child soldiers and using civilians as human shields, the Sri Lankan forces of deliberately shelling civilians herded into supposedly safe ”no fire zones” and of assassinating surrendering rebels.
After 26 years of brutal conflict, the international community had hopes for genuine reconciliation in Sri Lanka, a process that required all perpetrators of abuses to be brought to justice.
This would show that Sri Lanka was embarking on a new era where the rule of law was fair and unsparing and that all its citizens had a stake in the country’s future.
Sri Lanka’s government has failed in this task.
It’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, which reported in November 2011, was a whitewash, run by a panel of former senior members of the government, including its attorney-general at the time of the conflict, who would have been directly implicated by any adverse findings.
There was no protection of witnesses and its only ”high priority” recommendation was to disarm the vanquished Tamil Tigers.
Compelling footage of abuses by its security forces appeared to be fabricated, it found. And, while there were four instances of possible human rights violations by its forces, the evidence was not conclusive and further investigation was needed.
Those investigations remain in abeyance, and a culture of impunity for the country’s security forces continues.
The 47 members of the UN’s Human Rights Council are due to vote on Thursday on the establishment of a comprehensive investigation by the Office of the UN Human Rights Commissioner into ”alleged serious violations and abuses of human rights” in Sri Lanka.
The US, Britain, Canada and the European Union are resolutely behind the inquiry, which will investigate combatants on all sides of the civil war. Australia has so far refused to back the resolution, despite the entreaties of its closest allies.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has not ruled out co-sponsoring the initiative but has given every indication that Australia will not do so without it being watered down.
This is an example of how the Abbott’s government ”stop the boats” diplomacy has undermined the values Australia has proudly and powerfully articulated on the world stage for decades.
Australia has forcibly returned more than 1000 asylum seekers to Sri Lanka in the past two years, and has given the country two patrol boats to boost its anti-people smuggling capability.
The Abbott government has said it does not want the US resolution to ”isolate” the Sri Lankan government. It must also be nervous that the UN inquiry could show that Australia’s rapid return of Sri Lankan asylum seekers under the bipartisan ”enhanced screening” policy risks exposing them to continuing persecution, a breach of our international obligations.
But the Abbott government must look beyond any short-term complication of its relationship with Sri Lanka, or challenge to the credibility of its asylum seeker policy.
True reconciliation in Sri Lanka is ultimately the best method of stemming the tide of asylum seekers from the country.