Abbott endorses CHOGM, downplays torture

November 15, 2013
Tamils march in London on May 18, calling on Commonwealth leaders to boycott the CHOGM meeting in Sri Lanka this month.

At long last the reality of the human rights crisis in Sri Lanka is appearing in the Australian media. Not just the fact that more than 40,000 Tamil civilians were killed by the Sri Lankan army in a month in 2009, but that Sri Lankans of all ethnic backgrounds continue to be subject to torture, rape, arbitrary detention, disappearance and death.

The Commonwealth Heads Of Government Meeting (CHOGM), which opened in Sri Lanka on November 15, has meant special attention is being paid to these human rights abuses.

The Sri Lankan government has not welcomed this attention. Two Australian journalists from the International Federation of Journalists were detained in Sri Lanka on November 2 for several days and then expelled. On November 10, Australian and New Zealand Greens MPs Lee Rhiannon and Jan Logie — who had travelled there to investigate ongoing abuses of human rights — were detained for several hours and then asked to leave before their scheduled press conference.

The governments of India and Mauritius have now joined Canada in boycotting the meeting.

Resisting pressure to do the same, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has instead extended uncritical support to the violent rule of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Certainly Australia has not been alone in turning a blind eye to the country’s human rights abuses and war crimes. But the bipartisan “stop the boats” mantra gripping Australian politics compels Labor and Liberal leaders not just to downplay these so-called push factors that cause refugees to flee to Australia, but to deny genocide itself.

In the aftermath of the Sri Lankan government's defeat of the Tamil Tigers, former Labor foreign minister Stephen Smith advised that having won the war, the Sri Lankan government needed to “win the peace”.

In a similar vein, foreign minister Julie Bishop said on November 12 that by hosting CHOGM Sri Lanka could “underline its commitment to freedom, human rights and post-conflict reconciliation”.

The very suggestion is absurd. Why would the Rajapaksa regime, founded like those before it on Sinhalese-Buddhist chauvinism and committed to the destruction of the Tamil nation in the island's north and east, not use its position of strength to finish the job?

That is exactly what has been happening. Of the hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians herded into concentration camps, many thousands remain unaccounted for. Thousands of others have been robbed of their homes, farms, businesses and means of existence. Hindu temples have been razed to the ground.

The north and east remain under a stifling military occupation with daily harassment and intimidation by the military — there is one soldier for every five civilians.

Meanwhile, Sinhalese settlers are being moved into new housing in traditionally Tamil areas, much like Jewish colonists in the West Bank.

Perhaps only the regime's most extreme elements are bent on exterminating all Tamils. But there is no doubt that it is trying to destroy the historically constituted and geographically defined Tamil nation, turning the Tamils into a mere minority group within greater Sri Lanka.

Taken together, these actions meet the international legal definition of genocide.

However, none of these facts stopped Australian foreign ministers Julie Bishop and Bob Carr from insisting that people have no good reason to flee Sri Lanka.

When still in opposition, Bishop even went so far as to suggest Sri Lankan asylum seekers should be returned without even testing their claims, in clear breach of Australian international treaty obligations. Tragically, regardless of the legalities, this has increasingly been the practice.

When speaking to ABC Radio on November 15, Abbott lauded Sri Lanka for its cooperation in stopping “people smuggling” and its alleged progress on human rights. When asked about allegations that torture is still routinely being used he shrugged it off saying: “Sometimes in difficult circumstances difficult things happen.”

There are many reports that senior members of the Rajapaksa regime directly profit from “people smuggling”, while at the same time taking Australian aid and giving assurances that people have no reason to flee in the first place.

The whole spectacle is reminiscent of Australia's bipartisan “special relationship” with Indonesia during the Suharto years, in particular its 25 years of support for the genocidal occupation of East Timor.

Like that terrible tragedy, the Australian people will need to drag the government kicking and screaming away from its relationship with a regime based on violence and genocide.

[Sam Wainwright is a member of the Western Australia based group Action for Human Rights in Tamil Eelam and Sri Lanka.]

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