Adjournment speech, Tuesday 1 November 2011
Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (22:20): The Australian Greens support the growing international call for an independent war crimes tribunal to investigate war crimes committed during the 2009 Sri Lankan civil war. Yesterday the BBC reported that the Sri Lankan government's Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, or the LLRC, will not be making public their report on Sri Lanka's civil war. This has implications for Australia's foreign policy, as Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, when asked to support a call for an independent war crimes tribunal, said that he would wait to see the final report of the Sri Lankan government's inquiry. Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa established the LLRC in May last year. The LLRC's mandate does not explicitly require it to investigate alleged war crimes committed during the conflict.
In October 2010, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the International Crisis Group declined an invitation to testify before the LLRC, citing its limited mandate and lack of impartiality. In September this year Amnesty International criticised the LLRC, saying:
The Sri Lankan government has, for almost two years, used the LLRC as its trump card in lobbying against an independent international investigation. Officials described it as a credible accountability mechanism, able to deliver justice and promote reconciliation. In reality it's flawed at every level: in mandate, composition and practice.
Commenting on these developments, Amnesty International has stated:
… as it has done often in the past two decades the Sri Lankan government has established an ad hoc special commission, ostensibly to investigate and address wrongdoing, but in fact to deflect international pressure and silence internal critics.
Once the report has been handed to the President, which is expected to take place before 15 November, it will be up to him to decide if he will make the report public.
The LLRC clearly does not meet the standards of an international independent war crimes tribunal. While Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper, British Prime Minister David Cameron and former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser have all backed the growing international call for an independent war crimes tribunal, the Australian government has continuously failed to show leadership on one of the biggest massacres that has occurred in our region in recent times.
The foreign minister, Kevin Rudd, said he 'believed all allegations of human lights violations in Sri Lanka should be "tested, assessed and, if accurate, substantiated".' The critical issue is: who should test, assess and substantiate this data? It is inappropriate and inadequate for the Sri Lankan government to be investigating its own conduct during the war, to investigate its own alleged violations of human rights.
Fundamental principles here are at stake, and they belong not to one government in one country but to us all. The protection of civilians in armed combat, a principle enshrined in the Geneva convention, is something we all have a duty to uphold. Foreign minister Kevin Rudd has said that his government will wait to see the final report of the Sri Lankan government's own inquiry before considering the need for further investigations. It is extraordinary that the Australian government is waiting on a report from the same regime that is denying bombing hospitals, shelling safe-zones, denying responsibility for the death and disappearances of thousands of Tamils before, during and since the war, despite overwhelming evidence of these war crimes from international human rights organisations.
It was not until August this year, 18 months after then UN spokesperson Gordon Weiss said that up to 40,000 Tamils had died in the war, that the Sri Lankan government admitted for the first time that civilian casualties occurred in the final phase of the war, calling those deaths 'unavoidable'. This is the same regime that has rejected reports issued by Amnesty International, the UN Secretary-General's Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka, Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group. Sri Lanka's foreign minister, Gamini Peiris, who attended CHOGM last weekend, has reiterated the Sri Lankan government's position towards the UN panel of experts' report: 'It is biased, it violates the rudimentary principles of natural justice. We reject it in its entirety.' He also called the report 'a travesty of justice and preposterous'.
The cynical tactic of the Sri Lankan government has been to deny, deny, deny—in the hope that the outside world will lose interest, will 'move on', will forget about the very serious allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity that have been documented by the Secretary-General's Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and were broadcast so vividly and disturbingly on Channel 4.
Australia is in danger of missing a unique and important opportunity to bring justice to those victims of war who were massacred in Sri Lanka and those people who continue to live in fear and oppression. Our foreign minister should show leadership to address the terrible human rights abuses. Instead, we are in danger of sending a message to other governments in other countries that internal conflicts can be settled by killing civilians, locking up large numbers of survivors without trial and riding out attempts by the international community to hold them to account. Prime Minister Julia Gillard has said there are no plans to relocate the next CHOGM, which will be held in Sri Lanka in 2013. She would have been wise to follow the lead of the Canadian Prime Minister, Steven Harper, who has said, 'Unless Sri Lanka improves its human rights record, Canada will not be attending CHOGM in 2013'. The head of Amnesty International Australia, Claire Mallinson said:
It is an absolute disgrace that Commonwealth leaders have agreed to hold their next meeting in Sri Lanka, in spite of its appalling human rights record. They are allowing war crimes to go un investigated, unpunished and unaccounted for.
The selection committee that will decide the host nation for the 2018 Commonwealth Games should think carefully about choosing Sri Lanka's Hambantota, which is competing against the Queensland Gold Coast. Hosting rights to events such as CHOGM and the Commonwealth Games are powerful levers that can be used by world leaders to achieve improve human rights and justice for the people of Commonwealth countries.
I acknowledge that well-attested allegations of war crimes have also been made against the Tamil Tigers. They have been accused by independent reports of holding civilians at gunpoint as human shields and shooting those people who tried to escape. But the Tamil Tigers' leaders are dead. In contrast, the report of the Secretary-General's Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka states that most civilian casualties in the final phases of the war were caused by government shelling. The second no-fire zone was shelled from all directions, including land, air and sea. Hospitals were shelled multiple times and there are allegations that cluster bombs and white phosphorus were used by the Sri Lankan government. Those with command responsibility when these crimes were committed are still in office. This brings a duty to all of us. Do we, as elected representatives of the Australian people, stand idly by in the face of overwhelming evidence of war crimes? Or do we finally raise our voices, break our silence and demand accountability? That is the choice before us—let's make the right one.
On Tuesday, 20 September I hosted a roundtable in federal parliament to look at furthering the international call for a war crimes tribunal. The Hon. John Dowd AO QC, President of the International Commission of Jurists Australia, and former Attorney General of NSW, was among the participants. The roundtable called on the Australian government and the federal opposition to support calls for Sri Lanka to be suspended from the Councils of the Commonwealth until the government of Sri Lanka agreed to an international, independent investigation into war crimes, the restoration of human rights and the rule of law. It also called on the Australian government and the opposition to oppose Sri Lanka hosting CHOGM in 2013 and to follow the lead of the Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, on this issue. This call was then supported by a number of prominent Australians including author Thomas Keneally and Julian Burnside. Professor Noam Chomsky also added his name to this call. I do ask fellow senators to consider adding their voices to the call for an independent investigation of war crimes committed by both sides during the 2009 Sri Lankan civil war. (Time expired)