Senator Lee Rhiannon questions Minister Carr and representatives of the federal Dept of Foreign Affairs about the latest Human Rights Watch report on Sri Lanka
Senate Estimates - Thursday 14 February 2013
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Senator RHIANNON: The latest Human Rights Watch report on Sri Lanka in 2012 says:
Tamils who returned to Sri Lanka, including deported asylum seekers, reported being detained and accused of having links to the LTTE or taking part in anti-government activities abroad. A number reported being tortured by the Central Intelligence Department and other security forces.
The report went on to say:
Local rights groups reported arbitrary arrests, new enforced disappearances, abductions, and killings in the north and the east in 2012. The government lifted its restrictions on travels to the north, although it maintained a high security presence. Tamils with alleged links to LTTE were increasingly at risk of arbitrary arrests and torture. In April, nearly 220 Tamil men and women in the Trincomalee area were arrested and held for several days without charge in military detention camps.
Are you aware of this report, Mr Varghese?
Mr Varghese: Firstly, I am not aware of it but I will check whether my colleagues are.
Senator RHIANNON: While you are checking, do you recognise that Human Rights Watch is an internationally respected organisation and that its reports are based on thorough research?
Mr Varghese: I think it is an organisation in good standing. I do not know enough of its actual reports to answer the second part of your question.
Ms Rawson: Although I am also aware of Human Rights Watch as an organisation, I am not familiar with that particular report.
Senator RHIANNON: Considering it does have such standing internationally, and Human Rights Watch has a very thorough report about Sri Lanka, this an issue that the government is clearly putting a lot of effort into in terms of relations with that country. This report has come out, but you have not looked at it. What sort of material do you look at that comes out from international organisations? What determines that?
Ms Rawson: We would look at a range of reports, including those coming out of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, and there may be some people working in this area in the division who have looked at that particular report. I have not personally done so. The sorts of issues that you have read out there—the issues that are raised, in general terms—are canvassed in a number of areas. As the minister has said, the Australian government has made clear to the government of Sri Lanka on many occasions the issues that are of interest to us that we wish to see progress on, particularly in terms of the accountability issues arising out of the conflict. Although I am not familiar with that particular report, those concerns are known and they are addressed by the government in our relationship with Sri Lanka.
Senator RHIANNON: You said the concerns are known and they are addressed, but earlier, as I understood it, a lot of these issues that are occurring now are dismissed. Will you acquaint yourself with that report?
Ms Rawson: Certainly, I will look at it. I was speaking generally there. The earlier questions were related to issues around people who have been returned to Sri Lanka from Australia. As the minister said, the last case where such allegations of mistreatment were made was in 2010. That was looked at and we could not see any basis for those.
Senator RHIANNON: So that was in 2010. Two years later, we have a report from Human Rights Watch, where they do talk about arbitrary arrests, new enforced disappearance, abductions and killings. That is 2012. Would you accept that it would seem surprising that you are not acquainted with this report, considering that there appears to be close monitoring of the situation in Sri Lanka and reports on that situation from external bodies?
Senator Bob Carr: I would like to spell out that notwithstanding what might be in the report of Human Rights Watch, Australia is actively involved in the review of human rights in Sri Lanka. We participated in Sri Lanka's Universal Periodic Review of its human rights record at the UN Human Rights Council in November last year. We posed questions in advance to Sri Lanka regarding specific human rights concerns, through our ambassador in Geneva on the issue of Sri Lankan human rights. In September, we included Sri Lanka in its statement of human rights situation that required the UN Human Rights Council's attention. So we listed it.
In March 2012, Australia supported a successful resolution on promoting reconciliation and accountability in Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council. We have urged the Sri Lankan government to implement the LLRC Action Plan and make tangible, practical improvements on issues of reconciliation and accountability. We are engaged on this agenda and we will continue to be engaged on this agenda in Canberra, in Colombo and in Geneva.
Senator RHIANNON: Picking up on one of the points you just made about the Human Rights Council, I think you are probably referring to the Universal Periodic Review of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva? That is the one last year in November 2012—I think we are talking about the same one.
Australia recommended that Sri Lanka—I have two points here that you recommended on—'take action to reduce and eliminate all cases of abductions and disappearances' and 'take action to reduce and eliminate all court cases of abuse, torture or mistreatment by police and security forces.' Now I think it would seem to somebody reading that that if you are making those recommendations that there is an assumption that that is what is occurring. I go back to the questions from my colleague Senator Milne and my own questions, and here we have you making those recommendations. Is this, in your judgement, an admission by Australia that persecution of people continues in Sri Lanka?
Senator Bob Carr: We regard the work of advancing human rights in Sri Lanka as very much a work in progress. We present our concerns to the government of Sri Lanka. They know that this is active on our agenda, I raised it when I was there with the president, with the foreign minister. We believe that engagement is a better course than isolation when it comes to Sri Lanka. One has to acknowledge that the country has been through three and a half decades of a traumatic civil war in which terrorism at a very advanced degree was deployed against the people of this country. It is moving beyond the trauma of that civil war, three years behind it. We will continue to work on the human rights agenda in Sri Lanka, we will work on it in our engagement in Canberra, in Colombo and in Geneva. No-one could fault the level of our involvement in this in the Human Rights Council.
Senator RHIANNON: On 16 December last year when you were interviewed on ABC radio, you said: 'I am very happy with the assurances we have received from the Sri Lankan government, about the people who have returned being treated in accordance with Sri Lankan law. I accept absolutely the assurances we have received. We have observed no evidence of forces to review that.'
Again, I take you back to what Australia puts in in November 2012, just one month before you made that statement, where you are calling on the Sri Lankan government to take action to reduce and eliminate all cases of abduction and disappearances, take action to reduce and eliminate all cases of abuse, torture or mistreatment by police and security forces.
You would not have put that—nobody would write that—unless it was occurring. One month later, you say that you are 'absolutely happy' with the assurances that you are getting from the Sri Lankan government. How do you reconcile those two positions?
Senator Bob Carr: They are two separate issues.
Senator RHIANNON: How are they separate?
Senator Bob Carr: The first one is a reference to general civil rights, human rights, concerns across the country. The second one was a reference I made to the treatment of returnees. I repeat, as I said a moment ago in answer to a question from your colleague, our high commission in Colombo follows up with the Sri Lankan authorities in the event of any claim of abuse of a returnee. One complaint was lodged with the high commission in 2010. It was followed up. The high commission could find no evidence to support that claim. Since 2010, there has been no evidence of returnees being discriminated against or arrested, let alone tortured. The earlier question and the earlier comments were references by Australian spokespeople to the broader human rights situation. I still have no evidence of a returnee being abused.
Senator RHIANNON: Are you aware that a Tamil national alliance MP Mr Shritharan—and I understand he spoke to the coalition delegation of Scott Morrison, Julie Bishop and Michael Keenan on 4 February and this has been reported on Canadian radio and then played on 3CR in Melbourne—met with them for 90 minutes. He said that he told them that his office was raided by Sri Lankan intelligence two weeks earlier and two of his staff members had been jailed by the terrorist investigation division and they were still behind bars. He said he also told them that Tamil refugees fled to Australia because they lived in fear in Sri Lanka not for economic reasons. He said he had challenges to exercise his rights as an MP. Are you aware of those comments?
Senator Bob Carr: No, but I met Tamil representatives on my visit, members of parliament, and I think it is wrong to say that Tamils live in fear and are fleeing their country. What is striking in the recent irregular maritime arrivals is the number of non-Tamils. In my visit, short as it was, I was able to see many situations where Tamils and Sinhalese were mixing, cooperating and working together. I do not think one can look at the position of Sri Lanka today without giving adequate weight to the fact that for over three decades it was torn apart by a civil war in which there was monstrous terrorism, including women and children being forced into the firing line, children being used to walk across minefields and some astonishing examples of suicide bombing and the destruction of religious monuments. This was a vicious civil war.
Senator RHIANNON: Are you talking about terrorism on both sides?
Senator Bob Carr: I do not think it is Australia's role to look at a 3½-decade-long civil war and make adjudication on who is responsible for which crimes. We are not in a position to do that. What we can do in engaging with Sri Lanka is point to that country's own document—their own pathway, their own benchmark— the Lessons learnt and reconciliation commission report, and say we have a reasonable interest in that government meeting the standards in that report.
Senator RHIANNON: With respect to the document Lessons learnt and reconciliation commission, you would be aware that there was considerable international criticism, that there was inequity in many areas and that there are continuing calls for there to be an independent international investigation into the war crimes on both sides. Have you given consideration to that call?
Senator Bob Carr: I am not sure how that was canvassed in the discussions of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. I am happy to take that on notice.
Senator RHIANNON: Do you periodically brief the coalition on the situation in Sri Lanka?
Senator Bob Carr: No, I have not had a meeting on Sri Lanka, but I did offer. I have met the leader of your party on Sri Lanka, and I did offer to meet the shadow foreign minister when I saw her last week.
CHAIR: That concludes our questions on South and West Asia and the Middle East. We are moving now to international organisations and legal issues.