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Estimates: Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (Sri Lanka)

Estimates & Committees
Lee Rhiannon 23 May 2012

Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee

Estimates hearings 22 May 2012

Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet

  • Ms Marina Tsirbas, Acting First Assistant Secretary, International Division

Full transcript available here

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. Because of time, I would like to move on to briefings that may have been provided to the Prime Minister about the Sri Lankan high commissioner. At the estimates in October 2011, I asked if the Prime Minister had been made aware of allegations concerning the Sri Lankan High Commissioner to Australia that are the subject of a submission from the International Commission of Jurists Australia that has been given to the Australian Federal Police. Dr McCarthy stated at those last estimates:
I can say that advice on that matter was provided …
As there have been considerable developments with respect to the Sri Lankan high commissioner's role as naval commander in the Sri Lankan war, could you inform the committee if the Prime Minister has been updated with the latest developments. I refer here to comments that were made in an inquiry undertaken in Sri Lanka. In a representation made to the Commission of Inquiry into Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation appointed by the President of Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka's High Commissioner to Australia, Mr Samarasinghe, said he 'commanded the northern naval area in 2008, until February 2009'. In his words:
… before I took over at the helm until July I was handling operations at Navy headquarters.
It has also been noted in the Report of the Secretary-General's Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka, where SLA is the Sri Lanka Army and NFZ stands for 'no-fire zone':
From as early as 6 February 2009, the SLA continuously shelled within the area that became the second NFZ, from all directions, including land, air and sea.
Has the Prime Minister made aware that the Sri Lankan High Commissioner to Australia handled operations at navy headquarters when the Sri Lanka Army was continuously shelling the no-fire zone from all directions, including the sea?

Ms Tsirbas: Just a point of clarification, Senator: what was the date of those references that you just read out to us?

Senator RHIANNON: One is from the Commission of Inquiry on Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation—that is the one that was set up by the President of Sri Lanka. The commission's report was released at the end of last year, as far as I am aware, but it was expected that it would be released earlier. So you may have become aware of it earlier than at the end of last year.

Ms Tsirbas: Certainly. In relation to the advice that was provided to the Prime Minister, you may be aware from the previous Senate estimates hearing that the government drew on all relevant sources of information in reaching its decision to agree to Admiral Samarasinghe's appointment, including the UN Secretary-General's panel of experts report, which makes no reference to the admiral. More broadly, you would also be aware that the Australian Federal Police is evaluating the information contained in the International Commission of Jurists report into the allegations of Sri Lankan war crimes, which I think draws upon some of the same information that you read out to us. In relation to this, the government takes allegations of war crimes very seriously. The Prime Minister was briefed, as was outlined by the National Security Advisor at the previous hearing, on several occasions in relation to this matter. The department provided briefs to the Prime Minister on Sri Lanka on 28 March 2011, 23 August 2011 and October 2011.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you for your response. The dates that you gave were all last year. You did say she was briefed on several occasions re this matter. I have provided information with the direct quotes from the Sri Lankan government's own Commission of Inquiry into Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation, and also the report of the Secretary-General's Panel of Experts on accountability in Sri Lanka. I understand that both those reports have become publicly available since the last briefing the Prime Minister was given in 2011. Considering these developments, do you have plans to give the Prime Minister a further briefing about this information?

Ms Tsirbas: My information is that the sources of information that were drawn upon in briefing the Prime Minister included the UN Secretary-General's Panel of Expert's report, which made no reference to Admiral Samarasinghe; however, the question of whether reference was made to the other report that you mentioned, I will have to take on notice.

Senator RHIANNON: I still find it unclear. Considering the UN report came out before the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation report, surely the Prime Minister would need to be updated on the latest information, which actually comes from the Sri Lankan government itself.

Ms Tsirbas: I will take that question on notice—as to whether that report was specifically referred to.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. Has the Prime Minister been made aware that both Germany and Switzerland have had their Sri Lankan High Commissioner Jugath Dias recalled after the Swiss government contacted the Sri Lankan government regarding accusations that General Dias ordered troops of the 57th Division, which he commanded, to fire on civilian and hospital targets during the army's final defensive against the separatist Tamils in 2009? Has she been made aware of this development.

Ms Tsirbas: Again, I will take that on notice.

Senator RHIANNON: Has the Prime Minister been made aware that the defence adviser to the Sri Lankan high commissioner in London, Major Prasanna De Silva, is also returning to Sri Lanka? Has the Prime Minister been made aware that the Sri Lankan high commissioner was named in the Channel 4 UK documentary 'Sri Lanka's killing fields' as having allegedly committed war crimes and crimes against humanity during the final stages of the civil war. Could you take that on notice, please?

Ms Tsirbas: Certainly.

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