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Estimates: Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee (Foreign Affairs and Trade Portfolio)

Estimates & Committees
Lee Rhiannon 23 Oct 2014

Senator RHIANNON: In the foreign aid budget, what percentage and what dollar amount is allocated to non-government organisations?

Mr McDonald : I need the CFO for that answer.

Senator RHIANNON: I will keep going, then. In previous Senate estimates, former Foreign Minister Bob Carr spoke about four allegations of the mistreatment of Tamils that have been investigated. Are you aware if there have been further allegations apart from those four?

Mr Varghese : I might ask the Ambassador for People Smuggling if he could respond to that.

Mr Hutchesson : Senator Carr, as he was then, did refer to four sets of allegations of mistreatment of Tamils returned to Sri Lanka. We are now aware of eight allegations, including the initial four.

Senator RHIANNON: Eight in total?

Mr Hutchesson : Eight in total.

Senator RHIANNON: Can you detail these allegations?

Mr Hutchesson : The information on these matters came to us from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. None of the allegations were, apart from one back in 2009, made to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. It is the Department of Immigration and Border Protection that has followed up where appropriate on these allegations. I should say that it has proved very difficult to do so in many cases because many of the allegations are made anonymously or by third parties. In all cases so far in which it has been possible to chase things down, the immigration department has concluded that the allegations are in fact not substantiated. Seeking details on each case would be better directed to Immigration and Border Protection Command.

Senator RHIANNON: Are you saying that the latest four cases are not substantiated or only some of them are?

Mr Hutchesson : The follow-up that DIBP has been doing has reached the conclusion that they are not substantiated. That is my understanding.

Senator RHIANNON: All four?

Mr Hutchesson : That is my understanding, yes.

Senator RHIANNON: Do you need to take it on notice? When you say it is your understanding, do you need to confirm that?

Mr Hutchesson : Either unsubstantiated or no further action could be taken.

Senator RHIANNON: For the four?

Mr Hutchesson : For the four, yes.

Senator RHIANNON: Unsubstantiated or no further action to be taken. When were you first notified about those four cases?

Mr Hutchesson : In the preparation for this Senate estimates hearing.

Senator RHIANNON: So you mean within the last month?

Mr Hutchesson : Within the last couple of weeks, I would say.

Senator RHIANNON: That is when you first heard about it?

Mr Hutchesson : That is when DFAT first heard about it, yes.

Senator RHIANNON: Did you only hear about it because you were preparing for questions you might be asked?

Mr Hutchesson : Correct.

Senator RHIANNON: There is no process for you to have been alerted previously or when the department of immigration first heard about it?

Mr Hutchesson : We would have liked to have known earlier.

Senator RHIANNON: Why weren't you informed earlier?

Mr Hutchesson : You would have to direct that question to DIBP.

Senator RHIANNON: You found out within the last two weeks. You are now saying that they are not substantiated or that no further action is required. How did you reach that conclusion in two weeks?

Mr Hutchesson : This was a conclusion reached by DIBP, which has been the agency pursuing these matters.

Senator RHIANNON: Are you aware whether any representative of the Australian government spoke with any complainant?

Mr Hutchesson : On how each set of allegations was pursued or investigated, I really think DIPB is the agency that has the details.

Senator RHIANNON: I am just trying to understand whether, after you were given those reports in the last two weeks, you made any inquiries-or did you just accept what was given to you?

Mr Hutchesson : We have not made any follow-up inquiries. I reiterate that, in many of these instances, the allegations have come anonymously, which obviously makes it very difficult to follow them up.

Senator RHIANNON: Are you saying that you have no responsibility for following these cases up?

Mr Hutchesson : The Australian government has no authority in Sri Lanka-no standing to pursue these matters on the ground in Sri Lanka.

Senator RHIANNON: I appreciate that, but considering that these people have come here and then been sent back-and DFAT, I understand, has had some role in sending them back-would there not be some follow-through that you have some responsibility for? It seems to be a grey area, but in grey areas surely departments have to work out where their responsibility lies?

Mr Hutchesson : There is no authority to follow up and there is no regular monitoring. There is no monitoring of returnees.

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Senator RHIANNON: Mr Varghese, considering Sri Lankan media has reported that the son of the Sri Lankan President, Mr Rajapaksa, has been involved in people smuggling, has the Australian High Commission in Sri Lanka provided a briefing on this to the minister or to DFAT?

Mr Varghese : I think Mr Hutchesson may be able to address that.

Mr Hutchesson : The answer is no.

Senator RHIANNON: Have you received any information from any sources about this issue?

Mr Hutchesson : I have not seen any information on the son of the president being involved in people smuggling.

Senator RHIANNON: So you were not aware of this until I raised it just now?

Mr Hutchesson : I was not aware of it until you raised it-that is quite right. I have not seen that media report.

Senator RHIANNON: Considering the government's stated commitment in assisting the Sri Lankan government to recognise human rights, has the Australian government taken up with the Sri Lankan government the Prevention of Terrorism Act which allows torture and other human rights violations by government forces?

Mr Hutchesson : The Australian government has a regular ongoing dialogue with the government of Sri Lanka on human rights issues. The government takes all allegations of human rights abuses and international crime seriously. This was very much part of our discussion, in fact, just a couple of weeks ago in Perth in a meeting between Ms Bishop and the Sri Lankan external affairs minister. The issue of reconciliation was raised, as it often is.

Senator RHIANNON: My question was not about abuses. The question was about the Prevention of Terrorism Act in Sri Lanka which allows torture and human rights violations. That is what the question was about. Has that been raised?

Mr Hutchesson : You say that the Prevention of Terrorism Act allows torture. It is the case that in Sri Lanka the Sri Lankan constitution and other laws prohibit torture. Sri Lanka has ratified the UN convention against torture. So I am not quite sure exactly what you mean when you say, 'The Prevention of Terrorism Act allows torture.'

Senator RHIANNON: Are you saying that it is your understanding that the Prevention of Terrorism Act does not allow human rights violations and so it is not an issue that you have had to take up with the Sri Lankan government?

Mr Hutchesson : The Prevention of Terrorism Act in and of itself is not a regular feature of our dialogue with the Sri Lankan government on human rights issues, but we certainly do engage with the Sri Lankan government regularly on human rights issues.

Senator RHIANNON: But, again, the question was specifically about that act. Is it correct to say (1) that you have not taken up the Prevention of Terrorism Act with the government and (2) that is because you do not see that it allows violations of human rights?

Mr Hutchesson : On the first question, whether as part of our broader human rights engagements with Sri Lanka we may or may not have pursued the Prevention of Terrorism Act, that is something that I would like to take on notice. The second point, as I understand it, is that the Prevention of Terrorism Act allows torture. Again, I do not believe that is the case. It certainly would not allow it explicitly. But, again, I am happy to-

Senator RHIANNON: Can you take that on notice?

Mr Hutchesson : Yes, I am happy to do so.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. And thank you for explaining that there is regular and ongoing dialogue with Sri Lankan authorities on human rights issues. Considering that acts of gender based violence committed by Sri Lankan state forces, including rape and other forms of sexual violence, have been documented extensively both during and after the conflict in Sri Lanka, is the Australian government working with the Sri Lankan government to eradicate the systemic sexual and gender based violence that the Sri Lankan military have engaged in?

Mr Hutchesson : I will take that question on notice.

Senator RHIANNON: Just to help my understanding: in your earlier response you spoke of regular, ongoing dialogue with Sri Lanka on human rights issues. Can you expand on what that means? Is that just a matter of asking them what they are doing, or is there follow-through in investigating where there could be human rights abuses? How proactive is it? Could you explain what that process is, please?

Mr Hutchesson : There is regular interaction at ministerial level. Our High Commission in Sri Lanka engages on a regular basis with different parts of the Sri Lankan system on different matters of interest and concern. This could relate to the workings of the commission on disappearances; it could relate to the decision taken by the Sri Lankan government earlier this year to prescribe, pursuant to UN Security Council Resolution 1373, a number of Tamil individuals and diaspora groups; and it goes to a discussion on the tightened regulation of NGO activity and the implications that might have for the operation of civil society in the human rights space. So, there is a range of issues that we do pursue with Sri Lanka.

In terms of investigating: I think that would not be a characterisation that I would use of the nature of the engagement that we have.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you for clarifying that, but just a little more: if, within the course of the discussions, a problem is identified-for example, with NGOs or anything else-would the follow-through then be at the next meeting? You would have this human rights dialogue there where you would then seek to understand where the government is and if they have responded to any feedback?

Mr Hutchesson : If there is an ongoing issue, that would remain part of our ongoing suite of issues that we would raise as appropriate.

Senator RHIANNON: So it is dialogue. Thank you. We touched on this before, and I just want to return to it: issues about monitoring asylum seekers who Australia has returned to Sri Lanka. Does the Australian government conduct any monitoring of the people forcibly returned to Sri Lanka?

Mr Hutchesson : In Sri Lanka, no.

Senator RHIANNON: I understood that DFAT had previously said UNHCR would handle the monitoring in Sri Lanka of returnees. Was that not the case previously?

Mr Hutchesson : I am not quite sure that 'monitoring' is the right term but UNHCR does 'track' to some extent the experience of some returnees. But these are not, to my knowledge, specifically returnees from Australia. These are Tamils returning to the north and east of Sri Lanka, having been away from the country. So I am not aware that that necessarily goes to the cohort that may have been returned from Australia.

Senator RHIANNON: Is it an arrangement that DFAT previously had, or may still have, with UNHCR or are you talking about something that is quite separate?

Mr Hutchesson : I am not aware of a current or previous formal arrangement, but I am happy to take that on notice.

Senator RHIANNON: Could you also take on notice the process that returnees to Sri Lanka who feel they are at risk should go through in order to seek protection or to notify Australian authorities of their situation once they have been returned? Could you explain that process, please? Will you take that on notice?

Mr Hutchesson : I will take that on notice.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you very much. When I travelled to Sri Lanka in 2012 I visited in the north the office of the newspaper Uthayan and they showed me some bullet holes in the walls and where the printing press had been burnt and other things. I heard that the Australian High Commissioner has reported to DFAT on these attacks.

Mr Hutchesson : That is correct.

Senator RHIANNON: Was that as a result of a visit to the premises?

Mr Hutchesson : I would have to take on notice whether the High Commissioner had actually visited the premises but certainly the incident involving that particular media facility has been reported through diplomatic means.

 

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