Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee
Sentor Milne and Senator Rhiannon
CHAIR: Thank you. We are now moving to South and West Asia, and the Middle East. Senator Milne has questions on Sri Lanka.
Senator MILNE: I would refer, Mr Varghese, to an article that was on the front page of a national daily in Australia on 1 February 2013 which stated that Australian intelligence agencies identified a senior official in the Rajapakse regime being personally authorising the departure of boats carrying asylum seekers destined for Australia. The question I ask goes to Minister Carr's visit to Sri Lanka as well. The first question I have is: is it true that DFAT is aware of bribery or corruption in the Sri Lankan's navy handling of the asylum seeker boats leaving Sri Lanka for Australia?
Senator Bob Carr: I have not been advised on it. I was briefed extensively before my visit and our contact with the government in Sri Lanka was very positive, including with the commander of the navy in the south of the country.
Senator MILNE: Okay, but I am actually asking Mr Varghese in this case: is it known to DFAT that there is a senior official in the Rajapakse regime who has been authorising which boats can leave and which cannot, particularly in relation to the navy?
Mr Varghese: Senator, I think you prefaced your question with a reference to an article which was purporting to refer to intelligence judgements or intelligence assessments, and I do not intend to comment on anything to do with intelligence.
Senator MILNE: I am asking about DFAT. Is DFAT aware that there is a person in the Sri Lankan navy related to the Rajapakse regime who is accused—or it is reported or it is known to the department—to be engaged in corrupt activities?
Mr Varghese: In order to answer that question I would have to go to the intelligence information that you were initially drawing on, which I am not prepared to do, Senator.
Senator MILNE: So how are we going to deal with the fact that it is widely rumoured and widely reported that there is a senior person associated with the Rajapakse regime influencing which boats leave Sri Lanka and which boats do not? I am very clear about this in the sense that this was reported before the minister's visit. Australia is going money to Sri Lanka on the management. We have had a huge number of asylum seeker boats and a huge number of accusations that they are economic refugees and therefore may be able to provide bribes. The question is: does DFAT know anything about it?
Senator Bob Carr: I want to say that we could not have had more corruption than we have since my visit to Sri Lanka from the authorities in Sri Lanka when it comes to stopping people-smuggling activity. That positive view is entirely incompatible with the speculation in that newspaper report. That is all it was—it was an unconfirmed, speculative bit of reportage. If Senator Milne assumes it is right, how then does she explain the very impressive progress made by Sri Lanka in stopping people-smuggling in recent months and, more to the point, disrupting almost 3,000 potential irregular immigrants seeking ventures to Australia since the beginning of 2012? We are very pleased with the level of cooperation we are getting from Sri Lanka and that level of cooperation contradicts the assumptions that Senator Milne is making.
Senator MILNE: So I come back to this and the before and after scenario. Before your visit to Sri Lanka, how many Sri Lankan boats had made their way to Australia?
Senator Bob Carr: That is a question best addressed to the Minister for Immigration.
Senator MILNE: You have got the figures in front of you it would seem for after your visit. What about the befores?
Senator Bob Carr: Again, that is a matter best addressed to the Minister or Immigration.
Senator MILNE: Minister, is the reason that you did not raise this issue with the Sri Lankan government that you say you had no knowledge of this before you left?
Senator Bob Carr: Yes. I am saying that I was not told that there was a senior figure in the government, as you describe, accepting bribes for allowing people-smuggling activity to proceed. That was not something presented to me.
Senator MILNE: If this is known to intelligence agencies, how would those intelligence agencies share that with government?
Senator Bob Carr: Why are you assuming that that report is correct?
Senator MILNE: I am assuming it because it is widely reported both here and in Sri Lanka.
Senator Bob Carr: We do not comment on matters of intelligence, in line with the longstanding policies of all governments in Australia. When I went to Sri Lanka it was without anyone telling me that a senior official in the Sri Lankan government was accepting bribes to allow people-smuggling activity to continue. As I said, that it is contradicted by the high level of cooperation we have had from Sri Lanka in disrupting people-smuggling.
Senator MILNE: So I come back to this issue of how the intelligence agencies engage with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in relation to providing information.
Senator Bob Carr: Chair, in line with longstanding government practice, no-one in government is going to comment on matters of intelligence.
Senator MILNE: You do not have to comment on the substance; what I am asking about is the level of engagement. Clearly ASIO officers are in Australian embassies overseas in a physical sense. Surely, you are not suggesting that the intelligence agencies have no responsibility to report to government matters that government ought to be concerned about.
Senator Bob Carr: We will not comment on matters of intelligence. We are not going to talk about the work that is done by Australian security agencies. I have to record again our satisfaction with the high level of cooperation we enjoy with Sri Lanka, especially since my visit, when it comes to our common goal of stopping people-smuggling.
Senator MILNE: What level of confidence can you give me that the $45 million that you have just provided to Sri Lanka to assist their maritime operations will not end up in corrupt hands?
Senator Bob Carr: I am not sure what announcement you are referring to. But, again, I have got to record our pleasure with the disruption of almost 3,000 potential irregular immigrants seeking ventures to Australia since the beginning of 2012.
Senator MILNE: On the cooperation with the Sri Lankan government on asylum seekers, how does that work with Australia's representations in terms of human rights abuses in Sri Lanka?
Senator Bob Carr: When I met the government of Sri Lanka at each of the meetings where it was relevant—my meeting with President Rajapakse and my meeting with Foreign Minister Peres—I raised Australia's continuing interest in progress on the government's own lessons learned and reconciliation report. If there had been any risk of me overlooking that, our very forceful high commissioner would have corrected me. In each of those meetings I not only referred to our interest in progress on implementation of that report but also said that it was the Australian position that we wanted accountability for the crimes committed at the end of the civil war. Moreover, you would be aware of the Australian role in the human rights commission in Geneva in airing all the issues related to human rights in Sri Lanka. We do not retreat from that and we do not apologise for it. That is compatible with the cooperative working relationship on people-smuggling.
Senator MILNE: Did your discussions with the Sri Lankans and your very satisfied response regarding their cooperation on asylum seekers extend to you going and seeing what has happened to the asylum seekers who have been returned to Sri Lanka? Did you go and visit any of them or any facilities where they are being held?
Senator Bob Carr: No, but the government told us that returned asylum seekers were being treated in accordance with the law of Sri Lanka and they were not being detained.
Senator MILNE: So you were satisfied that none of them was tortured on return?
Senator Bob Carr: I have seen no evidence to the contrary. And I do not believe it is in the interests of the government of Sri Lanka to allow any of their security forces to do that.
Senator MILNE: But you did not go and meet any of the asylum seekers who have been returned, while you were there.
Senator Bob Carr: There was no capacity to do that, but I have seen no evidence that returned irregular maritime arrivals are being discriminated against, let alone detained. I have not heard that suggested by anyone.
Senator MILNE: Is there going to be any investigation of the claims that there is corruption in terms of the Sri Lankan authorities, for example, in the Ministry of Ports and Aviation, or anywhere else in Sri Lanka? Are you going to conduct an inquiry or is one underway? Or are you choosing to suggest that this is not happening?
Senator Bob Carr: That is a matter for the government of Sri Lanka.
Senator MILNE: It is a matter for us if we are giving them money, surely.
Senator Bob Carr: We have no capacity to investigate matters of governance within Sri Lanka. When it comes to our overseas development assistance it is subject to the effectiveness reviews that we apply to our overseas aid in any circumstances.
Senator MILNE: Are you saying that with regard to the cooperation on asylum seekers and the so-called disruption activities that are taking place to stop people coming to Australia, that you choose not to investigate allegations of this kind about people facilitating some boats leaving and others not? You will not investigate that?
Senator Bob Carr: I am not sure what you mean by 'investigating' but we are very happy with the recent signs of a confirmation that policies on reducing people smuggling have proved effective.
Senator MILNE: I hear you saying how happy you are. I am asking: are you going to investigate these allegations or not?
Senator Bob Carr: If you show me any evidence, or bring to my attention allegations of corruption in the process our people will look at them with all justified interest. But I have not seen those allegations.
Senator MILNE: And you can confirm there is no investigation currently being undertaken.
Senator Bob Carr: We do not investigate complaints of corruption made against the government of Sri Lanka. I do not see how we could do that. I do not see how we could call witnesses or call for the production of documents.
Senator MILNE: Given these allegations that have been made, have there been any changes to the way that DFAT engages with the government of Sri Lanka around issues of people seeking asylum?
Senator Bob Carr: I have not seen the allegations. I do not know what allegations you are referring to.
Senator MILNE: So there is no DFAT investigation of that, or changed practices.
Senator Bob Carr: I would need to see the allegations and—
Senator MILNE: But I am asking whether there are any changed practices. I am asking the secretary of the department: has the department changed its practices in engaging with the Sri Lankan government in relation to the management of this issue of people leaving Sri Lanka seeking asylum?
Mr Varghese: Our mission in Colombo deals with a wide range of agencies in the Sri Lankan government and they will continue to deal with a wide range of agencies in the Sri Lankan government because they are pursuing our interests in the country and they are pursuing some very important issues. I do not see a reason for them to adopt a different approach to what they have been doing in the recent past.
Senator MILNE: Thank you.
Senator Bob Carr: Could I just add one thing, Senator Milne. I am reminded in a note here that our high commission in Colombo follows up with the Sri Lankan authorities in the event of any claim of abuse of a returnee, and I am advised that a complaint was lodged with the high commission in 2010. It was followed up but the high commission could find no evidence to support the claim of abuse of that returnee.
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.