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Estimates: Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade (Sri Lanka)

Estimates & Committees
Lee Rhiannon 16 Feb 2012

Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee

Estimates hearings, 16 February 2012

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

  • Senator Helen Kroger, Liberal Senator for Victoria
  • Senator David Feeney, Labor Senator for Victoria
  • Mr Dennis Richardson, Departmental Secretary
  • Mr Mark Pierce, Assistant Secretary, South and Central Asia Branch
  • Dr Greg French, Assistant Secret ary, International Legal Branch
  • Ms Lynette Wood, Acting First Assistant Secretary, South and West Asia and Middle East Division

Full transcript available here

CHAIR: We will now move to South and West Asia and Middle East group. Senator Rhiannon has the call.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. Mr Richardson, this question is about Sri Lanka. Considering the United Nations-led investigations found overwhelming evidence of war crimes committed by both sides in the Sri Lankan war and that at least 40,000 Tamils died in the latter stages of that war, what advice has been provided to the minister about an appropriate response?

Mr Pierce: Senator, you have asked what advice we have provided to the minister about alleged war crimes breaches of international humanitarian law at the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka.

Senator RHIANNON: Yes, in the context of the UN investigations.

Mr Pierce: Senator, you would have seen the minister's statement from earlier this week in which he addresses the recommendations of the Sri Lankan's government's Lessons learnt and reconciliation commission report. A part of that statement talks about the need to address issues of accountability more fully and the need to address the question of alleged breaches of international humanitarian law more widely.

Senator RHIANNON: The Sri Lankan's government's Lessons learnt and reconciliation commission did not call for a criminal investigation into the allegations of artillery shelling into crowded civilian areas. What was your advice on that matter and how the minister should respond?

Mr D Richardson: Senator, it would not be appropriate for us to state what advice we gave to a minister.

Senator RHIANNON: Sorry?

Mr D Richardson: It would not be appropriate to state what advice we gave to a minister.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. Going back to Mr Pierce or maybe Mr Richardson—I will leave it up to you—is there any inconsistency in Australia's response to the situation in Syria compared with that of Sri Lanka? The public reports that we are reading say that, in Syria, the minister was in part responding to 5,000 dead and that he has called for action through the United Nations Security Council. In Sri Lanka, the United Nations has identified that at least 40,000 people have died and in this case the investigations, even after the Lessons learnt and reconciliation commission report was released, have still been left in the hands of the Sri Lankan government.

Senator FEENEY: Chair, I think the question is inviting officials to enter into a political debate and compare one policy with another. I suggest that the senator might rephrase the question.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you for that advice, Senator Feeney. Could Mr Richardson set out the advice that was given with regard to the current situation in Syria and Australia's response.

Mr D Richardson: Senator, we can discuss an outline of Australia's response but it would not be appropriate to state what our advice was.

Senator RHIANNON: Could you share whatever information you can with us?

Ms Wood: Would you mind rephrasing that question?

Senator RHIANNON: It was about the current situation in Syria and the advice that has been given to the foreign affairs minister with regard to—

Senator Feeney: If I can interpose there—I do not mean to sound like a pedant, but you are again asking for what advice has been furnished to a minister. These officials are obviously in a position to describe what the government is doing and what its outlook is, but entering into a conversation about what confidential advice they have provided to a minister is not within the remit.

Senator RHIANNON: I certainly was not asking for confidential advice, Senator Feeney, but thank you for that suggestion. Whatever information you could share on Australia's position with regard to the current situation in Syria, particularly in the context of the call for action through the United Nations Security Council.

Ms Wood: In the first instance, you would be aware that the foreign minister made a statement in the House yesterday afternoon, 15 February, about the current situation in Syria. That statement contains extensive detail about the current situation and what Australia is doing to express its concern and to try and take steps in concert with other members of the international community in addressing that situation. Specifically on the human rights situation, which I understand is one element of your question, last year on 28 April, Mr Rudd wrote to the UN Secretary General and asked for the appointment of a UN special envoy on Syria. This call for a special envoy on Syria remains current today and is still part of the discussions in the UN about what more the international community might be able to do.

Australia cosponsored three resolutions regarding Syria in the UN Human Rights Council in 2011. We are looking to continue that forthright action in forthcoming meetings of the UN Human Rights Council later this month. On 1 June, Mr Rudd wrote to the UN Security Council president urging the UNSC to consider referring the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court. You will also be aware that last week the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights made a presentation to the UN General Assembly in which she outlined details of a report which had been provided to her about the human rights situation in Syria.

Senator RHIANNON: Mr Richardson, Ms Wood has set out the details about the three resolutions and has called it the forthright action that Australia has taken. Would you call the actions that Australia has taken with regard to the crimes that the United Nations has identified occurred in Sri Lanka as forthright?

Mr D Richardson: You are asking me to express a view on government actions and policies again.

Senator RHIANNON: For time, I will move on. Staying with Sri Lanka, Mr Richardson—if the government of Sri Lanka fails to investigate the allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity, will Australia commit to calls similar to those coming from other countries about a UN mandated investigation?

Mr D Richardson: It is not possible for me to speak on behalf of the government on a possible policy issue that may arise down the track.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you, Mr Richardson.

CHAIR: Senator Rhiannon, as a point of assistance, the Senate estimates process is actually confined to asking questions of the officers, and questions of policy should be directed to the minister at the table. That is where you are getting yourself tangled, I am afraid.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you very much, Madam Chair. Mr Richardson, on the lessons learnt in reconciliation commission report, could you share with the committee how you are monitoring the progress around that and any work that your department is undertaking on it?

Mr Pierce: We considered that report carefully. We put advice to the minister. The minister issued a statement in response to the report earlier in the week. That statement draws a balance—it may not be an equal balance—between the constructive elements in the report, especially those that pertain to: what we could broadly call reconstruction devolution, which we might in this country call 'federalism'; the security presence in the north; accounting, which means trying to establish if people who cannot be accounted for have been killed or have died or have disappeared; and some specific elements of reconstruction on the ground. Two of those are particularly relevant to Australia because two of those are also the focus of our aid program in Sri Lanka. That is housing in the areas that were affected by the civil conflict—we have so far rebuilt 4,600 houses—and demining where we have made a substantial commitment of $20 million over three years. Both of those areas are identified as priorities by the LLRC and on both of those areas work is already proceeding. That is one dimension of the LLRC report. It contains many constructive positive recommendations for reconstruction for the future of Sri Lanka.

An element in the report deals with accountability. To begin with, we have always said that accountability is a critical dimension in moves toward reconciliation and reconstruction, not a separate item. On accountability, you would have seen in the minister's statement that we welcome some elements in the report but we think it falls short in other areas. There might be further comment from my colleagues in the legal division.

Mr D Richardson: No, I have nothing to add.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you for that, Mr Pierce. You mentioned at the end there about the report falling short. Could somebody expand on where this report has fallen short as you have made that estimation?

Mr D Richardson: No, we are not in position to expand any further on the answer we have given.

Senator RHIANNON: Mr Pierce, you spoke about constructive elements in the report, which gave the impression that there were some elements that were not constructive. Could you indicate what aspects you found were constructive. I appreciate that that is expanding on the answer you have already given but, as this is an important matter, I think it would be useful to share it with the committee.

Mr Pierce: It is really that distinction that I drew before. On reconstruction we think there are many constructive and positive elements in the—

Senator Conroy: Senator Rhiannon, you are straying and—probably on a couple of occasions now—crossing the line between asking for factual information and seeking the officer's opinion. When you say, 'Could you tell us what you thought was good or bad?' or 'What was constructive versus nonconstructive?', you are actually asking for an opinion which the officers are not in a position to expand upon. I just wanted to, again, like Senator Siewert was, assist you with your questioning.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you, Minister. I will move on to one questions which could possibly be the last one. The foreign minister in his statement indicated these constructive elements but also, as you have identified, some of these other issues. I am just trying to get an estimation. Is there a time frame in which an estimation will be made about what maybe we can agree are shortcomings or the non-constructive aspects of the LLRC report? So the question is around time frames on those aspects.

Mr Pierce: The minister's statement welcomes elements in the report. Those are the elements which deal, essentially, with reconstruction. The government's view has been that the test of those recommendations is not the quality of the findings or the thoroughness of the analysis in the LLRC report alone but rather what the government of Sri Lanka does with them. They suggested that is important now to set some clear and firm time frames for implementation of those recommendations which the government endorses. Where the government of Sri Lanka does not endorse recommendations, it is at perfect liberty to explain why.

The time frames would be set, of course, by the government of Sri Lanka itself. Many of those issues interlock one with another; many of them are particularly complicated; most of them have a long history behind them. We are saying to the government of Sri Lanka, 'We think there are substantial elements in the report which deserve commendation and are constructive. We look to you now to tell us which you will accept and which you cannot accept. In relation to those recommendations you can accept, we are looking for clear, firm time frames.' As I say, they are not our time frames or those of the international community. They will be those set by the government of Sri Lanka in its own time and its own space.

What we are really saying—and the minister says this emphatically in his statement—is that the test of the LLRC report is what you do with it, how effectively you implement it, how much of it you commit to and what time frames you use. We are not dictating those time frames; we are not seeking to interfere in the internal politics of Sri Lanka at all. We are simply saying, 'Here's the report on the table; could you please tell us how you respond to it.' That obviously takes some time to consider and. as I mentioned before. those problems are interlocked one with another. But that is where we have got to.

Senator RHIANNON: Yes, I appreciate that Sri Lanka's time frames are the Sri Lankan government's time frames. I was interested in the Australian government's time frames if the humanitarian response that one would hope would be coming out of this is not forthcoming. Do we have a time frame?

Mr Pierce: There may well be discussion of Sri Lanka at next month's session of the Human Rights Council. I think that perhaps that is where your question is leading, and that would be for my colleagues from the legal division to respond to.

Senator RHIANNON: Would the legal division like to pick up on that?

Dr French: I could not speculate on a circumstance which may occur into the future. Your question was on whether particular things would or would not happen with respect to implementation, and I could not give an answer at the moment on a future event in the abstract.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you.

Senator KROGER: I am just seeking clarification which may or may not assist. The department has given a briefing to the foreign minister—an evaluation of the LLRC report?

Mr Pierce: Yes.

Senator KROGER: You have done that. Have there been any meetings or dialogue between the Sri Lankan ambassador and the department since the production and release of the report—or with the minister for that matter?

Mr Pierce: Sri Lankan high commissioner, Senator.

Senator KROGER: Sorry—high commissioner, yes.

Mr Pierce: Yes.

Senator KROGER: So there has been a meeting with the high commissioner—and who? Since the production of the report?

Mr Pierce: I am sorry; let me make sure I understand your question. Since publication of the report or since the issue of the minister's statement?

Senator KROGER: Since the publication of the report, have we—whether it is the department or the minister himself—had any meetings to discuss (1) the report and (2) what our position on that report may be?

Mr Pierce: Yes.

Senator KROGER: When did that take place and what was its nature?

Mr Pierce: Most recently, I gave the high commissioner an advance copy of the report and talked to him about it on the day of its release, which was Monday this week—13 February.

Senator KROGER: Since the publication of that report, and I do no know whether this is the usual process of what may or may no happen—we have quite an active Tamil community in Australia—have you had members of the Tamil community seek a formal representation, either to the department to discuss the report or to the foreign minister?

Mr Pierce: Members of the Tamil community had an opportunity to discuss what they thought of the LLRC report when the spoke to our high commissioner designate before she went to Sri Lanka.

Senator KROGER: Which was when?

Mr Pierce: During January. I do not have a date, Senator; I apologise.

Senator RHIANNON: To clarify, since Monday, when you briefed the high commissioner, there has not been any meetings with the Tamil community in a similar way to brief them?

Mr Pierce: Do you mean a meeting of the Tamil community with the department?

Senator RHIANNON: Yes.

Mr Pierce: No, there has not. There have been a number of emails that have come to me and to other departmental officers on the issue but no meeting yet.

[Other Senators continued the questioning]

Senator RHIANNON: With regard to the LLRC report—I think it came out on December 16—could you inform the committee of when you provided the department's response to the minister?

Mr Pierce: You are asking if we provided advice during the period between release of the report and the issue of the minister's statement?

Senator RHIANNON: Yes.

Mr Pierce: We provided advice during that time after we had carefully studied the report. I am sure you have had an opportunity to look at the report. It is a very long report. It has dozens of recommendations which are relevant and important. We looked at it closely and carefully as a result of that. As I mentioned before, we gave advice to the minister. The minister formed a view on behalf of the government and expressed that in his statement on February 13.

Senator RHIANNON: Did you prepare a written response to the LLRC report?

Mr Pierce: Did we prepare a response to the—

Senator RHIANNON: Did you prepare a written report?

CHAIR: That is actually a different question, Senator. A response or a report?

Senator RHIANNON: My question was as to 'written'. So, was there a written response or report—whatever the language is? What I am after is this: was something written down and provided to the minister which serves as an assessment of the LLRC report?

Mr Pierce: Yes.

Senator RHIANNON: What date was that provided to the minister?

Mr Pierce: I do not know. I do know that it followed, as I say, close and careful study of the report. I do not know what date.

Senator RHIANNON: Did you provide that report?

Mr Pierce: Yes.

Mr D Richardson: We can take that on notice. We can supply you with the date.

Senator RHIANNON: It was in the last two months. I thought you would have remembered it, even approximately. Was it in January or was it earlier this month, just to give us an idea?

Mr Pierce: As the secretary said, we will take that on notice.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. Thank you, Madame Chair.

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