Last night, while we slept, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) voted to initiate its own independent investigation into alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka.
On hearing the UNHRC decision Foreign Minister Julie Bishop disgracefully continued to sing the praises of the Sri Lankan Government, led by alleged war criminal President Rajapaksa.
UK Prime Minister David Cameron said in a statement: "This is a victory for the people of Sri Lanka who need to know the truth about what happened during those terrible years of the civil war so that they can move forward."
I first started understanding the plight of the Tamils when I met Tamil activists who started a hunger strike at Martin Place on 28 January, 2009. The final stage of the 28 year long civil war had started in November of the previous year. The young Tamils had taken the action to urge the Australian Government to call for an immediate ceasefire in Sri Lanka.
Little did I know at that time that their struggle for justice and human rights would become an important part of my life and work in the following years.
That first hunger strike and the many months of protests and campaigning by the Tamil community that followed fell on deaf ears in Australia, and internationally. The Tamils had been labelled as "terrorists" and no one wanted to be associated with them. The international community effectively let the Sri Lankan Government orchestrate a massacre under their watch.
Even after the war ended, the Sri Lankan Government ordered thousands of executions. Thousands of men and women were raped and tortured. Children were murdered. It is hard to shake off the haunting photo of the 12 year old Balachandran Prabhakaran taken moments before he was executed.
Nor will I ever forget the footage from Britain’s channel 4 of Tamil women who were raped by the Sri Lankan army.
Although five years after the war’s end and arguably only a small step in righting gross injustices, the UNHRC vote is of vital importance. I commend the Tamil community for their sustained, dedicated and principled international campaign to make the world finally wakeup to the bloodbath that happened in 2009.
It is now equally crucial to acknowledge the current situation in Sri Lanka: there is a genocidal state structure in place and it needs to be dismantled as a priority.
According to the United Nations, “genocide" is a crime of intentional destruction of a national, ethnic, racial and religious group, in whole or in part”.
Late last year a tribunal of 11 eminent judges found there is a very strong case that Sri Lankan government is guilty of the crime of continuing genocide against the Tamils in Sri Lanka.
The Second Session of the Peoples' Tribunal on Sri Lanka found that:
The unitary state structure and the Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism became the two fundamental components which laid the basis for the genocidal process against the Tamil people in the North and East of the island.
During my fact finding trip to Sri Lanka and the Tamil homeland (Eelam) last year with New Zealand Green Party MP Jan Logie I learnt first-hand of the ongoing human rights abuses that are still taking place.
I heard of Tamil children being taken and put in Buddhist hostels and schools and of Tamil children being abused by a Buddhist priest. Some of the children had been taken to the local hospital.
I heard that large numbers of women regularly suffer sexual abuse perpetrated by members of the Sri Lankan armed forces. One lawyer described to us the evidence collected about these crimes. In one case they have text messages from Major General Mahinda Hathurusingha to the "comfort women" he frequently abuses. None of the perpetrators have been brought to justice.
According to The Second Session of the Peoples' Tribunal on Sri Lanka:
The Sri Lankan military in war and under the current occupation of the north and east is by its act of systematic rape making a statement which is — “we rape you Tamil women and through your rape we are destroying the national Tamil identity”
In response to reports of forced sterilisation of Tamil women it said:
...coercive population control policies are taking place in three villages, namely, Veravil, Keranchi, and Valaipaddu. The field missions carried out by the organisation The Social Architects on coercive contraception clinics in Kilinochchi District “unequivocally conclude that government health workers coerced women into accepting Jadelle”, a contraceptive implant.
The Tribunal also investigated the issues of the torture of Tamil women and men, assaulting Tamil culture through bulldosing cemeteries and through the replacement of place names and Hindu symbolism with Buddhist ones. These crimes and the deliberate blocking of food and medicines as an element of the crime of extermination were also examined in assessing genocide.
Speaking in Geneva on 14 March Ananthi Sasitharan, the popular Tamil National Alliance councillor of the Northern Provincial Council (NPC), addressed the UNHRC saying “.. the Eelam Tamil children face a continued war with genocidal intent”. She urged that concrete actions are taken to safeguard Tamil children from becoming permanent victims to the genocide.
She also spoke of 13-year-old girl, Vipooshika Balendran, who was arrested by the Sri Lankan Government two weeks ago. Sasitharan called Vipooshika’s arrest “an open threat against every child protesting injustices”. The young girl has since been placed in state custody, a huge concern given the continuing use of sexual abuse and torture in Sri Lanka.
Her mother Balendran Jeyakumari, who has been campaigning for the truth about her eldest son’s death, has been thrown into Boosa prison, notorious for its torture of Tamils, and denied access to lawyers.
These crimes are a stark reminder of why the UN Human Rights Council should also be investigating the ongoing crimes against humanity being perpetrated by the Rajapaksa regime.
It is not known how the Sri Lankan government will react to the news of the UNHRC decision. Jeyakumari, her daughter and all the other activists who remain in detention without charge could be at even greater risk of rape, torture and death.
The work of the international community is not over. Now is the time for great vigilance and a strong message to Prime Minister Rajapaksa to end the crimes and abuse.
So while we take a moment to pause and be thankful that 41 countries have added their voice to the UNHRC decision to investigate allegations of war crimes, the continuing abuse within Sri Lanka must be addressed and with urgency.