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Senate Estimates: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Sri Lanka)

Estimates & Committees
Lee Rhiannon 5 Jun 2013

Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee

Estimates Hearings 5 June 2013

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

See full transcript here

CHAIR: I call the committee to order. We are examining the Foreign Affairs and Trade operations in the area of south and west Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Senator Rhiannon is continuing her questions in relation to Sri Lanka.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you, Chair. In response to a question without notice asked on May 16, Minister Carr said that he would take advice from the high commission in Colombo about the Rajapaksa regime's compulsory acquisition of traditional Tamil lands for no public purpose. Did you request this advice and what information did it contain if it was received?

Ms Rawson : We have, as Senator Carr indicated, sought some advice from our high commission in Colombo on this issue. The basic point I would make is that land ownership remains a controversial and complicated issue in Sri Lanka, particularly as a result of displacement during the civil war. There are disputes between those asserting original ownership of the land and the military, as well as many private disputes among individuals. The situation is not helped by the fact that a number of land title documents were lost or destroyed during the conflict. I think it is recognised that resolving the issues of land ownership will be critical to reconciliation and stability in Sri Lanka and indeed land ownership is a significant focus of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission's report.

The assessment is that there has been some progress in that area. There is progressive releasing to its rightful owners of land that has been de-mined or vacated by the military. However, there remain issues around the permanent acquisition of large tracts of private land in the northern and eastern provinces, for military or other use, which is not consistent with the recommendations made by the commission and does need to be addressed impartially and transparently, and the high commission will continue to monitor that. I understand that in regard to some of that compulsory acquisition by the military there has been court action taken by a number of the land owners and that is underway. I am not aware that there has been any outcome from that. That is the information I have available.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. In your response you noted that there has been some progress with land being returned to its rightful owners. What are you basing that statement on? Is it a statement that you know that that has happened or is it something the Rajapaksa regime has said?

Ms Rawson : I think it is generally accepted that as people have gone from the camps and have been settled back into their areas at least some of those people have been able to return to their original landholdings that had been used for military and other purposes during the conflict. But by no means all of those people; some have been re-settled in other areas. It is a mixed picture.

Senator RHIANNON: Where is the information from: your own people making that assessment or is it what the Rajapaksa administration tells you?

Ms Rawson : I think, Senator, it is an assessment made by our high commission in Colombo. They do travel. They talk to a wide range of people to gather information from not only government sources but a wide range of sources. They do travel to the north and east and gather information and talk to people there. A mixed picture is probably, rather than progress—a mixed picture.

Senator RHIANNON: In December 2012, the foreign minister committed $45 million to build or rebuild poor and rural communities in Sri Lanka. Are any of the construction works from this money occurring in northern areas, such as Jaffna, set to be compulsorily acquired?

Ms Rawson : I would have to take that on notice. It is probably better addressed to AusAID. But, in principle, my expectation would be that we would not be working in land that has been compulsorily acquired. I would be extremely surprised if that were the case, but I would have to take that on notice.

Senator RHIANNON: Is any of the money intended to be spent in traditional Tamil lands or in Singhalese areas only?

Ms Rawson : I do not know the answer to that.

Senator RHIANNON: Take it on notice.

Ms Rawson : Or AusAID may be able to help you tomorrow evening. It is money that comes within the Development Cooperation Program

Senator RHIANNON: How closely is this $45 million being monitored or controlled by the department?

Ms Rawson : Again, it is—

Senator RHIANNON: So it is totally AusAID?

Ms Rawson : It is aid money, so it would be administered by AusAID.

Senator RHIANNON: If there are signs of political interference in the Supreme Court hearing of the Tamil's application, what kinds of measures will the government consider to stem this gradual collapse of democratic institutions?

Ms Rawson : I am not aware that there have been any allegations of interference in that process.

Senator RHIANNON: It is to do with some of the Tamil's owning lands in Valikamam, north. They have filed writs in the Supreme Court to reclaim their lands adjacent to an, allegedly, lapsed high-security zone. So there has been concern expressed about possible political interference. I was just interested in any measures that the government would consider and how you respond to that considering we have such a high level of engagement with Sri Lanka?

Ms Rawson : I do not know the facts of that particular case, so I would take it on notice. But I would add that, as Senator Carr has said here and in the House and publicly on a number of occasions, we have a very robust dialogue with the Sri Lankan government about human rights issues, including issues around independence of the judiciary. So, the situation you describe, and as I say, I do not know the details, comes within the framework of the dialogue we do have with the Sri Lankan government.

Senator RHIANNON: How many requests for asylum and humanitarian protection were received by the Australian High Commission in Colombo?

Ms Rawson : I do not have the answer to that. Normally, the High Commission would not receive those requests. They go through the DIAC channels or UNHCR.

Senator RHIANNON: But isn't DIAC based in the commission?

Ms Rawson : There are DIAC people in the High Commission. I am getting into an area where I am not familiar, but normally requests for asylum would not come to the High Commission; they would be dealt with through UNHCR and other processes.

Senator RHIANNON: I thought the High Commission had a mechanism where they could assist people who apply for asylum and that is what I wanted to explore. Has that happened and if it has have any people been given assistance?

Ms Rawson : I am not aware of any instance where an application has been made at the High Commission, but I can take that on notice.

Senator RHIANNON: DFAT has previously advised that asylum seekers who have been involuntarily returned from Australia are able to make a complaint to the Australian high commission about their treatment in Sri Lanka on return. If so, what is the process that returnees must follow to make a complaint to the high commission about mistreatment on their return?

Ms Rawson : I think the advice was not that they were able to or invited to make complaints to the high commission. There have been instances where complaints or allegations of mistreatment in a small number of cases have been drawn to the attention of the high commission or one of the officers of the high commission and, in a couple of those cases, as I think we informed the committee last time, there has been some follow-up by the high commission—not a formal investigation of any kind. The high commission in Colombo does not have the local authority to conduct investigations, but there is some follow-up action undertaken discretely about that. But I should make the point it is not general practice for countries returning failed asylum seekers to their country of origin to monitor the individuals after their arrival. That would be intrusive and could draw unfavourable attention to the people concerned.

Senator RHIANNON: It was not about monitoring them. It was just that—'just' is the wrong word in this case—because there have been allegations of people being mistreated, I understood that had been one of the guarantees or one of the statements made to help handle the controversial situation for people returning. Was I mistaken? In fact that channel has not been opened up?

Ms Rawson : The understanding that there is a formal way, if you like, to register a complaint—that is not the case. Obviously, if people wish to register an allegation with the high commission, either directly or through someone else, that can be done. The high commission is there and can be contacted in a number of ways, but there is no formal complaints mechanism.

Senator RHIANNON: I was going to ask how many complaints have been received. It sounds like they would not have been received because there is no process.

Ms Rawson : I think, as we have said before, there have been four claims since 2010 of mistreatment of returnees, and two of those claims have been, as I said, not 'investigated' but followed-up, and were found to be unsubstantiated. The other two remain subject to follow-up.

Senator RHIANNON: Is it possible that the small number of complaints received at the high commission is because returnees are unaware of their ability to access the high commission complaint process?

Ms Rawson : There is no high commission complaints process.

Senator RHIANNON: Or are unaware that they can do anything about it.

Ms Rawson : It is not part of the high commission's formal processes to register complaints. But, as I said, if claims are made and they come to the attention of the high commission, they will be followed-up as appropriate to the circumstances. And, to our knowledge, there have been four occasions of that since 2010.

Senator RHIANNON: Considering there have been allegations of torture of people who have been returned to Sri Lanka, has DFAT implemented any proactive monitoring of this? What is the response to those allegations?

Ms Rawson : There has been no formal response to that. I am not sure to which instances you are referring but again I go back to the point that we do have a general dialogue with the Sri Lankan authorities. If there are any reports of harm coming to individuals following their return then these are taken seriously and would be followed up where appropriate. That has happened in four cases, as I said. But the high commission does not go out canvassing for—

Senator RHIANNON: So, 'you do not go out canvassing' means that it is not highlighted and publicised that people returned from Australia can take up issues with the high commission.

Ms Rawson : No, that is not put out as a formal responsibility of a high commission, but if claims are drawn to the high commission's attention, or if they became aware of them in regard to an asylum seeker who had been returned from Australia then they will follow up, as appropriate.

Senator RHIANNON: Is DFAT or high commission staff ever present or involved in questioning any of the Sri Lankan people who are intercepted by Sri Lankan authorities, in the context of wanting to leave the country?

Ms Rawson : I am not aware of any DFAT involvement in those circumstances.

Senator RHIANNON: Can you take that on notice: whether there were any DFAT or high commission staff who had been present when Sri Lankan people who were wishing to leave the country, or had taken steps to leave the country, have been intercepted by the authorities?

Ms Rawson : Yes, I will take that on notice. But I should add that the high commission in Colombo does emphasise regularly to the Sri Lankan authorities the government's expectation that all people who are detained after a people-smuggling venture has been disrupted are treated in accordance with the Sri Lankan law, are treated fairly and their rights protected.

Senator RHIANNON: Have any DFAT staff played a role in the interviews of interceptees at the fourth-floor facilities of the Criminal Investigation Department or the Terrorist Investigation Division in Colombo?

Ms Rawson : Not that I am aware of. I cannot imagine the circumstances in which there would be a need for a DFAT officer, or a wish for a DFAT officer, to be there. Again, I will make sure that I check that answer and will correct it if that is wrong.

Senator RHIANNON: Is DFAT aware of a document produced by Human Rights Watch in February 2013 entitled Sri Lanka: rape of Tamil detainees?

Ms Rawson : I am not aware of that particular document. I am aware that there was a Human Rights Watch document this year. I was not sure whether that is the name of it. If you would not mind, give me a moment to check my papers. Sorry, as I say, I am aware that there was a Human Rights Watch report. Whether it is the particular one you are referring to I would have to check.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. Where I was leading to here was that, partly, I am trying understand how your process works in terms of assessing what is happening in Sri Lanka and then your briefings that are supplied to the minister and the government.

So there is a Human Rights Watch report, which I have just mentioned. Then, in April this year, Amnesty International put out a report saying that the upcoming CHOGM meeting should not be allowed to take place in Sri Lanka unless the systematic violation of human rights is stopped. Then also this year in the same month, the Commonwealth Lawyers' Association passed a resolution calling for Sri Lanka's suspension from the Commonwealth altogether. So there are three significant organisations. Do you monitor the views of such organisations and then convey the details of these reports to the foreign minister with regard to their decision making about CHOGM or other activities to do with Sri Lanka?

Ms Rawson : We take into account a number of sources. I am aware, for example, of the Amnesty International report that I think you referred to. Looking at my notes, I think the Human Rights Watch report that you referred to is the one that we had looked at. There are, of course, documents prepared in terms of Human Rights Council sessions, which we talked about. We and the high commission in Colombo try to draw on as much information as possible in terms of the advice we provide to the minister about the situation in Sri Lanka.

Senator RHIANNON: You have identified that you are aware of those reports. Can you confirm if information from those reports was used to inform the advice or briefings that were provided to the government?

Ms Rawson : Information from such reports is part of the information base on which the department and the high commission in Colombo draw on informing advice to the minister on what is happening in Sri Lanka. They are not the only things but they certainly form part of drawing the whole picture.

Senator RHIANNON: On April 24, the ABC 7.30 ran a story about a Tamil man living Melbourne, who was abducted, raped and tortured by Sri Lankan army intelligence officers in Sri Lanka. I was interested to know if you were aware of the story and will the abuse of this man be addressed as part of this engagement with Sri Lanka?

Ms Rawson : I am aware of that story. I did not see it, but I have been told about it and the claims made. Again, allegations were made. I have no basis to say whether they were accurate or not. I cannot make any judgement on that. In terms of the range of allegations made, we consistently make known to the Sri Lanka government our concerns about the human rights situation, and certainly the claims that were made by the person on the ABC report would be of concern if they were correct.

Senator RHIANNON: The understanding that I gain from your response is that you would be dealing with this issue in the general rather than taking up the specific case that was dealt with in this program. Is that what I should conclude?

Ms Rawson : Sometimes there will be a specific instance where an individual would be singled out, if you like, in terms of the assessments made; but, generally, it is in regard to the overall situation.

Senator RHIANNON: Has the department prepared a brief about the merits or otherwise of Australia not attending the Colombo CHOGM as compared with attending the Colombo CHOGM in November?

Ms Rawson : As I said, I think in answer to Senator Eggleston before the dinner break, the government has made its position clear on going to CHOGM, and it will do so.

Senator RHIANNON: I meant before the decision was made. Did you prepare advice on going and not going? Did that advice include what the Canadian Prime Minister said about he will handle it? Was that how you informed the minister?

Ms Rawson : My division, which has responsibility for Sri Lanka, has not provided advice. There is another division that looks at Commonwealth matters. Australia would normally attend CHOGMs and the government has been clear that it will attend this CHOGM.

Senator RHIANNON: There have been experiences over many years of countries not going to CHOGM. In this case the Canadian Prime Minister made his statement very early. I think it was actually at the Perth meeting. Was an assessment made about that? Has the department engaged in any discussions with other Commonwealth countries about attendance or otherwise of Canada to Sri Lanka and the implications of this development.

Ms Rawson : As I said, the government's position has been clear. We, of course, discuss issues with other Commonwealth countries, including Canada, and there have been discussions with Canada and other countries on CHOGM. Australia's position has been clear that we will attend, and that is the basis on which the discussions would be held.

Senator RHIANNON: You have identified that there have discussions with Canada about CHOGM. Was that to understand what the level of involvement was or was it about trying to persuade the Canadian Prime Minister to go? What was the level of discussion, please?

Ms Rawson : To my knowledge, and I am not across all the discussions that there have been about these issues, they would generally be in terms of putting Australia's position, as we do in most cases, about our view on attendance at CHOGM. It is for other countries to form their views on whether they attend or not.

Senator RHIANNON: Could you take it on notice to advise whether there were any discussions by DFAT or ministerial staff with Canadian representatives to encourage Canada to change its position?

Ms Rawson : Yes, I will take that on notice, but, as I said, I am certainly not aware of any discussion along those lines, but I will correct that if it is wrong.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. It has come to my attention that four Tamils, who have recently been returned to Sri Lanka from Australia, are still waiting for their identification cards to be returned to them by Australian authorities. Do you know anything about this?

Ms Rawson : No.

Senator RHIANNON: Considering they have been returned by the Australian authorities, can you explain where this sits in terms of responsibility between DFAT and DIAC?

Ms Rawson : No, I cannot, Senator. I do not even know of the existence of identification cards. I would have to take that on notice.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. During his 2012 visit, Minister Bob Carr announced a four-point plan for security cooperation with Sri Lanka, which he said would, among other things, increase on-water cooperation between Australia and Sri Lanka. Which Australian agencies are involved in on-water cooperation with Sri Lankan authorities?

Mr Chittick : The on-water disruptions in Sri Lanka are undertaken by the Australian Navy, and there is cooperation between the Australian Defence Force and the Sri Lankan defence forces, and also engagement by the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. You have outlined some of the Sri Lankan authorities that we engage with as Sri Lankan defence forces. Could you outline all the Sri Lanka authorities and agencies that we are cooperating with?

Mr Chittick : I am not sure I can provide a comprehensive list. On-water disruptions are the purview of the Sri Lankan navy. The Sri Lankan police force undertakes the normal policing role in Sri Lanka, which is primarily on land. Between those two are the large majority, if not all, of the disruption activity which takes place in Sri Lanka.

Senator RHIANNON: Can you take on notice which agencies, departments or authorities in Sri Lanka we are engaging with?

Mr Chittick : Yes, I can take that on notice.

Senator RHIANNON: What is the nature of the cooperation and the role played by Australian authorities with these Sri Lankan agencies and authorities?

Mr Chittick : Those two Sri Lankan agencies participate in the Joint Working Group on People Smuggling and Transnational Crime, which is a new joint working group established in December 2012 and opened by Senator Carr. The engagement between Australian agencies and those agencies is primarily related to sharing experience and building capacity. Indeed, a part of Senator Carr's four-point plan was focused on capacity building. That capacity is generally in what I would call software rather than hardware. It is about training and sharing experience. People smuggling is but one element of that broad relationship between our police services and our navies.

Senator RHIANNON: How many Australian personnel are involved in this cooperation in Sri Lanka? What is the number of people and the number of our boats? I am trying to get an idea of the hardware we have there and the people we have there.

Mr Chittick : We have no hardware there.

Senator RHIANNON: No boats?

Mr Chittick : No boats.

Senator RHIANNON: How many people?

Mr Chittick : It would be the relevant staff from the high commission, who are there permanently, and visiting staff from a range of agencies who conduct training courses and other capacity-building initiatives in Sri Lanka. I know from seeing recent reporting that there was a visit recently by the Attorney-General's Department to provide training to magistrates, for instance—prosecuting people-smuggling crimes.

Senator RHIANNON: Can we have some numbers there? How many visiting staff and how many staff from the high commission are seconded to this project?

Mr Chittick : I think we can provide a general sense. I think it would be very difficult to provide a comprehensive list. It would run across all agencies of the Australian government.

Senator RHIANNON: Why would that be? I am not asking for people's names. I am just asking for the number of personnel who are doing a job paid by the Australian public.

Mr Chittick : I can certainly take that on notice and provide the best information we have available.

Senator RHIANNON: If I understood correctly, you are saying that a lot of the work is training. As well as training, what other activities are they involved in? Are they involved in physically intercepting boats or collecting intelligence on whether the boats are leaving? Can you describe the extent of the work?

Mr Chittick : Australian officials are not directly involved in disruption activities in Sri Lanka. That is a matter for the sovereign state of Sri Lanka. As to intelligence matters, I do not intend to comment.

Senator RHIANNON: So they are not directly involved. I appreciate that you cannot go into the detail—and I am not asking you to—on the intelligence matters. But I just want to understand the work they do. They are not directly involved in intercepting boats but the intelligence they are involved in could help inform the Sri Lankan authorities of where the boats are leaving from and who is on the boats?

Mr Chittick : I am not going to discuss intelligence matters.

Senator RHIANNON: You said that part of the work is dealing with people smuggling and part of it is transnational crime. Can you quantify what dominates in terms of that work?

Mr Chittick : The joint working group is in its early stages of development. The first meeting in Colombo had a significant focus on people smuggling. There were a range of transnational crimes discussed, primarily in terms of our police to police relationship. But primarily people smuggling was the focus at this stage. We are certainly interested in ensuring that there is a balanced agenda into the future so that we can sustain this institution.

Senator RHIANNON: When you talk about transnational crime, could you give some specific examples? There have been some reports that the government is giving an emphasis to transnational crime to try to dilute that it is basically about people smuggling. That is why I am trying to understand the extent to which it is about transnational crime. Could you specify what crimes we are talking about and how much has been done about it?

Mr Chittick : At this time it is still in its early stages of development. The first meeting was held in Colombo in December. The people-smuggling agenda is very well developed. The transnational crime agenda is being developed and, certainly from the Australian side, we are keen to develop that. At this stage it is very difficult to identify specific crime types that would be the focus. AFP would be a much better agency to seek information from about how we view the future of our bilateral cooperation on transnational crime.

Senator RHIANNON: You cannot even tell us if it is narcotics, or organised crime? Have you not got to that point?

Mr Chittick : Not at this point. Certainly, the agenda is one which we are keen to develop over the future.

Senator RHIANNON: Would you say whether it is 10 per cent transnational crime and 90 per cent people smuggling at this stage? Would you give us some ballpark figures?

Mr Chittick : I could not give a specific figure, but I think it is fair to say that the majority of time spent at the first of the working group meetings was devoted to people smuggling. We would anticipate that in future that will be balanced to ensure that the broad range of issues and both countries' interests in them are reflected in that agenda.

Senator RHIANNON: What does the future mean? Does the future mean in six months, or in three years?

Mr Chittick : We plan to have these annually. The first was in December last year. We are at a very early stage of planning for the next one. We will look to have them annually.

Senator RHIANNON: Do you have some targets you are aiming for in developing the transnational work in one year's time? Or will you just start talking about it in a year's time?

Mr Chittick : The agencies responsible for transnational crime within the Australian government are turning their attention to that and developing programs for that. But I am not aware, at this stage, of what they are.

Senator RHIANNON: You are not sure if there are targets. Will you take it on notice as to whether there are any targets for increasing the amount of time or effort and resources on transnational crime compared to people smuggling? Or is people smuggling going to continue to dominate?

Mr Chittick : As I said, we are keen to have a balance of both people smuggling and transnational crime in the agenda for the next working group and for future working groups. I do not think there are developed targets at this stage for what we would discuss at the next joint working group on transnational crime, but agencies in Australia are developing a plan for the agenda for that meeting, to ensure that transnational crime plays a balanced role within that joint working group.

Senator RHIANNON: Can we take from 'balance' that you are getting towards 50 per cent? Is that what you mean by 'balance'?

Mr Chittick : It is difficult to quantify over time or at any one time what a particular proportion is, but we have an interest in ensuring that there is a balanced approach to this that sustains both countries' interests in this joint working group.

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