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Speech: Marie Colvin and Sri Lanka

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 28 Feb 2012

Adjournment speech, Tuesday 28 February 2012

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (22:02): Tonight I pay my respects to journalist Marie Colvin and photojournalist Remi Ochlik, who were recently killed in Syria. Marie lost her eye in Sri Lanka when she was shot at by the military while entering government territory after filing a report from the then restricted Tamil Tiger held territory in 2001. In 2009 Marie negotiated the surrender of two Tamil Tiger leaders, Mr Nadesan and Mr Puleedevan, in an incident that is known as the White Flag Massacre.

For several days during the final stages of the war in 2009, Ms Colvin had been the intermediary between the Tiger leadership and the United Nations. Her contact at the United Nations was special envoy in Colombo Vijay Nambiar, Chief of Staff to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. In the early morning of 18 May, Ms Colvin was told by Mr Nambiar that he had been assured by Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa that Mr Nadesan and Mr Puleedevan would be safe in surrendering. All they had to do was 'hoist a white flag high'. Hours later, as both men and their families walked towards Sri Lankan army lines with a white flag in a group of about a dozen, they were all shot down and massacred in cold blood by the Sri Lankan military. Ms Colvin was a witness to the brutal atrocities committed in Sri Lanka and she will forever be remembered for her brave commitment to justice and human rights.

This brings me to a very disturbing briefing taking place in Parliament House tomorrow. Called 'A nation moves on: Sri Lanka's journey from conflict to reconciliation', this presentation is being hosted by MPs Chris Hayes and Don Randall. One of the speakers is the High Commissioner for Sri Lanka, Mr Samarasinghe. The high commissioner was the commander of the Sri Lankan navy during the last days of the war, when civilians trapped in the government designated no-fire zone were shelled from the sea. On 17 October 2011, it was reported in the media that the International Commission of Jurists named Mr Samarasinghe in a submission containing allegations of war crimes. The International Commission of Jurists' Australian section's submission was sent to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions, as well as to the offices of the Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs.

As I said in October last year, I have spoken extensively to two Australian Tamils who were in the conflict zone in 2009 and witnessed artillery fire from the sea, where the Sri Lankan navy was patrolling into densely populated civilian areas in the final stages of the war. I and Senator Bob Brown have previously said Prime Minister Gillard should ask the Sri Lankan government to recall the Sri Lankan high commissioner while he is investigated for alleged war crimes or, if they are unwilling to do that, he should be expelled. I reiterate this position tonight and once again ask Prime Minister Gillard to give this matter priority.

I note with disappointment what is being reported by a pro Sri Lankan government website, Asian Tribune, that Prime Minister Gillard on 2 February this year hosted at the Lodge the high commissioner and Mrs Samarasinghe at the reception for the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team. I ask all those who are planning to attend the presentation on Sri Lanka by the high commissioner tomorrow to understand that the title for the event, 'A nation moves on: Sri Lanka's journey from conflict to reconciliation', is most likely a construct of a public relations company. The Sri Lankan government has not yet taken meaningful steps to hold to account those in the Sri Lankan government or military implicated in allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Until these issues are addressed, Sri Lanka cannot move on.

In 2009, an estimated 40,000 Tamils were massacred. I have spoken to people who have very legitimate reasons to believe this figure could be even higher, possibly 100,000 or more. Three hundred and eighty thousand Tamils were imprisoned by the Sri Lankan government in barbed wire camps in which stories of abuse, kidnapping, torture and sexual violence were rife. I have met Tamils who had to escape these camps to ensure their survival.

Human Rights Watch says makeshift hospitals in the war zones were bombed by the Sri Lankan army 30 times in five months. The Channel 4 documentary titled Sri Lanka's Killing Fields—which I, along with my colleague in British Labour, MP Siobhain McDonagh, recently nominated for a Nobel Prize—brought the nightmare of what happened to the Tamils in Sri Lanka into our homes. We must not forget these horrors.

It is obvious from the Sri Lankan government's response to the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission report that the Rajapaksa regime has no interest in addressing the issue of war crimes and crimes against humanity. This is despite calls to do this from the UN Secretary-General's Panel of Experts, Amnesty International, International Crisis Group and Human Rights Watch, not to mention those who were fortunate enough to survive the atrocities and are now key witnesses. As well as this there has been no detailed action plan from the government of Sri Lanka on how it is going to implement the recommendations of its LLRC report.

An article published in the UK Guardian yesterday by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former Irish President Mary Robinson stated:

This week the UN Human Rights Council has an opportunity and a duty to help Sri Lanka advance its own efforts on accountability and reconciliation. Both are essential if a lasting peace is to be achieved. In doing so, the council will not only be serving Sri Lanka, but those worldwide who believe there are universal rights and international legal obligations we all share.

According to news sources, the United States government has decided to directly submit a resolution on Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council session. The sources who advise me on this issue understand that there will be support for the US resolution. I have seen what I believe is the draft text of the resolution and think that it falls disappointingly short of calling for an independent investigation into the war crimes and crimes against humanity that took place on both sides in Sri Lanka during the civil war. I do believe the resolution from the US provides a constructive step forward, however, and should be supported. The least Australia can do is offer its support to this US initiative.

Ultimately there has to be an independent investigation into what happened in Sri Lanka during the 26-year civil war. Along with my Greens colleagues in federal parliament, I will continue to add my voice to the growing international campaign to ensure this becomes a reality.


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