Tuesday 13 June
May 18 was the eighth anniversary of the end of the Sri Lankan armed conflict. To date, the Sri Lankan government has failed to undertake any steps towards accountability and justice for the war crimes and crimes against humanity that multiple UN agencies and NGOs have documented occurred during the war, particularly during the last phase in the Mullaitivu region. As I read, families of the disappeared—that is, families whose loved ones were victims of enforced disappearances during the conflict—sit in shocking conditions on the roadside in a protest that has now stretched for 80 days. These mothers and fathers of the disappeared are demanding answers to the whereabouts of their loved ones, some of whom surrendered to the army at the war's end, but there has been no response from senior government officials.
While the government passed an act in August 2016 designed to establish an office of missing persons to investigate disappearances, the act still remains just a piece of paper and is viewed very sceptically by the families and civil society alike. Families of the disappeared have clearly stated that, in order to rebuild their trust, the government must take immediate confidence-building measures including releasing the list of surrendees at the end of the war, publicly addressing the protests and emphasising the importance of meaningfully investigating the disappearances of their loved ones. Numerous commissions over the last 30 years have failed to provide answers to these families and they are now at the end of their tether.
I pay tribute to the mothers, fathers, wives, husbands and children who are showing an amazing display of resistance and courage in the face of such disregard and brutality. I also commend the courage of the Tamil journalists in the north and the east for providing the local and wider community with committed reporting on the courageous resistance. They do this with great risk to their safety in a country known for systematically silencing its press. Similar to the handling of the issue of disappearances, the Sri Lankan government has failed to move fast enough on returning land to the displaced persons. Large swathes of land in the north-east continue to remain occupied by the military. In addition, the military continues to engage in extensive civilian activities ranging from running preschools to setting up agriculture stores in local markets. In the Mannar district of the Northern Province, local communities struggle to compete against military-run shops which sell their products at below-market prices.
Recently, the UN special rapporteur on minority rights noted in her report on Sri Lanka that reports have emerged from the war-affected Vanni region of sexual violence perpetrated by Sinhalese soldiers in positions of authority over former LTTE cadres employed in the military-run business and farms in the region. Given the military's deep penetration of civilian administration in the Vanni region, they remain one of the largest employers in the region.
The continued militarisation of the north-east poses a serious to both ending human rights violation and the development of Tamil communities in these heavily-war-affected areas. The militarisation is tied to the government's failure to swiftly return illegally occupied land. The war ended eight years ago, so clearly the land should have been returned by now. There is an urgent need for security-sector reform and a credible accountability process with significant international involvement as set out in the UN Human Rights Council resolutions 13/1 and 34/1. The UN Human Rights Council has given Sri Lanka two more years to implement the commitments it undertook in resolution 30/1 of 2015. Given the very public rejection of that resolution by senior government officials, particularly in relation to accountability, it is critical that international pressure on the Sri Lankan authorities is stepped up, not decreased.
Civil society in Sri Lanka has displayed enormous courage in its sustained resistance to the government's inaction, with numerous sit-ins and protests to ask for its land back. Its actions and commitment are truly inspiring. As we remember the tens of thousands of Tamil victims of Sri Lanka's genocide, let it be a reminder to the international community of our failure to prevent such an atrocity from occurring and our moral responsibility to ensure that accountability, justice and sustainable peace remain priorities in bilateral and multilateral relations with Sri Lanka. Australia could and should play a more constructive and active role in resolving these serious issues.