The war ended with the military’s decisive defeat of the Tamil Tigers and the killing of its top leadership.By Elaine Pearson
When Sri Lankan authorities detained Australian Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon for publicly criticising their human rights record, it reinforced why Sri Lanka is a poor choice of host for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.
The gathering of heads of state from 53 nations, which begins on Friday, aims to promote ”common values” including equitable growth, democracy, accountability, rule of law, and human rights. The principles of human rights are enshrined in the Commonwealth’s Harare Declaration of 1991. Sri Lanka’s increasingly authoritarian rule and poor record of accountability for past abuses make a mockery of these principles.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop should take care not to whitewash Sri Lanka’s human rights record.
Sri Lanka, admired for its beautiful beaches, temples and cuisine, has a tragic recent history. The conflict in the minority Tamil-populated north, which ended in May 2009, took a heavy civilian death toll. According to the UN, up to 40,000 people died in the final five months of the conflict alone. Human Rights Watch and others documented extensive violations of the laws of war by Sri Lankan armed forces. While the Tamil Tigers held several hundred thousand civilians effectively as hostages, the military repeatedly shelled the areas where the civilians sought safety, including in no-fire zones and hospitals. Summary executions and evidence of rape were captured on video.
The war ended with the military’s decisive defeat of the Tamil Tigers and the killing of its top leadership.
After the fighting ended, the Sri Lankan government had the opportunity to promote long-term peace and reconciliation between the Sinhala and Tamil populations and hold human rights abusers to account. Instead, despite international pressure, there has been no accountability and, in fact, absolute denial, and continued human rights violations by the Sri Lankan government.
In 2012 and 2013, the UN Human Rights Council passed resolutions calling on Sri Lanka to take concrete steps towards investigating these allegations. While Australia supported this, it stopped short of calling for an international investigation into war crimes should the government fail to make progress.
Sri Lanka’s denial of wartime atrocities has been matched by a deterioration in the human rights situation. The present government of Mahinda Rajapaksa has taken Sri Lanka in a disturbing authoritarian direction. Top ranks of the government are held by his brothers. The chief justice was impeached after ruling against a bill introduced by one of the president’s brothers. Independent commissions have been rendered toothless. The media and human rights groups have less and less freedom to speak out.
After visiting Sri Lanka earlier this year, Bishop said she found ”no evidence of human rights abuses now”. However, the findings of her three-day trip to the north lie in stark contrast to the more recent visit by UN human rights chief Navi Pillay, who said ”surveillance and harassment appears to be getting worse in Sri Lanka, which is a country where critical voices are quite often attacked or even permanently silenced … The war may have ended, but in the meantime democracy has been undermined and the rule of law eroded”.
While Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced he will not attend CHOGM, saying Sri Lanka has failed to uphold the Commonwealth’s ”core values,” Bishop says his decision is ”regrettable”.
What is more regrettable is Australia‘s blindness to Sri Lanka’s human rights concerns. Australia seems to be reluctant to admit human rights violations as a means of deflecting asylum claims of Sri Lankan Tamils coming to Australia by boat. However, in the long run what will really stem the flow of illegal migration from Sri Lanka is a government that respects the rights of its people.
Australia can either choose to look the other way, implicitly endorsing Sri Lankan abuses, or it can use this opportunity to support efforts for accountability and democracy in Sri Lanka. British Prime Minister David Cameron will attend, but his government has said he will deliver a ”tough message”. At a minimum, Abbott and Bishop should do the same.
By Elaine Pearson