In March 2014 the United Nations Human Rights Council established an historic and long-awaited international investigation into war crimes and human rights abuses committed during the final phases of Sri Lanka’s civil war. The resolution is widely regarded as an important step towards reconciliation and peace. In addition to establishing a mechanism for examining past violations, including the deaths of 40,000 to 70,000 civilians, the resolution establish critical monitoring of the serious ongoing human rights situation in Sri Lanka.
Whilst the UK Prime Minister David Cameron welcomed the resolution as a “victory for the people of Sri Lanka,” the Australian government stunned many observers with its vocal opposition to the resolution.
Australia is not a member of the Council so it could not vote on the resolution. Nonetheless, Australia’s Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, said she was “not convinced that the resolution’s call for a separate, internationally-led investigation, without the co-operation of the Sri Lankan Government, is the best way forward at this time.” She said that the resolution did not properly acknowledge the economic growth and progress in Sri Lanka or the brutality of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
Bishop’s comments put Australia directly at odds with some of its closest allies – the United States, UK and Canada – who supported the resolution. Surprisingly, her comments aligned Australia with countries known for their obstructionist approach to the resolution at the UN Human Rights Council. You could have been forgiven for thinking she was accidentally reading from the notes of the Russian, Chinese or Iranian foreign minister.
Australia’s opposition to the Human Rights Council’s investigation aiming to achieve justice and reconciliation in Sri Lanka is counterproductive, short-sighted and extremely disappointing.
Sadly, this position is consistent with Australia’s deteriorating approach to human rights in its foreign affairs with Sri Lanka. The Australian government claims that “engagement” with Sri Lanka, not “isolation,” is the best way forward.
However, in reality Australia is now so closely engaged with, and dependent on, Sri Lanka to conduct border control, that Australia is increasingly unwilling to criticise Sri Lanka on any account, even when it comes to some of the most serious human rights abuses in our region. The close relationship puts Australia at risk of violating its international human rights obligation of non-refoulement.
A dangerously close relationship
To understand Australia’s unprincipled position on Sri Lankan war crimes it is necessary to consider domestic Australian immigration policy.
In the last two years over 8000 Sri Lankan people have arrived irregularly in Australia by boat and Sri Lankan authorities claim to have blocked a further 4500 people attempting to leave. These arrivals were just some of the record number of boat arrivals to Australia during that time.
The Australian Government’s obsession with ‘stopping the boats’ and its reliance on Sri Lanka to help block people from leaving their country is the root cause of Australia’s position on accountability for Sri Lankan war crimes.
This is nothing new. In September 2013, Australia elected a new, conservative government led by Prime Minister Tony Abbott, however the previous Labor government formalised Australia’s close ties with Sri Lanka years earlier.
Since 2009 Australia has forged a dangerously close relationship with the Sri Lankan military and police as part of Australia’s measures to prevent asylum seekers from arriving on Australian shores.
In March 2014 the Human Rights Law Centre published a report, Can’t flee, can’t stay: Australia’s interception and return of Sri Lankan asylum seekers, detailing the way in which Australia encourages, facilitates and resources Sri Lanka to block its people from leaving the country as a part of Australian border control and anti-people smuggling operations.
Australian Federal Police officers currently work inside Sri Lanka with their Sri Lankan police counterparts to prevent boat departures. Sri Lankan police had no “illegal migration” surveillance capacity at all until Australia established it for them in 2009.
Australia also provides around $2 million dollars in material support to the Sri Lankan navy each year. Recently Australia provided two patrol boats to the Sri Lankan navy to assist with on-water surveillance and interception. Australia also shares intelligence with Sri Lankan security forces to aid the interceptions.
Mr Abbott now describes Australia as having “the closest possible cooperation” with Sri Lanka.
Australia’s efforts at ‘stopping boats’ are jeopardising the ability of Sri Lankans at risk of persecution to gain access to safety and asylum. The most recent data on Sri Lankan boat arrivals to Australia indicates that between 50% and 90% of Sri Lankans who flee are found to be refugees.
Australia’s support for the Sri Lankan security forces’ interceptions increases the likelihood that Sri Lankan people fleeing persecution are exposed to torture and mistreatment. Australia is well aware of the serious human rights situation in Sri Lankan and the brutal track record of its partners. The Sri Lankan Navy is part of the military now being investigated for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2009. The Sri Lanka Police have a long and well-documented track record of torture and mistreatment in custody, including the rape of men and women.
These risks are compounded by Australia’s domestic policy of forcibly returning Sri Lankan boat arrivals in Australia without properly assessing their refugee status or monitoring their safety on return.
Australia has forcibly returned over 1100 Sri Lankans who arrived in Australia since October 2012.
Australia’s Immigration Minister has made it clear that his preference is for Australia to return all Sri Lankans arriving by boat.
This means that despite evidence that the majority of Sri Lankans arriving by boat are genuine refugees, Australia bases its treatment of Sri Lankans on the politically expedient assumption that they are economic migrants.
Australia uses a so-called ‘enhanced screening process’ for Sri Lankans that arrive by boat. Enhanced screening is a truncated assessment process in which detainees have no access to a lawyer and no independent review of the decision is available. It is a flimsy short-cut and a grossly inadequate way to handle what are potentially life and death decisions. Sri Lankans have a legal right to have their protection claims heard properly – instead Australia subjects them to a less rigorous process and thereby exposes them to harm on return.
Australia claims that no returnees have been harmed upon return to Sri Lanka, however there is no monitoring of returnees sufficient to allow Australia to make that assessment.
The Human Rights Law Centre obtained documents through freedom of information that show one instance where the Australian High Commission in Colombo received a complaint that a returnee had been “severely tortured.” In that case the Australian Federal Police officer based in Colombo declined an invitation from the Sri Lankan police to meet with the complainant to assess his well-being.
This kind of monitoring is woefully inadequate considering the gravity of the complaints made. It also raises questions about the Australian government’s assertions that nobody has been harmed on return.
Other Commonwealth nations
Australia is not a member of the Human Rights Council, although it is a candidate for membership in 2018. It is difficult to know what position Australia would have taken if it had been required to vote on the Sri Lanka resolution.
There was not a unitary position among Council members from the Commonwealth: Botswana and UK voted for the resolution; Kenya, Maldives and Pakistan voted against the resolution, and Namibia, South Africa and India abstained from voting. Abstentions were critical in the result as the vote was 25 in favour, 12 opposed and 12 abstained.
Abstention may have saved Australia’s relationship with its border security partner, but the new Australian government would have failed to live up to its own human rights standards. The government’s foreign policy, at least on paper, includes taking a robust and principled approach to human rights abuses in the Asia Pacific region. Denying access to justice to victims of some of the region’s worst war crimes can hardly be consistent with that.
Emily Howie is the director of advocacy and research at the Human Rights Law Centre. You can follow her on Twitter @emilyhowie.