Misha Coleman. Open Letter to Julie Bishop on Sri Lankan war crimes.

Oct 10, 2015
8 October 2015.

Dear Ms Bishop

Thank you for co-sponsoring the UN Human Rights Committee resolution negotiated by the Sri Lankan Government, which will hopefully provide some answers and finality to the mothers of 146,679 missing people, through the establishment of a domestic war crimes panel.  You’ll know that these Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian mothers are still looking for their children, their husbands, and they still long to re-inhabit their houses and their land.  (The resolution is essentially the response to the investigation which was undertaken by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights into atrocities committed in the final decade of a 26-year civil war, and was passed unanimously last Thursday).

Given the plethora of horror contained in the 272 page OHCHR report, the ultimate wording of resolution is understated to say the least. The Sri Lankan administration is reported to be ecstatic with the final wording: Colombo newspapers reporting last week that “Sri Lanka is happy that it is off the noose”, and the Prime Minister being quoted last week as saying that his successful negotiation of the final wording (much watered-down from the original) means that “I have kept (the former President) Rajapaksa out of the electric chair.”

Given the closeness of the relationship between Australia and Sri Lanka, we ask you to support the ‘new’ Sirisena/ Wickremesinghe Government to move swiftly on a number of reforms, without further postponements and delays, in return for the ongoing diplomatic and financial support that Australia continues to bestow upon the Sri Lankan leadership. Immediate reforms are also crucial since the resolution adopted today has no timeframe for implementation.

Key and urgent reforms include the review and repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act which provides, amongst other things, legal ‘cover’ for torture and random detention. Another problematic piece of legislation is the Strategic Development Act, which appears to facilitate the confiscation and occupation by the Army of private land, for ”strategic’ developments such as coal-fired power stations, tourism projects and golf courses. It’s also difficult to understand the necessity and wisdom of the recently expanded Public Security Ordinance – which gives military the powers to act in a policing role, noting that there are an estimated 160 000 soldiers in the north and east now (with not much to do), representing about one soldier to every six civilians.

You’ll also know that a huge factor in people’s decision to return to Sri Lanka and to the north is their ability to reclaim the land they owned and inhabited – but it’s estimated that of the 67 000 acres of land occupied by the Sri Lankan military in the north, only 1000 acres has been released/returned to date.

So what do you expect from the resolution? There is certainly an expectation by many Sri Lankans that those who are responsible for deliberate murders of civilians, deliberate bombing of hospitals and no-fire zones, and even genocide if proven, must be punished. This is an expectation that applies to LTTE cadres, the military and the political machinery. It should be noted though that around 18 000 members of the LTTE have already been punished and ‘rehabilitated’.

And the victor’s wrath continues: frequent reports are still made that former LTTE cadre are being picked up off the streets and taken to the dreaded Terrorism Investigation Division for example. Only last week, a man who claims to have left the LTTE in 1997 was arrested by the Terrorism Investigation Division and allegedly transferred to the notorious 4th floor ‘torture department’.

If you expect Sri Lanka to move on, and recognise that the days of the LTTE are over, surely Australia can also finally release those asylum seekers from our detention centres who arrived towards the end of the civil war (2008/2009) many of whom have been in detention in Australia for more than five years, based on adverse ASIO assessments which were often largely based on information provided by the former and highly corrupt Rajapaksan Government.

Hundreds of Sri Lankan asylum seekers still languish in legal limbo in Australia, awaiting their claims for asylum to be processed, while ongoing harassment continues towards their family members who remained behind in Sri Lanka.

The expedient narrative that those who have fled Sri Lanka since the end of the civil war are “economic migrants”, includes those who have lost their children, lost their spouses, lost their jobs, their homes and their land-is this the definition of an economic migrant that you use during the on-water, enhanced screening process that was especially designed by the Department of Immigration for Sri Lankan asylum seekers?

Australia has rewarded the new Sri Lankan Government with political and diplomatic support, which has resulted in the foreshadowed economic and travel sanctions against the political leadership being taken off the table, and which has helped the new Government to regain international credibility.

Will you now reward the Sri Lankan people with your support for some genuine reform, and will you please process – fairly – the hundreds of Sri Lankans who have sought protection from you and your Government in Australia?

Misha Coleman is the Executive Officer of the Australian Churches’ Refugee Taskforce and wrote this letter from Colombo, Sri Lanka.

This letter was distributed to members of the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce.


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