Tuesday, 25 June 2013
Questions without Notice
After 30 years of civil conflict, Sri Lanka was a traumatised nation when fighting between government forces and Tamil separatists ended four years ago. Suicide bombing was invented during this period of insurgency. Children were conscripted, women and children were used as shields, religious monuments were blown up, tens of thousands of people were killed, thousands of homes were destroyed and half a million people were internally displaced. It went largely unreported—and that makes all the more remarkable and hopeful the reconstruction that has been taking place in the country. It is noteworthy that nearly 11,000 former Tamil Tigers have been reintegrated and that all former child soldiers have been released. Reconstruction is underway, with 2,000 square kilometres of land having been cleared of mines. Freedom of movement has improved and gross domestic product was up 6.4 per cent in 2012.
Serious concerns, however, do remain. More needs to be done to account for abuses by both sides and to help displaced people return to their homes. Media and civil society are still constrained in Sri Lanka. There needs to be a commitment to an independent judicial system. That was undermined by the impeachment of the chief justice. I raised the matter with the Minister of External Affairs, Minister Peiris, in January and expressed Australian concern. Further progress is essential for genuine reconciliation and responsibility rests with the government of Sri Lanka. We have never ceased to raise these matters when we have engaged with the government of Sri Lanka. In December, I raised these matters with President Rajapaksa and said that Australia looks forward to the full implementation of the Sri Lankan government's own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission report. We have a legitimate interest in these things.
Mr President, I thank the minister for his answer and I ask a supplementary question. Can the minister advise the Senate what Australia is doing to encourage further progress on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka?
(—) (15): The matter is all about accountability and about the implementation of the human rights benchmarks that the government of Sri Lanka has subscribed to itself. Last week I had an opportunity to speak directly to the Minister of External Affairs, Minister Peiris, who is visiting Australia. I, with our High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, Robyn Mudie, moved through an agenda that listed our continuing concerns. They involved the question of resettlement and land ownership in the north of the country. They involved full accountability for the offences committed by both sides during the period that the insurrection came to its conclusion. Australia, of course, co-sponsored resolutions on reconciliation and accountability in Sri Lanka in the UN Human Rights Council in 2012 and 2013. (Time expired)
Based on our view that engagement, not isolation, is the most effective way of improving human rights and the rule of law in the country, we are proud to report that we have invested more than $180 million in humanitarian development assistance since the end of the conflict in May 2009. We have provided support for de-mining and reconstruction of housing and schools. We have trained, and extended loans to, 4,000 women who are the heads of their households, to get them into small business, earning their own livelihoods and supporting their families. We have provided safe drinking water and new sanitation facilities for over 6,000 tea estate workers and their families. This financial year alone, Australia contributed $42.6 million, and this includes support for better quality education and support to improve the incomes of 3,500 fishing families by building new infrastructure. (Time expired)