Wednesday, 19 March 2014
Like Australia, Sri Lanka is an island nation. The Sri Lankan diaspora has settled around the globe, and the 2011 census records that more than 86,000 people born in Sri Lanka are living here in Australia. After Victoria, my home state of New South Wales boasts our largest Sri Lankan community. I had the privilege of counting many Sri Lankan Australians amongst my neighbours and my classmates, having grown up in the hills and in Blacktown, in Sydney's west.
I would like to acknowledge the efforts of the Subcontinent Friends of Labor, led tirelessly by Harish Velji, who is both a personal friend and a community mentor. The growth of this diverse group within the Labor Party is a vibrant demonstration of the strength of multiculturalism.
I rise tonight to speak about a grave matter, deserving of attention, action and ongoing support of the Australian government. The Sri Lankan civil war began in 1983 and lasted for more than 25 brutal years. This struggle continued for most of my life, before coming to a bloody end in 2009. It was a horrible human tragedy. In addition to attacks on both government and civilian targets across the island nation, the LTTE combatants often targeted Sri Lankans living abroad and wreaked havoc on the global Sri Lankan diaspora.
The events of the civil war and the aftermath have a deep and personal significance for Sri Lankans living in Australia. Many among the diaspora have either lived through the conflict or experienced the tragic loss of friends or loved ones. I must add that one cannot stand before this chamber to speak on this matter and fail to acknowledge that this enduring misery that so many have suffered has contributed to the influx of Sri Lankan asylum seekers seeking refuge in Australia over the past 30 years.
I acknowledge that the Sri Lankan civil war was a complex tragedy. I acknowledge that the allegations of violence, abuse and intimidation have been levelled by all sides in this debate at both state and non-state actors, the Tamil Senegalese and other ethnic groups, and I have no desire to understate or misrepresent this complexity. But two years after the conclusion of the civil war, in 2011, the Report of the Secretary-General's panel of experts on accountability in Sri Lanka soberly concluded that up to 40,000 civilians may have been killed in the final months of the conflict.
The Sri Lankan government encircled Tamil communities in the north of the island nation. Numerous reports into this tragic period, researched and authored by both the United Nations, independent journalists and non-government experts, all presented a long list of accusations that included violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. They concluded that there are reasonable grounds to suspect that many of these violations amount to war crimes against humanity. Allegations against the LTTE include the conscription of children and the use of human shields. Allegations against officers of the Sri Lankan government include intentionally directing attacks against civilians, extrajudicial killings, torture, rape and other forms of sexual violence, and enforced disappearances. But, equally disturbing, five years after the civil war came to a bloody conclusion, there were ongoing reports of abuse, assaults, intimidation, attacks and harassment. We continue to hear of attacks on religious minorities and of harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders, lawyers and journalists.
On Sunday two prominent activists were arrested for investigating the whereabouts of another activist and her 13-year-old daughter. They were finally released in the early hours of this morning without charge, after strong domestic and international pressure.
The United Nations has concluded that most of these allegations are against officers of the Sri Lankan government. Last month the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released a report titled 'Promoting reconciliation and accountability in Sri Lanka'. The report joins many others calling on the governments of Sri Lanka to cooperate with an independent international inquiry to elevate, inquire and investigate allegations and reports of crimes against humanity and other human rights violations, committed by both sides during and after the war in Sri Lanka.
The government of Sri Lanka has denied many of these allegations. It has rejected this latest report and levelled allegations of bias and interference at the authors, as it has done to all reports that preceded it. It has responded with its own investigations, commissions of inquiry and reports. Many Sri Lankans, including many living here in Australia, have also rejected these allegations. There is also an active pack of government supporters aggressively criticising the very researchers, journalists, activists, and lawyers who are documenting these allegations and bringing them to the world's attention. But there are also many in the Sri Lankan community who accept that there is truth in these allegations and I include myself amongst those. There are also many journalists, lawyers, jurists and other expert observers in the international community who are concerned that there is some truth in these allegations.
The latest UN report reinforces the motion sponsored by Senators Moore, Stephens, Milne and Rhiannon in this chamber on 13 February. They also call for a new investigation into the long-running list of allegations and also for the Sri Lankan government to lift restrictions on the media and to bring those responsible for the attacks on journalists, lawyers and activists to justice. The United Nations Human Rights Council is currently gathering in Geneva to consider an independent international probe into the allegations against Sri Lanka.
Today I am also joining the chorus calling on the government of Sri Lanka to engage and cooperate openly with the international community to support an independent probe, to set the record straight, to demonstrate conclusively that they have nothing to hide, that all these lingering allegations, now five years old, are unfounded. Today I am adding my voice to the growing chorus supporting a thorough, independent and comprehensive probe into these serious allegations. Today I am calling on the government of Sri Lanka to cooperate openly and transparently with the UN and to allow an independent international investigation.
Australia was a founding member of the United Nations and we have a proud record of leadership on the international stage. We in the Labor Party are particularly proud of one of our own, Doc Evatt, who was President of the General Assembly when it adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and would later become the federal leader of the Labor Party. I remind the chamber of his words at the great moment in our common humanity when he said it was the first occasion on which the organised community of nations made a declaration of human rights and fundamental freedoms.
I urge the government of Australia to join us in offering our help, our guidance and our inspiration to the people of Sri Lanka. I urge the Abbott government to step forward and join the call for an independent international inquiry into allegations of abuse in Sri Lanka, to act to prevent the harassment of reporters, lawyers and activists and to once again work with the global community.