Australia must raise Sri Lankan human rights concerns at Commonwealth summit

Australia must publicly acknowledge and condemn the human rights and rule of law crisis in Sri Lanka particularly given the escalation of international condemnation of Sri Lanka’s human rights record ahead of the Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) in Colombo.

The Canadian and Indian Prime Ministers will boycott CHOGM, and the UK Prime Minister has said he will use the occasion to put serious questions to the Sri Lankan president about human rights concerns.

The Human Rights Law Centre’s Director of Advocacy and Research, Emily Howie, says this stands in stark contrast to Australia’s unconditional support for Sri Lanka and Australian PM Tony Abbott’s intention to attend CHOGM and emphasise the “progress” made in Sri Lanka since the end of the civil war. 

"Australia’s weak position on human rights in Sri Lanka is at odds with positions taken by our international allies and flies in the face of a large body of evidence of the serious and ongoing human rights issues in Sri Lanka,” said Ms Howie"

Ms Howie rejects the Government’s attempts to frame its choice as being one between boycott or engagement and points to Canada and India’s decision to send downgraded delegations to deny Sri Lanka the prestige of standing as equals with Commonwealth leaders. Although attending, the UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, has pledged to use the opportunity to push the Sri Lankan government on human rights.

"If Prime Minister Abbott insists on attending CHOGM, he should follow the British PM’s lead and speak up about the serious and ongoing human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. Mr Abbott went to recent the election saying he wanted Australia to be a principled and robust protector of human rights in our region. Well, now is the time for Mr Abbott to start delivering on that promise," said Ms Howie.

The PM has unashamedly acknowledged this week that Australia’s real priority is to retain a good relationship with Sri Lanka so that it will continue to accept Sri Lankan boat arrivals that Australia wishes to return. Australia has forcibly returned well over 1000 Sri Lankan people since August 2012.

"Our one-eyed approach to foreign policy with Sri Lanka that focuses only on stopping boats leaves us vulnerable to the demands of an authoritarian regime and there is price to pay for that. Our craven approach to diplomacy at CHOGM puts us at odds with our allies and diminishes Australia’s reputation on the world stage," said Ms Howie.

A UN Panel of experts estimates that 40,000 people died in the final stages of the war and that there is credible evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity by government forces and the Tamil Tigers. David Cameron has acknowledged Sri Lanka’s poor human rights record, cruel treatment of Tamils, failure to investigate war crimes, sexual violence and thousands of enforced disappearances and the routine intimidation of journalists.


For further information or comments, please contact:
HRLC Director of Advocacy and Litigation, Emily Howie, on 0421 370 997 or via