Julie Bishop’s unprincipled position on Sri Lanka war crimes investigation puts Australia at odds with allies

In an extremely unprincipled foreign policy decision, Australia’s Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, aligned Australia with countries known for their obstructionist approach at the UN with her failure to support the UN Human Rights Council’s decision to initiate an independent investigation into war crimes and human rights abuses in Sri Lanka.

The HRLC’s Director of Advocacy and Research, Emily Howie, who was in Geneva for the historic vote, said the Foreign Minister’s position was unprincipled and counter-productive.

“You’d be forgiven for thinking Julie Bishop had accidentally read from the notes of the Russian, Chinese or Iranian foreign minister. Australia’s reluctance to support a credible initiative that will help to achieve justice and reconciliation in Sri Lanka is counterproductive, short-sighted and extremely disappointing,” said Ms Howie.

The HRLC’s Executive Director, Hugh de Kretser, said beyond the merits of moral leadership on the world stage, it was in Australia’s interest to support work aimed at improving the human rights situation on the ground in Sri Lanka.

“The Australian Government is hell bent on ‘stopping the boats’ at all costs, but it’s forgetting to ask itself, why are the boats leaving Sri Lanka? Without reconciliation and peace, Sri Lankans will continue to flee persecution and human rights abuses and will seek safety in countries such as Australia,” said Mr de Kretser.

Australia has become increasingly isolated on this topic, with the UK and USA leading the charge for the independent inquiry.

“We are out of sync with our usual allies who took a stand in support of justice for some of the worst war crimes and crimes against humanity in our region,” said Mr de Kretser.

In the lead up to the vote, the HRLC and the Public Interest Advocacy Centre delivered a joint statement to the UN Human Rights Council supporting resolution 25/1 to establish an international investigation into alleged war crimes committed in the final months of the Sri Lankan civil war.

“An international investigation is needed to promote accountability for serious and credible allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity, and to achieve peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka,” said PIAC Senior Policy Officer, Daniela Gavshon, in her address to the meeting.

In February 2014, PIAC released the landmark report, Island of Impunity? It shed light on some of the worst alleged international crimes committed in the final months of the Sri Lankan civil war.

“PIAC’s investigation found reasonable grounds to suspect that acts, which could amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity, took place,” said Ms Gavshon.

The HRLC’s Ms Howie said reconciliation and peace are impossible goals without accountability.

“In addition to examining past violations, the resolution will establish necessary monitoring of the serious ongoing human rights situation in Sri Lanka. It is an important step towards reconciliation and peace,” said the HRLC’s Ms Howie.

In the lead up to the vote, the HRLC called on Australia to co-sponsor the resolution.

“It’s pretty obvious and disappointing that Australia’s silence in this debate has been motivated by our government’s obsession with ‘stopping the boats’ and its reliance on Sri Lanka to help prevent people from seeking Australia’s protection,” said Ms Howie.

Ms Howie said Australia should embrace initiatives aimed at improving the human rights situation on the ground in Sri Lanka as this would address the root causes of why people leave.

A group of eminent persons including former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, former NSW Attorney-General, John Dowd, former Foreign Minister, Gareth Evans, and Geoffrey Robinson QC, had also signed an open letter to Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, urging him to back the resolution.

Earlier in March, the HRLC launched report that found that Australia’s co-operation with Sri Lanka to prevent would-be-refugees from seeking protection is riddled with human rights risks and should be stopped immediately.

The report, Can’t flee, can’t stay: Australia’s interception and return of Sri Lankan asylum seekers, which is based on interviews with government officials, information obtained through freedom of information requests and statements from the public record, reveals a deeply flawed suite of policy measures and practices.