Retract torture statement – rights groups tell Prime Minister

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has been asked to revoke his statement, made during his recent visit to Sri Lanka for the Commonwealth summit, that suggested that the use of torture can be justified in “difficult circumstances”.

In a joint letter, the Human Rights Law Centre, Human Rights Watch, the Castan Centre for Human Rights, Amnesty International and Australian Lawyers for Human Rights have urged the Prime Minister to make a strong public statement that the Australian government always deplores the use of torture and that torture can never be justified.

The Human Rights Law Centre’s Director of Advocacy & Research, Emily Howie, said that the Prime Minister’s statements are inconsistent with Australian law and many international treaties to which Australia is a party, including the Geneva Conventions.

“Torture is both illegal and immoral. The right to be free from torture in all circumstances is one of the most fundamental and universally agreed upon human rights. It is well accepted that torture can never be justified – not in war, not in states of emergency and not in “difficult times” as suggested by our Prime Minister,” said Ms Howie.

“By making these statements on the international stage, the Prime Minister not only betrays Australia’s laws, principles and values, but he provides an excuse for states that torture,” said Ms Howie.

The Prime Minister’s comments that suggested that torture was limited to the Sri Lankan civil war period do not stand up to the mounting evidence of the widespread and ongoing use of torture by Sri Lankan officials.

Australia has already acknowledged concern that Sri Lanka’s use of torture and other ill-treatment went beyond the end of their civil war in 2009 and extended into peacetime. In November 2012, at the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review of Sri Lanka, the Australian government called on Sri Lanka to “take action to reduce and eliminate all cases of abuse, torture or mistreatment by police and security forces.” 

“It is absurd for Mr Abbott to suggest that torture was only used during wartime in Sri Lanka. This flies in the face of considerable evidence, as well as statements already made by the Australian Government,” said Ms Howie.

Ms Howie said that as a middle power and a stable democracy in the region, with a strong history of human rights protection, Australia is well-placed to be a regional leader on human rights issues.

“Mr Abbott went to the recent the election saying he wanted Australia to be a principled and robust protector of human rights in our region,” she said. “Unfortunately we did not see that leadership in Sri Lanka, in fact Australia looked like a human rights laggard. How can Australia be a human rights leader if our Prime Minister does not publicly and comprehensively condemn the use of torture in all circumstances?”

The letter to the Prime Minister can be found here.

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