Australia should act to promote and protect human rights in Sri Lanka

Australia should act to promote and protect human rights in Sri Lanka

As published in The Australian There is mounting evidence that Australia's close cooperation with Sri Lanka on the prevention of people smuggling and the interception of asylum seeker boats is compromising our approach to human rights in that country.

It is well documented that the Sri Lankan government was responsible for mass human rights violations towards the end of the civil war in 2009. The Australian Government has not done enough, either at the international level or through our bilateral relations, to ensure that these crimes are independently investigated and that perpetrators are held to account.

Regrettably, serious human rights violations did not end in Sri Lanka with the cessation of the civil war. Arbitrary arrest, detention and even torture remain systematic and widespread, particularly against the Tamil minority. In November 2011, the United Nations Committee against Torture expressed concern at the “widespread use of torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment of suspects in police custody.” As recently as May 2012, the US State Department Country Report on Sri Lanka documented unlawful killings by “the government, its agents or its paramilitary allies”, together with the continuance of “enforced and involuntary disappearances” and “frequent” arbitrary arrests and detention. It noted that it is difficult to obtain “reliable statistics” on many human rights violations because “complainants were killed and some families feared reprisals if they filed complaints”.

In recent months, evidence has also emerged that asylum seekers returned to Sri Lanka are at particular risk of human rights violations. Leading international group Human Rights Watch has documented at least eight cases in which people who unsuccessfully sought asylum in the United Kingdom were returned to Sri Lanka and endured serious human rights abuses, including torture and rape. Some said they were beaten with batons and burned with cigarettes. A series of stories over the last week by Fairfax investigative journalist, Ben Doherty, documented similar claims by Tamil asylum seekers returned by Australia. This corroborates a May 2010 report by the Edmund Rice Centre which claimed that asylum seekers returned to Sri Lanka were detained and assaulted by Sri Lankan police.

Despite this, Australia works closely with Sri Lanka– including through financial assistance and security and intelligence cooperation – in preventing people from fleeing the country. The Sri Lankan Department of Immigration and Emigration receives Australian aid, and Australia’s last federal budget included almost $11 million to deploy Australian federal police officers to Sri Lanka and other countries to “combat people smuggling.” Despite significant human rights concerns being raised, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen has said, “Australiawill continue working closely with Sri Lanka on issues relating to people smuggling, including preventing and disrupting people smuggling ventures by air and sea.” Australia’s High Commissioner to Sri Lanka has gone further, hailing the interception of boats carrying Tamil asylum seekers to Australia, despite many of these people being subsequently detained underSri Lanka’s draconian “counter-terror” laws.

At best, this undermines the spirit of the Refugee Convention, which gives people the right to flee persecution and seek protection. At worst, it involves Australia, at least indirectly, in exposing people to torture, cruel treatment and other serious human rights violations.

It is time for Australia to recalibrate its relationship with Sri Lanka to put human rights at the core.

First, if Australia is serious about reducing boat arrivals from Sri Lanka, we need to substantially increase our offshore refugee intake and support the UN refugee agency to process and resettle people much more rapidly. A regional approach to asylum seeker policy, as advocated by a cross-party group of MPs who last week called for Australia to “work with our neighbours to establish regional architecture for the assessment and resettlement of refugees”, is highly desirable. However, such a framework requires that we cooperate closely with countries which host refugees, such as Indonesia and Malaysia, rather than countries which produce refugees, such as Sri Lanka.

Second, we should ensure that human rights concerns and safeguards are paramount in any security, intelligence, and migration cooperation with Sri Lanka. Pursuant to the US Department of State Appropriations Bill for 2012, the provision of military aid and training to Sri Lanka is subject to stringent conditions regarding progress on accountability and human rights.

Third, we should join with countries such as the US and Canada in pushing more forcefully for an independent international investigation into war crimes in Sri Lanka and accountability for perpetrators on both sides of the conflict.

Finally, we should suspend the deportation of any Tamil asylum seekers to Sri Lanka unless and until there is significant progress in reducing human rights violations and strengthening human rights accountability in that country.

Efforts to counter and prevent people-smuggling should seek to protect asylum seekers, not interfere with their right to seek asylum. They should never compound or expose people to further human rights dangers. If Australia is to take its place as a principled regional leader and good international citizen, human rights should always trump short-term, partisan political interests.

Phil Lynch is Executive Director of the Human Rights Law Centre