My following article appears in today’s Crikey:
The news that defeated Sri Lankan presidential candidate and former army chief Sarath Fonseka may claim temporary asylum in Australia due to fears for his life is the latest saga in the country’s ongoing tragedy.
Foreign Minister Stephen Smith denies that Australian officials in Colombo ever received an approach by Fonseka and the man himself now denies seeking asylum.
The International Crisis Group late last week said that Fonseka could justifiably be concerned for his personal safety due to incumbent Mahinda Rajapakse’s brutal dictatorship that tolerates no real dissent.
Fonseka’s party’s offices have been raided in Colombo and many of his supporters arrested. He now threatens to make information public that highlights the murky world of disappearances and murders over past years. Journalists have been particularly vulnerable.
But this is not the typical story of an election loser. Fonseka is front and centre of serious allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the regime’s 2009 military defeat of the Tamil Tigers.
He fled America in November last year before US officials could interview him over alleged war crimes and by year’s end he had accused Sri Lanka’s defence minister, Gotabhaya Rajapakse, the President’s brother, of ordering the killing of surrendering Tiger rebels in May.
The People’s Tribunal on Sri Lanka, held by distinguished judges and witnesses in Dublin in January, found Sri Lanka was guilty of “war crimes” but charges of “genocide” would have to be investigated further.
I have spoken to several individuals who were in the combat zone in the final months of last year’s war and they have detailed the government’s deliberate shelling and bombing of civilians and infrastructure, including hospitals. Human Rights Watch has demanded international accountability for countless violations.
Jake Lynch, director of Sydney University’s Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, has documented Canberra’s “official hand-wringing … accompanied by a notable pusillanimity” when faced with Sri Lanka’s crimes. Trade has trumped human rights time and time again.
For Australia to even consider Fonseka’s potential application for asylum would be a grave breach of international law, with serious charges in desperate need of investigation.
Sadly, it would also be unsurprising in the context of Australia’s history of welcoming war criminals and those accused of genocide.
Successive Australian governments, from both sides of politics, have dragged their heels in seriously pursuing the accused. An ABC TV 7.30 Report from 1999 named three suspected war criminals, including Latvians Konrad Kalejs, Carlos Ozols and Heinrich Wagner, allegedly involved in an Ukranian death squad during World War Two.
“Any suggestion that we’re half-hearted about pursuing this matter [prosecuting Nazi war criminals], I frankly find quite offensive,” said then Justice Minister Amanda Vanstone. Yet the Howard government failed as miserably as all governments before them. The current circus over suspected Hungarian war criminal Charles Zentai is only compounding the problem.
In his book War Criminals Welcome (Black Inc, 2001), Mark Aarons reveals the litany of suspected murderers allowed to live free in Australia. Former fighters in the Soviet-controlled Afghan army who executed members of the Mujahadeen, Serbian paramilitary units, Rwandan and Croat killers and Nazi suspects all thrived here due to government “indifference”.
“I think it’s the only crime in Australian law,” Aarons told ABC TV’s Lateline in 2001, “where journalists and the communities affected by the crime are expected to produce the evidence and to conduct the investigations.”
This is exactly what happened when an East Timorese woman recognised in 2008 a World Youth Day pilgrim as Gui Campos, a member of the Indonesian military’s Intelligence Task Force in East Timor during the 1990s and accused torturer during Indonesia’s occupation.
The Lowy Institute released a report last year that highlighted the systemic failures in pursuing war criminals. The conclusion was grim and almost pleaded for the Rudd government to take its global responsibilities seriously, if for no other reason than to, “demonstrate its credentials as a good international citizen in the context of its bid to win a UN Security Council seat.”
Discussing an application from Sareth Fonseka should not allow Australian officials to forget the other prominent Sri Lankan figure on suspicion of war crimes. Dr Palitha Kohona, a dual Sri Lankan/Australian citizen and current Sri Lankan UN representative in New York, is alleged to have negotiated the surrender of senior Tamil Tigers in the closing days of the war (the Tigers were allegedly shot in cold blood). His public comments on the matter have varied widely. He called in May 2009 the aerial bombardment of civilians justified then changed his mind a few weeks later.
Again, an Australian citizen is accused of serious war crimes; ANU Professor of International Law Don Rothwell has said the information warrants a preliminary investigation and yet authorities have remained silent.
Of course, the issue of investigating war crimes should not be solely directed at leaders and officials in developing countries. The international legal system remains fundamentally deficient due to the highly selective nature of its usual mandate. Why, for example, aren’t there serious questions asked when senior Israeli ministers visit Australia, some of whom are accused by the UN Goldstone Report of committing war crimes in Gaza?
The aftermath of Sri Lanka’s recently disputed election puts even more pressure on Canberra to take its global responsibilities seriously. Failing to do so would simply add another chapter in the already dismal history of Australia allowing sanctuary to killers, brutes and generals.
They don’t deserve a relaxing retirement.
Antony Loewenstein is a Sydney journalist and author of My Israel Question and The Blogging Revolution.