Duty to hold Sri Lanka to account for war crimes but Australia embraces the thugs

In some countries, such as Britain, there is continued public pressure on Colombo to hold those accused of war crimes to account. And rightly so.

The Australian government has a rather different view:

Several of the Tamil asylum seekers caught trying to flee Sri Lanka for Australia this week are being held in detention camps without charge under draconian anti-terror laws.

Australia has praised Sri Lanka for intercepting a boat carrying 44 asylum seekers, including two children, with high commissioner Kathy Klugman applauding the Sri Lankan security forces’ work.

But refugee advocates have criticised Australia’s uncritical support for Sri Lanka and accused the government of ignoring war crimes allegations stemming from Colombo’s brutal civil war with the Tamil Tigers.

Despite the praise for Sri Lanka, Prime Minister Julia Gillard this week cited past unrest in the country as a reason prompting people to seek asylum in Australia.

Thirty-eight of the 44 Tamils appeared in a Colombo court after being stopped on Sunday. They were remanded until September 28, except for two boys aged four and seven who were released into the care of their grandparents on bail of 100,000 rupees ($A885).

Six of the asylum seekers are alleged to be former fighters with the Tamil Tigers, the separatist group crushed in a brutal civil war that ended in 2009. They have not been brought before a court but are being detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act at a detention camp.

Sri Lanka has faced intense criticism over its broad use of the anti-terrorist laws, which critics say are used to detain people in secret without charge or judicial oversight. Suspects can be held without charge for up to 18 months.

Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young said yesterday the Gillard government had dismissed Australia’s obligations under international refugee conventions. ”Australia should be helping build protection frameworks in the region, not praising countries for trampling on the rights of their own citizens,” she said.

A Foreign Affairs Department spokeswoman said Ms Klugman was authorised to issue media statements without clearance from Canberra.

A Sydney Morning Herald editorial damned Canberra for its hatred of Tamil refugees over any concern towards the government’s handling of them:

The Australian high commissioner in Colombo, Kathy Klugman, has displayed appalling judgment in praising the Sri Lankan navy and police after the interception of a boat carrying 44 people, apparently bound for Australia. What we know of this particular case is limited: the 44 Tamils, including two children, were picked up in rough seas off the east of the country on Sunday as they attempted to flee. The children are now in the care of their grandparents, 36 others hauled before a magistrate and remanded in custody. The remaining six have disappeared into a detention camp in the country’s south, accused of being former fighters with the Tamil Tigers.

We know much more about the broader context. Sri Lanka stands accused of vicious abuses in the civil war – abuses that were certainly committed by both sides, but a military victory does not absolve the government of its moral culpability. Prime Minister Julia Gillard has acknowledged the conflict was a major factor in the increased number of people seeking haven in Australia in recent years. The United Nations has recognised more than 140,000 refugees from Sri Lanka.

Yet Australia’s representative has blithely ignored the cloud hanging over Sri Lanka’s security forces in what appears an effort to preserve official ties and warn of the dangers of a 5500-kilometre sea passage to Australia. Of course the journey is treacherous. But it is a sour look that damages Australia’s reputation to applaud the ring fence around Sri Lanka and pre-judge the merits of people seeking to escape.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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