Human rights

Australia's complicity with brutal regime exposed

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For some time now, the world has been watching Australia drift away from its much-vaunted democratic foundations towards a menacing authoritarianism, where a government routinely treats the rule of law and the right to natural justice as inconvenient obstacles to be cast aside at any given time.

This week, we have seen this dark, disturbing trend exposed to the light through the astonishing attack upon the president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Professor Gillian Triggs, for having the temerity to report truthfully on the irreparable damage successive governments have inflicted upon innocent asylum-seeker children by keeping them locked up for many months and, in some cases, years.

When a government elects to go down this path, it gradually infects everything it does. Indeed, the Abbott Government has become so emboldened by the ideological warriors at its helm that this belief in optional adherence to the law is worn as a badge of honour.

There was not the slightest sign of concern in Government ranks when it was revealed it had probably committed a criminal act in offering an inducement to Professor Triggs while trying to get her to resign. To them, it’s another cost of doing business.

As we’ve so often seen on asylum-seeker policy, any law that obstructs political will is a law to be, first ignored, and then changed. And while Abbott has become a master at it, he already had a pretty good template to polish, given the approach of his predecessors in the Labor Government.

Our signature on global treaties has meant nothing to recent Labor or Coalition governments. When the UN Human Rights Committee found Australia guilty of 146 breaches of international law in 2013 and ordered them to release, compensate and rehabilitate 46, mostly-Tamil, indefinitely-detained refugees, both sides of politics thumbed their noses at the order, not even bothering to reply within the six months’ time frame.

In this context, foreign policy also becomes riven with even more hypocrisy and duplicity than usual. Once a government convinces itself it’s okay to ignore international legal responsibilities, it’s all downhill from there.

Thus, it’s unsurprising to learn this week from new Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, in an interview in The Australian newspaper, that the Australian Government had kept silent on the human rights’ abuses of the brutal regime of Mahinda Rajapaksa in order to get his co-operation to stop asylum-seekers fleeing to Australia.

According to Wickremesinghe, Rajapaksa, who was voted out at last month’s elections, had connections to people smugglers making vast sums out of fleeing Tamils. The Australian government knew this, and had to agree to overlook his vicious abuses of Tamils to get him to halt the boats.

Officially, it is confirmed that the likes of Labor’s former foreign minister Bob Carr, his successor Julie Bishop, along with former Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, were all part of a concerted campaign of misinformation to fool Australians into believing there was no reason for Tamils to flee their country and they were perfectly safe when returned.

It was a campaign unbounded by any moral, ethical or legal considerations, as was made plain when Tony Abbott became such a compliant supporter of Rajapaksa.

He openly supported him at CHOGM in Colombo in 2013 when his Canadian and Indian counterparts refused to attend, and the British Prime Minister PM, David Cameron, publicly criticised Sri Lanka’s human rights’ abuses.

When asked at CHOGM about torture in Sri Lankan gaols, Abbott’s infamous reply – “in difficult circumstances, difficult things happen” – became a depressing historical marker in Australia. It was the first time a Prime Minister had publicly condoned torture.

Then came the ultimate descent, when Australia refused to join with the US, Canada and the UK last March in initiating a UN war crimes’ investigation in Sri Lanka, preferring to vote with such champions of human rights as China, Russia and Saudi Arabia to try, unsuccessfully, to block the inquiry.

Now that we know the truth, as revealed by the new Sri Lankan PM, there is only one conclusion to draw here. The likes of Abbott, Bishop, Morrison and their predecessors in Labor governments, Rudd, Gillard, and Carr, are complicit in abuses that include the murder, rape, torture and disappearances of thousands of Tamil civilians.  

But what is most disturbing is that these crimes against humanity are continuing.

The new Sri Lankan regime remains determined to carry on the oppression of Tamils, refusing to end the brutal military occupation of the Tamil homelands, cancel the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act or release thousands of political prisoners held for many years in jails, where torture and disappearances are rife.

Those who try to flee this persecution and are caught, will continue to be treated as criminals under Sri Lankan law, facing two years ‘rigorous’ imprisonment after being locked up and charged.

And it will be done with the full approval of a government in Australia that has an ever-decreasing interest in upholding the rule of law.

Trevor Grant is author of ‘Sri Lanka’s Secrets: How The Rajapaksa Regime Gets Away With Murder’, published by Monash University Publishing, Australia, 2014. Purchase a copy of SRI LANKA’S SECRETS from IA’s online store for our special discounted price (including FREE SHIPPING within Australia) here.

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