Human rights

James Packer and Sri Lanka: No country for a new casino

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Human rights campaigner and refugee advocate Victoria Martin-Iverson has very publicly challenged Crown Casinos boss James Packer about his decision to go into business with the brutal and murderous Rajapaksa regime.

IT IS ALWAYS A CHALLENGE for those of us concerned with human rights to get some issues onto the mainstream agenda — such as businesses dealing with the worst human rights abusing nations. 

Standard protests are not even on their radar, however there are the occasional opportunities to challenge business leaders and corporations, which we usually try to grasp with both hands.

Last week, I took advantage of just such an opportunity.  I attended the AGM of Crown Resorts Limited — the gambling fun palace consortium owned by the Packer family plus thousands of Mum and Dad investors.

I was there ostensibly to vote as a proxy for a chap who couldn’t attend, who had asked me to vote in his place.  Company head James Packer chaired the proceedings.

There I sat in a room full of shareholders and a few business journalists, watching flashy commercial videos of happy beautiful people having “fun” at the various resorts and  listened and took notes while Mr Packer presented the books and  romanced “the brand” and talked about expansion, corporate governance and being a

“… model corporate citizen.”

And then during the “ask the board” section I rose and went to the microphone.

I was greeted with smiles and nods when I began by commending the directors on the efforts taken to

“…. be good corporate citizens.”

Mr Packer had been at pains during his address to dismiss any and all suggestions that the Casino resort business was remotely unsavoury or not paying its fair share of taxes. So, I congratulated them on the

“… work done in the rehabilitation of the brand.”

 I then noted “with some concern” that none of this appeared to be consistent with the extraordinary decision taken in October 2013 to partner with the Rajapaksa regime in Sri Lanka.

In announcing the plans for an “integrated resort” in Colombo, Sri Lanka Mr Packer is quoted as saying:

“Sri Lanka is a beautiful and unique country with a huge tourism potential and I have great confidence in its future and it is Sri Lanka’s time to shine in Asia.”

I expressed grave concern that there would be a partnering with a government accused (and, though I did not mention this last week, already found guilty by a tribunal in Bremen) of the first genocide of the new century.

A government accused, not just of war crimes, but of crimes against humanity

I noted the destruction of Hindu temples and Christian churches of the Tamils and their replacement with Buddhist stuppas. I informed the board of the deliberate bombing of hospitals in the so called “no fire zones” a clear war crime. And I mentioned the some two dozen disappeared journalists and political cartoonists. 

I reminded all of them that, since the original plan for a Casino in Colombo were announced, the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNCHR) had voted to conduct an investigation into the allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the very regime they were intending to do business with.

I suggested this very public international condemnation of the regime was hardly good publicity for “the brand” and should it not give the board just cause to reconsider getting into bed with Rajapaksa?

I said to the board:

“Is this really a regime we should be doing business with? This is not being a good international corporate citizen.”

Mr Packer thanked me for the respectful manner with which I asked the question and actually gave a thoughtful and considered response. 

It was hardly an acknowledgement of moral error or a commitment to reconsider however.  The deal is a lucrative one and the company is committed to capitalising on the rising Chinese and Indian market for their “product” and he believes a major resort in Sri Lanka will drive

“… increased international inbound tourism.”

Yes there is a clear business case for the deal. But what about the risk to reputation and to investment potential if the country destabilises again? That is always a risk when dealing with dictators. Especially military dictators engaged in ethnic cleansing.

He excused the decision with the fatuous observation that the International Criminal Court and the UN were too politicised. He expressed disbelief that the criticisms were factual, based on anything other than politics.

Then he mentioned the pending “election”, which he said would be returning President Mahinda Rajapaksa with a substantial majority. The irony of that prediction was clearly lost on him.  

Perhaps worried he had been a tad too dismissive of the very real human rights concerns, he went on to observe ‒ rather oddly, I thought ‒ that war is hell and the Middle East (?) in turmoil. He said he and his family were terribly sad about that and noted that few nations were free from allegations of human rights abuses.

The business in China got a mention at this juncture.

He asked:

“Where do we draw the line?”

At genocide,” I replied.

To my surprise, he appeared to nod and we discussed the issue for a few more moments.

He made it clear he did not believe this regime was very different from any other and that there wasn’t any real evidence to back up the allegations.

I suggested that perhaps he could do just one more thing before making a final decision:

“Before you make a final decision as regards getting into bed with the Rajapaksa regime, would you at least watch the award winning documentary by Callum McRae No Fire Zone?”

I explained it was a detailed analysis of the conduct of the Sri Lankan Government and presents the incontrovertible evidence for war crimes. 

I brandished the copy I had brought with me.  He paused for no more than a millisecond.

“Yes, I will watch your video.” 

I walked up to the dais and handed it to him and he confirmed again, publically, that he would watch this documentary.

The promise to watch has been passed on to the film maker, who was just nominated for an Emmy for the film, which was produced for Channel Four. He has been asked to write a letter to Mr Packer about the film and the ethics of a commercial deal with one of the world’s more brutal regimes.

I wonder how one sells the image of fun in the sun in a nation riven by, not just a bloody conflict, but ongoing human rights abuses and a deliberate program of ethnic cleansing. I can imagine parodies of any commercials that might be created.  Swimming pools full of blood, perhaps?

Mr Packer has publically written about the deal as creating employment opportunities for

‘… Sri Lanka’s youth from around the country...’

Will he insist that any deal must include employment for Tamils?

Will he watch the film? Well we are going to try to hold him to his public commitment.

Film maker Callum McRae has tweeted that he was

‘… looking forward to hearing James Packer's reaction to the watching No Fire Zone.’

It may not kill the deal, but it might give Mr Packer pause.  

At the very least it might make him reconsider the risk to the overall brand. It is hard to market genocide.

James Packer should also read Trevor Grant's new book SRI LANKA'S SECRETS, which may be purchased at the IA store at a significant discount.

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