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Government turns blind eye to Tamil genocide

Date

Bruce Haigh

Sri Lankan refugees displaced during the final stages of the fighting on October 22, 2009.

Sri Lankan refugees displaced during the final stages of the fighting on October 22, 2009. Photo: AFP

Former Australian foreign minister Bob Carr and his successor Julie Bishop view the world as they want it to be rather than as it is. Bishop, like her predecessor, has engaged in transparent and clumsy denial in order to placate what she likes to term Australia's friends.

She recently claimed there was nothing illegal about the latest round of Israeli settlements on Palestinian territory, only to be taken to task by four eminent Israeli lawyers, including a former attorney-general.

Similarly both she and Carr have described Tamil asylum seekers from Sri Lanka as ''economic migrants'', in order to send them back to Sri Lanka without processing their claims to be refugees; an illegal enterprise under Australian and international law. To further assist in deterring Tamils from undertaking asylum-seeking voyages to Australia, the government recently donated two naval patrol vessels to Sri Lanka.

The Australian government has adopted the fiction that the minority Tamils were the aggressors in the civil war, that the majority Sinhalese won the war, peace has been restored and the surly defeated Tamils must now accept the status quo and get on with life, accepting their position as a minority within mainstream Sinhala society.

That is not the finding of the Peoples' Tribunal on Sri Lanka which met in Bremen in December. I attended the hearings as an expert witness on Australian treatment of Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seekers. The full findings and decision of the tribunal can be found at www.ptsrilanka.org.

It found, "On the strength of the evidence presented, the tribunal reached the consensus ruling that the state of Sri Lanka is guilty of the crime of genocide against Eelam Tamils and that the consequences of the genocide continue to the present day with ongoing acts of genocide against Eelam Tamils", or those living in the north and east of the country.

The Permanent Peoples' Tribunal is an international tribunal, independent of state authority in order to examine violations of human rights. It was founded in 1979.

The tribunal identified that "genocidal social practices are not only attempts to destroy individuals. Genocide is an attempt to destroy the identity of a group, alienating it from its experience and history, trying to strip it of the control over its own past, present and future … The recognition that the Tamil people of Sri Lanka were persecuted, harassed and killed not just as individuals but as a group with its own identity, is fundamental in any attempt to confront the genocidal objectives of identity destruction and it is also a way to ratify the right of self-determination of any people.

''It is organisation, training, practice, legitimation and consensus that distinguish genocide as a social process from other more spontaneous or less intentional acts of killing and mass destruction. The construction of the Tamil population as alien to a unitary Sri Lankan state was a long process, which included legal and political decisions … [and] armed conflict… The repressive and discriminatory practices to construct a unitary state in Sri Lanka reached an important turning point in 1956 when the Sinhala language was determined to be the only official language, after which anti-Tamil pogroms took place."

The tribunal found that the evidence before them established beyond reasonable doubt that the following acts were committed by the government of Sri Lanka: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group and acting with the specific intent of destruction of a protected group. It also found that there was continuity of genocide through ongoing acts of genocide and that the state deliberately inflicted on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.

The tribunal also found that the British and United States governments were complicit in the crime of genocide and reserved judgement on India.

The tribunal urged international organisations and agencies involved in Sri Lanka to be fully aware and informed of the genocidal process which characterises the situation of Sri Lanka and ensure that their presence, investments and interventions do not support the discriminatory practices of the Sri Lankan government. The tribunal said it would hold the Sri Lankan government responsible should any harm befall witnesses from Sri Lanka who testified before the tribunal.

The gift of Australian naval vessels to Sri Lanka, the wilful labelling by Australia of asylum seekers from Sri Lanka as economic migrants and their enforced return to a place of danger, known legally as sur place, (Hathaway, The Law of Refugee Status, p 33) makes Australia complicit in the crime of genocide. An Australian mental health nurse working on Christmas Island spoke publicly in November last year of witnessing this process and the terror of those forced to return.

Lauren Smith, a former Immigration Officer working on Christmas Island, wrote last month that "they were viewed as 'economic refugees', the government saw an opportunity to send a strong message: they were not wanted in Australia. A secret process was created: enhanced screening. This denied these asylum seekers access to legal representation and proper protection during interviews. The aim was simply to send them back as quickly as possible."

It was while visiting Sri Lanka last year that Prime Minister Tony Abbott said under certain circumstances he believed torture could be justified, demonstrating how far removed he is from the considered findings of the tribunal.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator, retired diplomat and former member of the Refugee Review Tribunal.

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