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Tribunal delivers Sri Lanka's guilty verdict

Date

Bruce Haigh

Tamil refugees stranded in North Pagai, Indonesia.

Tamil refugees stranded in North Pagai, Indonesia.

A tribunal of 11 eminent judges has unanimously found the Sri Lankan government guilty of the crime of genocide against ethnic Tamil people. Sitting in Bremen, from December 7 to 10, the Second Session of the Peoples' Tribunal on Sri Lanka found that the crime of genocide has been and is being committed against the Eelam Tamils as a national group.

I was invited to appear before the tribunal as an expert witness on the treatment of Tamils from Sri Lanka by the Australian government. The Second Session in Bremen was convened in response to the determination of the First Session, held in January 2010 in Dublin, that war crimes and crimes against humanity had taken place against the Tamil population in the final months of the war in early 2009, and that further investigation be undertaken regarding the question of genocide.

The two sessions of the Permanent Peoples' Tribunal were established in response to submissions made by the International Human Rights Association, Bremen, and the Irish Forum for Peace in Sri Lanka. The Permanent Peoples' Tribunal is based in Rome under the auspices of general secretary Gianni Tognoni. Thirty eye-witnesses and other experts appeared before the Second Tribunal, some at great personal risk.

The tribunal found that genocide against the Eelam Tamil group has not yet reached the total destruction of their identity; however, the genocide is a process and the process is ongoing. The military killings of May 2009 have been transformed into other forms of conduct causing serious bodily and mental harm to members of the group. The tribunal considered that the proof established beyond any reasonable doubt that the following acts were committed by the government of Sri Lanka:

 Killing members of the group, which includes massacres, indiscriminate shelling, the strategy of herding civilians into so-called ''no fire zones'' for the purpose of killings, targeted assassinations of outspoken Eelam Tamil civil leaders who were capable of articulating the Sri Lankan genocide project to the outside world.

 Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group, including acts of torture, inhumane or degrading treatment, sexual violence including rape, interrogations combined with beatings, threats of death, and harm that damages health or causes disfigurement or injury.

 Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or part, including expulsion of the victims from their homes; and seizures of private lands; declaring vast areas as military high security zones to facilitate the military acquisition of Tamil land.

The tribunal undertook to further examine allegations of forced sterilisation of Tamil women.

Britain and the US were found to be guilty of complicity in the crime of genocide, including complicity by procuring means, such as weapons, instruments or any other means, used to commit genocide, with the accomplice knowing that such means would be used for such a purpose; and complicity by knowingly aiding or abetting a perpetrator of a genocide in the planning or enabling of such acts.

The tribunal recognised that Sri Lanka did not have the capacity to achieve genocide without assistance and, on the basis of evidence provided, came to the conclusion that Britain, the US and possibly India are guilty of complicity. However, due to the constraint of time, the tribunal limited its findings to Britain and the US, pending the availability of further evidence against India and other states.

After the recent gift of two patrol boats to Sri Lanka's navy, Australia is in danger of being one of those states. The gift adds to the military capacity of the Rajapaksa regime to illegally detain and harm Tamil asylum seekers fleeing repression.

In recent times the Rudd and Abbott governments took it upon themselves to send Tamil asylum seekers back to Sri Lanka without hearing their claims. This was done on the basis that they were economic refugees - although how this determination was reached without first hearing claims was not explained.

Australians outside of government involved with the welfare of Tamil asylum seekers have long known of the genocidal intent of the government. But it has been puzzling why the Australian government was not informed of this by its high commission in Colombo.

I took the opportunity at the hearings to ask some of the Tamil witnesses from within the country whether they thought the high commission was informed and they said yes, on the basis that they had briefed Australian diplomatic officers. This raises the question of what was done with that information. The assumption must be that it had gone to Canberra and had been ignored by government for reasons of policy and politics. This would suggest that both major parties knowingly acted illegally with respect to processing Tamil asylum seekers. How low can we go?

Lower, it seems. I was also informed that the high commission has now ceased briefings from Tamil sources in the north, presumably on the basis of what they don't know they don't have to lie about. A form of deniability adopted and refined by Hitler's Third Reich towards the final solution of the Jewish question.

The tribunal requested that states able to do so should take Tamil asylum seekers as refugees.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator, human rights activist and retired diplomat.

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