Let Compassion Define Us Now


On Monday in Canberra, with Foreign Minister Bob Carr and other dignitaries in attendance, the Governor-General  conferred honorary Australian citizenship on Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat responsible for saving the lives of many thousands of Jews in Nazi- occupied Hungary.

In the words of Peter Wertheim of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, through this ceremony Australia is "not just honouring the late Raoul Wallenberg as a man who was brave and who faced down incredible evil, I think we're also saying something about who we are as a nation… that the qualities of courage, compassion and basic human decency are the very qualities by which we define our own national character at its best." 

Yet honouring the courageous and compassionate acts of half a century ago can say nothing flattering about Australia’s national character unless we are also prepared to let that same courage and compassion define our actions in the present.  A genuine tribute to the spirit of Raoul Wallenberg also requires the Australian government to display the same compassion and decency in doing what it can to save lives that are in danger today.

One can’t but question whether Gillard or Carr have paused to consider how strange their actions must  appear to over a thousand asylum seekers from Sri Lanka who have been deported since last August. Over 800 of these have been involuntary returns. The bulk of these deportees have not had access to due process and there have been a number of accounts of the harsh treatment many of them have experienced on return.

Amnesty International’s recent report, Sri Lanka’s assault on Dissent  documents the extremely grave conditions to which Australia is returning asylum seekers: “Advocates for the human rights of women and minorities (including Tamils and Muslims), student leaders and university lecturers, clergy, trade unionists and other advocates for workers’ rights, political party activists, judges and lawyers, and journalists, as well as the staff of Sri Lankan policy and human rights organisations have been subjected to intimidation, vilification, and physical attacks for their comments or actions deemed critical of the government. Aid workers providing care and support to victims of the armed conflict or collecting data on their experiences risk retaliation for their work.”

This state of insecurity in which Sri Lankans of all ethnicities and religions are cast when they attempt to exercise their rights to political expression  is exacerbated by a climate of ethno-religious Sinhala supremacism that is, at best, tolerated by the government and police. The violence and thuggery recently directed at Muslims by an extremist group known as the Bodhu Bala Sena has distinctly fascist resonances.  

Bypassing the warnings of  reliable sources such as Amnesty, the International Crisis Group and the British High Court (which has suspended deportations to Sri Lanka), Australia has chosen instead to rely on the questionable denials provided by the Sri Lankan High Commission.

Although politicians, perhaps thankfully for their and our sanity, appear little given to self-reflection, Carr’s very public penchant for moralising about the US Civil War sits oddly with his cheerful indifference to the historical record of the Sri Lankan war and its aftermath.

Carr’s disturbing defence of the Sri Lankan government and his injunctions for “engagement” with the Rajapaksa regime recall the positions espoused by Margaret Thatcher and John Howard with regard to apartheid South Africa in the 1980s. Australia’s determination to support the Sri Lankan government by attending the upcoming CHOGM conference risks putting this country once again on the wrong side of history, and of condoning the most extreme forms of human rights abuse. 

On the ABC’s Saturday Extra program Geoffrey Robertson, QC, had particularly harsh words for Carr’s wilful blindness, describing him as someone who “wouldn’t know a human right if he fell over it.” Robertson was commissioned by the British Bar to conduct a review of the impeachment of the Chief Justice of Sri Lanka by the Rajapaksa regime. He concludes that the  action was not only “ a calamity for a nation that purports to uphold the rule of law but … an international problem” as well. Calling on the international community to act, Robertson urges, “at very least” a boycott of CHOGM  by “governments which respect the rule of law.” He then goes further, calling for governments such as that of Australia to take active steps not only against the direct perpetrators of human rights abuses, but also those who enable and collude with them: “These identifiable people [who]are collectively responsible for an unlawful attack on the rule of law … the train-drivers to Auschwitz, so to speak –those who are necessary for the perpetuation of a human rights atrocity, even though their part is minor, and their hands unbloodied.”

While such moves would involve far more careful consideration and diplomatic negotiation, as a first step Australia surely needs to follow the leads given by Canada and Britain:  by withdrawing from CHOGM (as Canada has done) and halting summary deportations to Sri Lanka (as the British High Court has done).

Following Canada in conferring a posthumous recognition on Raoul Wallenberg can be no more than a pious gesture if Australia is not also prepared to join with its allies in more urgent defences of contemporary human rights.

In throwing the weight of its support behind the compromised regime in Colombo, both the Gillard Government and the Opposition put Australia’s own national credibility on the line. They risk playing fast and loose with how our own national character is defined for the future, in the pursuit of shoddy and indefensible short-term political gains. Unless they reconsider, Australia, too, could well join the inglorious ranks of those governments who play the role of bystanders along one of the many present-day roads to Auschwitz. 

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.