Canada Puts Us To Shame On War Crimes


Despite their geographic estrangement, Australia and Canada enjoy a common bond and similar outlook on the world.

Both are rated as middle powers. Both have conservative prime ministers who say they are good mates from way back. Their troops have fought alongside each other as long ago as the Western Front and Gallipoli and today, in Afghanistan. They also represent two of the three pillars, along with the UK, supporting the old-world idea of the Commonwealth and its head, Queen Elizabeth.

Yet, as the Commonwealth prepares to hold its most important gathering, the biennial heads of government meeting (CHOGM) in Sri Lanka next month, Canada and Australia are suddenly as far apart as wary adversaries.

Canada is so appalled by human rights abuses in Sri Lanka that its Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, will not only not attend the meeting but he will also consider withdrawing the $20 million it provides in annual funding to the Commonwealth.

The decision, which leaves Canada “one-out” among the major Commonwealth countries, was not unexpected, given that in April the Canadian Foreign Minister, John Baird, described the decision to hold CHOGM in Colombo as “accommodating evil”.

Australia is so enamoured with the Sri Lankan government that the former foreign minister Bob Carr last year offered to assist them to run the forum in Colombo, by contributing skills learned during previous meetings. His intention was endorsed by the new Coalition government.

How can two countries with so many shared values be poles apart on this issue? What is it that Canada sees that Australia can’t?

The answer lies not in any difference in assessment of what is happening in Sri Lanka but in a calculated decision by the Australian government to overlook human rights abuses in order to solve a domestic political matter – the stream of Tamil asylum seekers that have fled to Australia. The basis of Tony Abbott's engagement policy with the Rajapaksa regime in Sri Lanka is a singular desire for help to stop the boats.

As much as it might try, Australia cannot say with any legitimacy that the issue of human rights’ abuses in Sri Lanka is in dispute. The Australian delegate to the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review in Geneva last November officially asked Sri Lanka to “take action to reduce and eliminate all cases of abuse, torture or mistreatment by police and security forces” as well as “all cases of abductions and disappearances.”

There can be no more obvious acknowledgement of human rights abuses and persecution in the country. Also, as a signatory to the UN convention against torture, Australia should, at the very least,  protest these abuses in a meaningful way, especially as Sri Lanka has also ratified this treaty. As the preamble to the treaty says, the signatories desire to “make more effective the struggle against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment throughout the world.” 

Only last month, Peter Arndt, the executive officer of the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission in Brisbane, returned from a fact-finding mission in Sri Lanka. He provided a chilling picture of life for Tamils in the north of the country after a meeting with 12 Tamil women in Vavuniya whose sons or husbands had either been jailed, tortured, disappeared or killed.

“The stories were depressingly familiar,” Arndt told me last week. “One woman’s son had been taken into custody. He and some others protested when they were told they would be moved south to another jail away from their families. They were beaten severely and this woman’s son died a few days later. His legs were broken, his body bruised from being beaten with chains. They even tried to get his mother to sign a letter saying he died of a heart attack.”

It’s another story to add to a very long list of crimes. Canada views the ongoing violence with alarm, but Tony Abbott's government, and its Labor predecessor, ignore it, as well as our treaty obligations. Worse, as well as helping Sri Lanka set up CHOGM, it has indirectly criticised Canada for being the one major country in the Commonwealth to make a meaningful objection.

Making his announcement at the APEC meeting in Bali this week, Harper said the human rights situation in Sri Lanka had deteriorated rather than improved, as the Commonwealth had hoped when it made its controversial decision to give CHOGM to Colombo. 

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott responded by saying: “You do not make new friends by rubbishing old friends or abandoning your old friends.”

Abbott’s view is that friends are still friends even if they are accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the UN, and torture and other forms of persecution by his own foreign affairs department. It’s an attitude that smacks of the bloke next door ignoring a mate’s violence against his wife because you don’t “rubbish” your mates.

Canada prefers to say that when your friends cross the line, you don’t look away from their behaviour. You do something about it.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.