In the centre and south of the country it is not immediately obvious that Sri Lanka continues to recover from a long running civil war.
In and around Colombo it is business as usual and although posters of the dear leader scattered throughout may raise suspicion, locals and tourists generally come and go with few issues.
Heading north, the reminders that Sri Lanka continues to recover from some of the most brutal combat in recent history become more evident.
To get to Jaffna, the very north of the country, you have to drive through a number of military checkpoints. The roadside is littered with old vehicles, often modified for combat and partially hidden by makeshift fences.
There are numerous self-congratulatory memorials glorifying the Sri Lankan army’s actions and the decisive decisions made by the Rajapaksan government in bringing the war to an end.
The physical damage remains in many areas, with a number still being de-mined.
These are but a few of the legacies of a 26-year civil war that was fought fiercely between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the ethnic majority Singhalese government forces.
Until it came to an end in 2009, the fighting was punctuated by numerous human rights abuses, suicide bombings, attacks on civilian targets and massacres.
During the final months of the war, hundreds of thousands of civilians were displaced, with many having to flee their homes.
Shortly before the end of the conflict, the Sri Lankan government announced a “no fire zone”, a small sand bank in the north east of the country where it is estimated up to 400,000 civilians fled.
Here they were denied food, water and medical care. Both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan army were involved in indiscriminate killing of civilians, and, in the final months of the war, the no fire zone was shelled by the Sri Lankan army.
Accounts vary, but it is estimated that up to 40,000 civilians lost their lives, even while attempting to flee.
The evidence of war crimes that has emerged since the conclusion of hostilities in 2009 is now overwhelming.
It implicates the Sri Lankan government, senior government ministers and the current Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who oversaw the final years of the civil war.
CIVILIAN reports, videos, images and reports from United Nations staff on the ground, shortly before they pulled out all tell a similar story of the violence, destruction and torture at the hands of the Sri Lankan government.
Although numerous reports have been released and inquiries called for, the most damming and comprehensive evidence to date comes from the recent decision of the Peoples Tribunal on Sri Lanka.
The Peoples Tribunal, a panel of 11 judges, unanimously found Sri Lanka not only guilty of war crimes, but guilty of genocide against the Tamil people. This genocide continues today.
The tribunal concluded, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the following acts were committed by the Sri Lankan government.
• 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 massive 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 in part, including expulsions of the victims from their homes, seizures of private lands, declaring vast area as military High Security Zones (HSZ) to facilitate the military acquisition of Tamil land.
A number of issues that were not highlighted in the above judgements have also intensified since the conclusion of the war.
People have continued to disappear, a number of journalists and human rights activists have been killed, and the remainder of those who challenge the government are threatened.
Additionally, the constitution was amended to allow Mahinda Rajapaksa to retain power for a third term and dozens of his relatives retain positions of power in government.
There is a feeling among many Sri Lankans, including the Sinhalese majority, that the Rajapaksa government is totalitarian and corrupt, although few would dare say anything as they too fear disappearing.
Sri Lanka has been long recognised as one of the world’s most precarious places for journalists, ranking 165th (out of 180 nations) in the 2014 World Press Freedom Index.
In May 2013, Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa (defence secretary of Sri Lanka) were named among 39 other world leaders as ‘predators of press freedom’.
As you can imagine, Sri Lanka finds itself in questionable company in each of these indices.
More recently the Sri Lankan government banned 16 international Tamil organisations, levelling accusations that these organisations were attempting to revive the LTTE. The Australian Tamil Congress was one of the groups outlawed and branded as a “foreign terrorist” organisation.
During the civil war, and even now, over four years after the end of the civil war, most of the world looked on with apathy, allowing the Sri Lankan government to get away with such crimes.
Investigations have been limited and it was not until March this year that the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution calling for a “comprehensive investigation into alleged serious violations and abuses of human rights” committed by government forces and the LTTE.
The resolution was supported by 23 members of the 47-member human rights council, with the UNHCR being tasked with the investigation.
This investigation was a long time coming and came after years of evidence and eventual pressure from world leaders.
The only useful outcome of the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) held in Sri Lanka in 2013 was to bring light to these issues.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper declined to attend CHOGM, citing the Rajapaksa regimes ongoing and numerous human rights violations, including "intimidation and incarceration of political leaders and journalists, harassment of minorities, reported disappearances, and allegations of extra-judicial killings," as well as criticising CHOGM itself for giving the Sri Lankan government legitimacy.
Harper labelled the Commonwealth "the great, lumbering remnant of the British empire [that]has betrayed its values by letting Sri Lanka off the hook, and by allowing it to host the summit at all".
Other notable absentees from CHOGM who cited the Rajapaksa governments more than questionable record included the Prime Ministers of India and Mauritius, Manmohann Singh and Navin Ramgoolam.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, although attending the conference, criticized the government for its alleged human rights abuses and called for an international, independent investigation.
As for Audstralia’s view, it’s had a front row seat during the civil war and its aftermath, but remained very quiet.
Until recently, Australia at best only privately acknowledged the suffering of the Tamil people at the hands of the Sri Lankan government.
These stories rarely make headlines and are not often told publicly. Many of those who fled Sri Lanka since asylum seeker policy was changed by the Rudd Labor government have been accepted as refugees. Their stories include horrific violence, torture and discrimination.
From 2007-2012 (until measures were introduced to “screen out” asylum seekers) thousands of refugees were accepted from Sri Lanka. Prior to 2012-2013, over 85 per cent of Sri Lankans who arrived by boat since 2008 were found to be refugees.
The recent move for an independent international investigation is an encouraging one, but despite having numerous years to watch what is arguably the world’s most recent genocide unfold, and despite previously acknowledging thousands of refugees who have suffered immensely, the Australian Government has not supported any kind of investigation.
Recently, Prime Minister Tony Abbott stated that he did not “propose to lecture the Sri Lankans on human rights”. Australia’s Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop has also lobbied against an investigation, stating of the recent UN resolution, "I do not think the resolution adequately recognised the significant progress taken by the Sri Lankan government to promote economic growth and its investment in infrastructure in areas formerly dominated by the LTTE in the north and north-east of the country….
“We should recognise the brutality of the LTTE, a proscribed terrorist organisation, during the 30-year civil war from which the country is struggling to emerge".
More recently, Human Rights Watch has also criticised the Abbott government for continually downplaying calls for an independent investigation.
For those playing partisan politics, the action taken by the Labor government while in power was also mediocre at best. Although there was a call for an investigation after public outcry, nothing further was done and an invite was even extended to Rajapaksa for the 2011 CHOGM in Perth.
The Australian government has not only maintained its resistance to hold the Sri Lankan government accountable for its crimes, there have been a number of disturbing policy changes made and maintained by the Abbott Government in the face of mounting evidence of war crimes and genocide.
In November 2013, the Abbott Government announced it would be providing Sri Lanka with two Bay class patrol ships previously used by Australian Customs.
Additionally, under a policy introduced by Labor and maintained by the Abbott Government, more than 1,100 Sri Lankan asylum seekers have been returned since late 2012 under “enhanced screening” measures, with the Sri Lankan government claiming to have stopped 4,500 more, in part due to intelligence and material support from Australia.
In early 2014 reports have continued to emerge about arrests by the Sri Lankan Navy of asylum seekers who were attempting to reach Australia and New Zealand.
In the recent decision of the Permanent Peoples Tribunal, an independent international group focussed on human rights violantion, both Britain and the United States were found to be complicit in the genocide that continues to occur in Sri Lanka.
The verdict regarding the UK reads: “The Tribunal found that UK complicity in the genocide against the Eelam Tamils during the period of the armed struggle and its repression was overt and explicit and qualifies as ‘aid or assistance’ furnished by one State for the commission of a wrongful act by another State", under Article 16 of the International Law Commission’s Articles on State Responsibility.
“Further, the Tribunal views the events of 2009 as the logical manifestation of the structural genocide that had been put in place during the colonial period and in the construction of the newly independent unitary Sri Lankan state.”
And on the United States: “Active US complicity in the genocide arises not only from its sustained efforts to increase the power and effectiveness of the Sri Lankan military, the direct perpetrator of the genocidal acts taking place in the last months of the war, but perhaps even more significantly from its role in blocking and even reversing political and diplomatic initiatives to implement the peace process and in blacking out information on the unfolding critical situation and the unprecedented worldwide protests by Tamil communities in the diaspora.
“These military and non-military actions constitute ‘the provision of means to enable or facilitate the commission of the crime’, as determined to be included in ‘complicity’ in genocide by the International Court of Justice in February 2007.”
There remains questions to be answered by a number of states, and with further resources and time it is likely many more would have been found to have had a hand in Sri Lanka’s war and ongoing genocide.
Australia is, at the very least, morally complicit by failing to hold the Rajapaksan government to account.
Providing material support while also returning asylum seekers to a country where there was already substantial evidence of war crimes and now genocide, raise a host of other questions including legal complicity.
The Abbott government's ignorance and indifference to human rights issues is not new, but why would they provide material support to such a regime and risk being implicated in Sri Lanka’s crimes?
At least in large part, this was merely collateral damage from Australia’s domestic policies.
It suited the governments narrative that things had improved in Sri Lanka since the war, that it was becoming a safe place, a place where reconciliation was ongoing.
This was part of the larger fiction of stopping the boats, where we would tell ourselves anything, as long as the problem was not ours.
Tony Abbott recently marked a 100 day milestone since a boat carrying asylum seekers had arrived in Australia.
The celebrations for this shambolic policy came at a cost.
Some of these are more obvious than others; the deaths and riots on Manus Island and Nauru, the long-term mental health impact of immigration detention and Australia’s complete disregard for human rights.
The governments’ indifference and complicity in Sri Lanka’s genocide is less well recognised but will be one of the most terrible legacies of Australia’s asylum seeker policies.
Initially, and at least for a short time, we indirectly acknowledged the suffering of the Tamil people by providing them with refuge, while at the same time failing to acknowledge the source of the problem and even facilitating it.
Unfortunately Australia’s respect for human dignity has limits and rather than acknowledging the horrific atrocities occurring on the other side of the Indian Ocean, we were sold a convenient and self-serving fiction.
The pending investigation by the UNHCR will provide further insight into what is already well know – that the Sri Lankan government has perpetrated some of the most horrific crimes in recent history and that genocide of the Tamil people is ongoing today.
This inquiry will also raise questions about Australia’s already well criticised asylum seeker policies.
As a nation who provided material support and returned thousands of asylum seekers, we are complicit in these crimes.
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