Island of impunity? Appeasement is no answer

Australia     Australian newspaper The Age published an editorial on 6 Feb calling upon the Australian government to take meaningful action towards bringing about an international investigation on Sri Lanka, stating that the international community has a duty to act on the reports of war crimes.

Editorial – Age Australia

In 1946, the International Military Tribunal sitting in Nuremberg was challenged to consider whether serving officers who had authorised and committed crimes during war had in fact breached international law. The court’s response became an important marker: ”Crimes against international law are committed by men, not by abstract entities, and only by punishing individuals who commit such crimes can the provisions of international law be enforced.”

When war crimes are committed but not punished because a ruling government ignores or, in the case of Sri Lanka, flatly denies that they occurred, the duty falls to the international community to act. We must not fail to do so even when we fear it may jeopardise bilateral relationships. We have an abiding moral duty to do all we can to ensure justice is done.

The Public Interest Advocacy Centre has released a report into war crimes allegedly committed during Sri Lanka’s 30-year civil war. It makes for truly harrowing reading. It documents evidence of mass murders; the killings of unarmed men, women and children; widespread use of torture, rape and sexual assault as weapons of intimidation and retribution; reckless and apparently deliberate artillery attacks on civilians; and the shelling of hospitals and other aid centres. It also reports allegations that implicate the Sri Lankan police and army in the destruction of scores of mass graves that are believed to have contained the remains of many thousands of Sri Lankans killed during fighting.

Atrocities were committed by both sides before the May 2009 ceasefire, by government forces and the separatist militants of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam alike. That much is undeniable. The PIAC’s investigation has found, however, that Sri Lanka’s security forces were responsible for ”the vast majority” of crimes.

What is particularly concerning, though, is evidence that torture, enforced disappearances, rape and sexual violence have continued since 2009 under the government of President Mahindra Rajapaksa. The PIAC suggests the Rajapaksa government has fostered a ”culture of impunity” that allows violations of human rights to continue. Is it any wonder that so many Sri Lankans have sought asylum here in recent years?

President Rajapaksa says he takes ”grave offence” at war crimes allegations, which he claims are perpetrated by ”separatists and losers” wanting to destabilise Sri Lanka. Mr Rajapaksa says they are ”not founded on peace, fair play or justice”, and he has no interest in revisiting events of the past 30 years. ”Bitter memories should be written on sand as they get wiped away,” he says.

That is a petulant and dangerously insular response to credible evidence of serious, widespread abuses. It is certainly not the attitude Australia should even appear to embrace. Yet, a year ago, then foreign minister Bob Carr argued that it was better to foster dialogue with a nation rather than isolate it because of its human rights record. And in November, when Tony Abbott, as a newly elected Prime Minister, attended the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo, he said that while the Australian government ”deplores the use of torture, we accept that sometimes in difficult circumstances difficult things happen”.

This is a particularly shameful and obsequious brand of appeasement by Australia. It wrongly elevates the politics of the bilateral relationship over concerns about human rights abuses and the undermining of the rule of law. The US, Britain and Canada are just a few of the nations that have condemned the Rajapaksa government for failing to do anything.

Australia risks being marginalised. When states refuse to enforce the rule of law, or turn a blind eye, they become complicit in the breach. If we stand by and say nothing, then at the very least we appear to sanction appalling crimes. We hope the Abbott government might champion an international investigation into war crimes in Sri Lanka but, sadly, we do not expect that will happen. (The Age)

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