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Published in The National Times 18 July 2012 and The Canberra Times 22 July 2012

Writing in The Canberra Times on 18 July, Daniel Flitton advises that the AFP have dropped an investigation of war crimes into the Sri Lankan High Commissioner, former Admiral, Thisara Samarasinghe.

Samarasinghe joined the Sri Lankan navy in 1974 and retired in 2011, after his appointment to Australia became known. Samarasinghe was Chief of Staff of the Sri Lankan navy in 2009 when the navy carried out the shelling of Tamil women and children in a safe zone designated by the Sri Lankan defence force, in the north of the country, at the end of the civil war between the Tamils and the Sinhalese.

Whether he ordered the shelling or not, Samarasinghe as Chief of Staff held a very senior and responsible position in the navy and as a result must be held to account.

There is no question that Samarasinghe should be recalled. A former Commodore in the Sri Lankan navy has been refused permission by the Canadian Federal Court to apply for refugee status in Canada because of his complicity in war crimes in 2009.

In 2005 and 2008 the Canadian Government refused to accept nominations from the government of Sri Lanka for the position of high commissioner on grounds that both nominees were guilty of human rights abuse.

In September 2011, former Sri Lankan General, Jaghat Dias, who had been appointed ambassador to Germany and Switzerland, was recalled to Colombo, following accusations that he was complicit in the shelling of civilian and hospital targets at the end of the war.

In 1995 the nomination, as ambassador, of former Indonesian General Herman Mantiri was rejected by Australia on the basis of war crimes committed against the East Timorese.

The UN has accepted that the Sri Lankan defence forces were guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the final weeks of the war, just as they accept that both sides in the civil war were guilty of war crimes during the course of the conflict.

The President of the International Commission of Jurists in Australia, John Dowd, AO, released a statement on 17 October last year which said in part, “Those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity at the end of the Sri Lankan civil war in 2009 must not be allowed to go unpunished. The expert committee established by the United Nations Secretary-General found credible allegations of serious violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law.”

Senator Lee Rhiannon of the Greens says, “If the Prime Minister has information which clears the High Commissioner of any complicity in war crimes then she should share this with the Australian people. If not, the Australian government should immediately ask the Sri Lankan government to recall its High Commissioner, or move to expel him.”

The AFP should never have been tasked with investigating the matter of Samarasinghe’s culpability in condoning war crimes. They have a conflict of interest. Charged with preventing boat arrivals of refugees from Sri Lanka and with helping to organise disruption activities with the Sri Lankan navy, they are hardly in a position to bite the hand of a former representative of the service that AFP officers based in Sri Lanka are now working closely with. The Australian government condones this activity.

The Department of Foreign Affairs was said to have been opposed to Samarasinghe’s appointment but the AFP may well have pushed for it in order to assist their disruption activities of which Samarasinghe has admitted undertaking. (ABC radio interview 17.7.12).

The unsupervised power of the AFP is a matter of growing concern, but the fact that they can drop an important investigation without informing parliament or its representatives is symptomatic of the arrogance now attending this force as it seemingly prosecutes its own agenda, free from parliamentary constraint and supervision.

The Gillard government and the Abbott opposition are weak for having allowed this situation to develop and more so for now appearing to condone it.

Tamils in the north of the country remain under military occupation. Credible witnesses report a climate of fear. Women and children are abused, the economy is dead and there is no work. All this is denied by Samarasinghe and the government he represents, however this is why desperate Tamils continue to try and come to Australia by boat. Genocide is being carried out against the Tamils in the north.

When genocide was being carried out by the white South African government against black South Africans, not even a Coalition government was prepared to accept a general or admiral from South Africa as ambassador to Australia; so why do we bend and break the rules with Sri Lanka?

Is it all to do with the disruption program and the special ‘relationship’ we have forged with Sri Lanka over terrorism? Most likely. The terrorism bogey, from, and within Sri Lanka, is long dead if ever it were alive for anyone but the Sri Lankan spin machine and ASIO expansion plans.

AFP involvement overseas with the disruption of refugee boats is corrupting and harming what should be a premier Australian police force. It is preventing the AFP from fully gaining the respect of Australians and distorts their ability to focus on non political police activities. They should have no role in the formation and conduct of aspects of Australian foreign policy and yet they do.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Sri Lanka.

Published in The Canberra Times and Online Opinion 5 July 2012

The solution to the processing of asylum seekers attempting to come to Australia by boat is to process them on Indonesia. The legal requirement under international and Australian law is to process them on shore, but neither of the major parties seem to have the, wit nor wisdom to do that.

Asylum seekers arriving by plane are processed according to domestic and international law.

Processing on Indonesian soil would eliminate people smugglers putting people on boats. Asylum seekers could be processed in an orderly fashion by Australian Immigration and UNHCR officials and whilst waiting to come to Australia they might be provided with language and other training and children could begin schooling. They could be provided with basic but adequate housing and health care.

AFP resources directed at disruption operations could be put into financing the above as well as the money now spent on Christmas Island and detention facilities in Australia.

The policy of deterrence now being employed is drowning people. The above measures may lead to an increase in numbers but surely that is preferable to drowning. In any case the numbers are small – only a quarter of the asylum seekers that arrive by plane.

Try as you might you can’t make a politician feel compassion or empathy with the plight and distress of others, particularly, if by doing so, they fear losing their seat. Compassion is defined as the deep awareness of the suffering of another, coupled with the wish to relieve it. You either feel it or you don’t.

We have allowed the media and politicians to reduce asylum seekers to an abstraction. How can we sit comfortably with the pain, suffering and death of men, women and children, underpinning opinion polls and swaying elections ,which in turn rewards indifference rather than compassion?

It must be obvious in Canberra’s hallowed halls that the Australian public want the processing of refugees arriving by boat to be carried out without political point scoring. How many of our elected representatives have visited detention centres, or actually spoken with those who arrive by boat? Is it only those who have suffered that can truly understand suffering?

The Coalition hasn’t lost its pub brawl mentality. It has failed to learn the lessons of a brutal and intolerant past, its recent history marked by the Howard Government’s wrongful detentions, lies about children overboard, discriminatory interventions and the cunning but ill-founded linking of the threat of terrorism and border protection.

WikiLeaks US embassy cables reveal the true agenda that lurks beneath the ‘stop the boats’ rhetoric; “A key Liberal party strategist told us the issue was “fantastic” and “the more boats that come the better” but his research indicated only a “slight trend” towards the Coalition, contrary to a local media poll which showed a big cut to the Labor party’s lead”. And there was a 2009 cable which said in part; “This was an issue that worked for Howard in 2001 (refugees). It drove a wedge between the ALP’s ‘working families’ and its middle-class Left constituencies. However, working against Turnbull is that national security as a major issue has declined in relation to economic concerns, and the ALP has the resources of government to demonstrate it is working to address the problem. Turnbull, a social Liberal, doesn’t appear comfortable pursuing this issue, but is way behind in the polls and needs an issue to try to erode Rudd’s formidable poll numbers.”

In panic the Labor Government has lashed out at the judicial system and now turns to ‘the experts’. Who are these experts? It is obvious that the government and opposition are neither seeking the advice of, nor consulting with, refugee lawyers, refugees, and the raft of other Australians who have experience in this area of human misery.

Cock-about policy such as the so called Malaysia Solution came from a politicised Department of Immigration. Who is the piper? The Malaysia ‘solution’ is no solution for as long the country is governed by a regime that ill-treats democracy and human rights.

And how could it be that our politicians were caught so unaware by the recent tragedies? What about the Australian Federal Police Officers on the ground in Indonesia? Didn’t they know anything about the latest spate of unseaworthy vessels to leave Indonesia? The joint AFP and Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) People Smuggling Strike Team (PSST)”provides a centrally directed, highly mobile investigative capability against organised people-smuggling syndicates operating in Australia and overseas. The team consists of investigators as well as intelligence and financial analysts. The AFP is committed to a multiagency approach to combat people smuggling and acknowledges the effectiveness of this model.” It was established in May 2000 with the strike team receiving funding of $4.3 million a year ($17.4 million in total from 2004), and from 1 July 2009, the AFP received a further $48.4 million directed toward combating “a surge” in people smuggling activity (again, over four years). All that money and not an inkling of these boats setting off?

Or are they part of the problem? Making claims for surveillance that do not exist, so that they do not know when ill-prepared vessels are departing or wilfully watching and helping them to depart, in the hope the hope that there sinking will act as a deterrent to others?

Prime Minister Gillard has appointed Angus Houston to lead an expert panel to find a way forward on asylum policy. Mr Houston undoubtedly is a well known Australian, but a WikiLeaks cable titled ‘Australian Defence Chief’s Concerns Over the McChrystal Report’ raised serious questions about the propriety his management of military information for political purposes.

Appointing serving or former senior military officers, to undertake sensitive humanitarian investigations, smacks of the militarisation of the government process. Until the military can get its own act together it should be kept well clear of assisting such undertakings. The military does not have clean hands when it comes to boat people. The other members of the panel, Paris Aristotle and Michael L’Estrange give confidence that they will support Gillard’s Malaysia Solution. Aristotle has been involved with refugee issues for many years and defends them with a velvet glove. L’Estrange, a former Howard staffer, is now the Executive Director of the National Security College at the ANU.

There are many eminent ‘civilians’, persons of intelligence and character such as Professor Fiona Stanley or Petro Georgiou that could head up an expert panel.

The media coax people into believing that we are experiencing a refugee plague, that our safety and security are being threatened even if we are not being overrun; many of our elected representatives respond with policies of indifference, all the while carefully professing their own personal humanity, and the self-perpetuating frenzy leads us as a nation to ignore the international humanitarian obligations we have agreed to uphold. Why do our political parties permit, let alone encourage, such xenophobic propensities?

It would do all of us well to contemplate human indifference and crass, destructive political point scoring. And we are talking not only about those who use the misfortune and suffering of others for their own ends without ever genuinely trying to alleviate them, but the vastly greater number who stand mute and do nothing while this callous inhumanity is played out in.

The cowardly and callow handling of this issue by the federal parliament defines it and goes a long way to explaining why the average person holds politicians, the parliament, democratic institutions and indeed democracy with such contempt.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator, former Member of the Refugee Review Tribunal and a retired diplomat.