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Published in THE DRUM 16 May 2013, THE CANBERRA TIMES 19 MAY 2013

In the face of a great deal of evidence to the contrary, Bob Carr has declared Sri Lanka an ideal democracy. He has declared their institutions sound, and scoffed at the idea of corruption within the ranks of the Rajapaksa Government.

He has declared the police, army and navy to be clear of charges of detaining and torturing members of the Tamil minority. He believes that the Sinhalese majority are free of triumphalism and ethnic abuse of Tamils, amounting to state sponsored genocide, following a bloody civil war that occurred because of the very attitudes and practices being deployed against Tamils today.

And why has Carr adopted such a serendipitous attitude to Sri Lanka? It’s called boats, where the curtailment of asylum seekers arriving off Australian shores over-rides human rights and all other considerations of compassion and common sense. In order that the bi-partisan policy of turning back, preventing or in some other way stopping the boats from sullying our shores, Carr must declare that everything is honky dory in Sri Lanka and that anyone getting in a boat, risking their lives and spending money they don’t have must be economic refugees; and a range of acolytes seeking government preferment puppet his response.

It is not as if advice is lacking as to the real state of affairs in Sri Lanka and to the treatment of Tamils. Yasmin Sooka, a member of the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon’s panel of experts into allegations of war crimes committed at the end of the civil war in 2009, told the ABC’s Fran Kelly on 29 April, that targeted attacks against Tamils were still being committed by Sinhalese authorities. She noted that whilst both sides had committed war crimes at the end of the war, the UN expert panel had concluded that government forces were responsible for the bulk of murders through the indiscriminate killing of civilians, which left an estimated 40,000 men, women and children dead.

Geoffrey Robertson QC, told ABC Radio National, on 4 May the same thing, emphasising the ongoing nature of persecution of Tamils. He also noted Carr’s poor commitment to human rights. Human Rights Watch delivered a similar report in February and Amnesty International in a report, “Sri Lanka’s assault on Dissent”, has said that Tamils continue to be persecuted by government forces and notes that Rajapaksa is consolidating his hold on power by repression of critics often through resort to unauthorised detention and violence.

As a result of the Sri Lankan government’s failure to investigate war crimes and because of its participation in ongoing repression of Tamils, the Canadian Government has said it will boycott this year’s CHOGM to be held in Sri Lanka. Should this meeting go ahead Sri Lanka will head the Commonwealth for the next two years. This is despite the fact that the Rajapaska regime undermines, on a daily basis, the values and principles of the Commonwealth.

Carr has rubbished the stand taken by Canada. The Queen has advised that she will not be attending; no doubt seeking to avoid the controversy that will inevitably surround the meeting should it go ahead. By accepting the mantle as head of the Commonwealth, Sri Lanka could well bring about its demise. Sri Lanka has a human rights record as bad as South Africa under Apartheid. It would have been unthinkable for South Arica to have hosted a CHOGM, so why is Sri Lanka being shoe horned into the job? In fact, so gravely were South Africa’s human rights abuses viewed that the Commonwealth instituted sanctions, followed not long after by the UN.

In February of this year Britain’s High Court ordered the Border Agency to stop the removal of Tamils refused asylum until an assessment was completed about the risk they faced if returned to Sri Lanka.

Which of course begs the question, if the High Court had concerns about levels of risk, why were Tamils asylum seekers being returned?

As part of the same serendipitous equation, ASIO, has made decisions on a number of Tamils granted refugee status by Australian reviewers, that they pose a security threat and should not be released from detention.

ASIO does not have an independent capacity to gather information on the ground about persons of interest. They must rely on a friendly or co-operative government to provide them with police clearances and checks. We could not do that with Apartheid South Africa, although ASIO did maintain unofficial contact with the ruthless South African Bureau of State Security (BOSS), and contact with countries behind The Iron Curtin, during the Cold War, for purposes of obtaining security clearances, did not happen.

For ASIO to continue its campaign against persons linked to the LTTE it must go along with the fiction that Sri Lanka is a neat and tidy democracy and is not conducting a post war vendetta against the Tamils and the military wing in that dispute, the LTTE.

In all conscience Australia must also boycott CHOGM.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator, former diplomat and member of the RRT.

Published in ONLINE OPINION 16 May 2013

On the 29 April the ABC Four Corners program ran a story, “No Advantage”, about conditions for asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru Islands. Major Paul Moulds of the Salvation Army appeared in that story. What he seemed to be saying was that conditions on those islands were not conducive to the well being of asylum seekers. He expressed concern and as such, implied criticism of the management of those facilities.

Others who had worked on the islands, including workers employed by the Salvation Army, and a doctor, who had been fired after expressing his concerns, by the contracting company employing him, were far more forthright in their condemnation of conditions in the asylum seeker camps.

In early December 2012 I wrote an article critical of the involvement of the Salvation Army in seeking to ‘ameliorate the condition’ of asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Islands. For that they have been paid $75m, with nothing to show for it except a spate of resignations by Salvation Army staff working on the islands.

In that article I said that the Salvation Army was wrong to think that it could make a difference to the physical and emotional needs of asylum seekers in those detention centres.

Paul Moulds, the head of the Salvation Army mission to Nauru and Manus Islands, wrote, in response to my article that, “Our presence on Nauru or Manus Island does not mean that we have endorsed this policy or given it ‘legitimacy’…We have spoken clearly and publicly about our opposition to off shore processing, but as Mr Haigh knows, the implementation of off shore processing was inevitable. It was recommended by the Expert Panel and endorsed by both major political parties…Who was best placed to provide humanitarian support and care for these people? A security firm? A facilities management company? Or an organisation that brings to this task over a century of experience and skill in working with the distressed, vulnerable and marginalised people, and boundless amounts of faith, hope and love.”

Sadly all that boundless faith, hope and love have not prevented an undocumented number of suicide attempts and inmates from sewing their lips together in distress and despair at their appalling living conditions and ‘no advantage’ incarceration, which is sending them mad.

Moulds continued, “We also understand Mr Haigh’s point that future generations may well look back on this policy and see it, like the removal of aboriginal children and the care of children in large institutions, as flawed and inappropriate. But our concerns for our future reputation should not prevent us now from responding to the urgent need to bring some compassion and humanity to a tough policy. We are content to let the future judge our actions and response.”

And further on, “The Salvation Army is continually advocating directly to the government for improvement in facilities and conditions, and we have seen positive response.”

In the light of the ABC program that last statement by Moulds is a porky. By his own testament on the program he gave the lie to the words he wrote to me on 24 December last year.

The Salvation Army has fulfilled none of the objectives outlined by Moulds to me. It has been marginalised by a ruthless and fearful government. It has taken $75 million of tax-payers money to deliver outcomes which Moulds and his co-workers admitted have so far failed, and given the current loss of decency and moral courage by both major parties, are unlikely to succeed.

If it wants to retrieve any credibility the Salvation Army should go to the barricades and publicly advocate for the rights of asylum seekers to be upheld, as embodied in Australian legislation and under International Law and Charter.

To do otherwise is to spend tax-payers money on a fig leaf.

At a time when they will be shortly facing examination from the inquiry into child abuse, particularly as it existed in orphanages and religious institutions, it might be prudent to clean out their stables, leave the islands, hand the money back and advocate for the rule of law to apply to asylum seekers.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator, refugee advocate and former Member of the Refugee review Tribunal.