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On Line Opinion 28.1.14

Australia has a problem. The Prime Minister, Tony Abbott and the Minister for Immigration, Scott Morrison, have taken Australia down a path from which there are only two outcomes, further aggression and confrontation with Indonesia or retreat.

Retreat would amount to a domestic political defeat for Abbott and Morrison but lead to an improvement in relations Indonesia. Further aggression would continue to undermine the relationship with Indonesia and might spread into the region.

Abbott has displayed and deployed characteristics at odds with his image as a conservative intellectual. His statements on international issues appear to lack thoughtful consideration. Why has he deployed an analogy of war to justify censorship?

Abbott appears not to care about nurturing the delicate relationship with Indonesia. The diplomatic subtleties and nuances required to maintain and build that relationship have been sacrificed to his flawed domestic agenda of turning back the boats.

Morrison has proven a willing attack dog. His anger and downright nastiness were on public display on ABC TV, on 22 January, in his defence of Australian Navy personnel alleged to have burnt the hands of asylum seekers.

His failure to address the media on issues of national concern is an affront to Australian democracy. Operational requirements are said to be the basis for this, however that requirement has been allowed to slide when faced with allegations that test his veracity.

The Indonesians are right to question the honesty of Morrison’s response to claims that Australian naval vessels breached their maritime boundary. Morrison and the erstwhile head of the task force overseeing so called boarder security, Lieutenant-General Angus Campbell, took us for fools when they sold the line that the vessels had inadvertently crossed into Indonesia waters. It was also a slur against the navy and naval personnel, backed by Campbell.

The navy is in possession of some very sophisticated equipment to make sure vessels know exactly where they are at any moment in time. In addition the training of sea going personnel, particularly navigators, is rigorous. Australian blue water sailors are unlikely to be impressed with Morrison’s clumsy and mendacious defence. The aggression behind his defence gave an impression that he might have issued the orders.

What is Campbell’s role? It is Morrison that appears to be running the show. It is his head that pops up in the media to defend the less salubrious aspects of the illegal operation being run against asylum seekers, when they become public knowledge in Australia from Indonesian sources. Campbell appears to have been put in the position to give Defence Force legitimacy to a crass political undertaking.

In defending the navy from charges of torture, Morrison sought, in the crudest of terms, to demonise asylum seekers. I listened to white South African politicians demonise black South Africans in order to deflect criticism from what apartheid was imposing. Many of those politicians were also self confessed devout Christians. Why is it that the Chief of the Navy, Vice Admiral Ray Griggs, defended allegations of torture against asylum seekers by sailors involved in Indonesian border transgressions as part of Operation Sovereign Border?

As it is the Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, announced on 23 January that the Australian Government would co-operate with the Indonesian investigation into allegations that Australian Navy personnel engaged in acts of torture against asylum seekers under their protection.

Until that agreement was given Australia was in danger of tacitly accusing the Indonesian Government of lying in terms of the information and allegations that had been put into the public domain as a result of the investigations taking place and the findings to date. And in light of the public statements made so far in defence of naval personnel by Abbott, Morrison, Bishop and Griggs, prior to any findings of fact, how will they react to adverse findings?

Abbott said recently in Sri Lanka that under certain circumstances torture is justified. He has also said that he would accept the word of an Australian sailor over that of a person who sought to enter Australia illegally (he was referring to asylum seekers).

It is not as if the Navy and the ADF have a perfect record. Griggs will not have forgotten the unedifying farce of the inquiries into the sinking of HMAS Voyager by HMAS Melbourne. He will be aware of issues of sexual harassment in the Navy dating back fifty years and covered up until recent times and he will be aware of conduct unbecoming on HMAS Ballarat last year. The Army has also had its share of scandal particularly during the war in Vietnam and also shares a history of bullying and sexual harassment.

Sailors and soldiers under pressure can behave badly, particularly if leadership is weak or lacking.

Having failed to defend the seamanship of his sailors against the nonsense put about by Morrison and Campbell, is Griggs jumping to the blind defence of his sailors a ploy to deflect his lack of leadership on the more basic question of defending their professional competence. Griggs hasn’t long to go in the job, surely he should consider retiring with pride. He needs to find some moral courage. A starting point might be to assert himself over the operational use of his vessels before the Indonesians start firing at them.

The Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten, needs to place distance between himself and Abbott. Together with the Opposition Spokesperson on Foreign Affairs, Tanya Plibersek, he should visit Indonesia and seek to repair the damage being wrought by Morrison and Abbott. They might begin by addressing the issue of the joint processing of refugees.

Indonesia would genuinely welcome good relations with Australia, but despite their inane statements that all is well with the relationship, Abbott and Morison are doing everything to wreck it.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat.

Published in Canberra Times 2 January 2014, Crikey 7 January 2014

A Tribunal of eleven eminent judges has unanimously found the Sri Lankan Government guilty of the crime of genocide against ethnic Tamil people.

Sitting in Bremen, from 7 – 10 December, 2013, the Second Session of the Peoples’ Tribunal on Sri Lanka found that the crime of genocide has been and is being committed against the Eelam Tamils as a national group.

I was invited to appear before the Tribunal as an expert witness on the treatment of Tamils from Sri Lanka by the Australian Government.

The Second Session in Bremen was convened in response to the determination of the First Session, held in January 2010 in Dublin, that war crimes and crimes against humanity had taken place against the Tamil population in the final months of the war in early 2009, and that further investigation be undertaken regarding the question of genocide.

The two sessions of the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal were established in response to submissions made by the International Human Rights Association, Bremen, and the Irish Forum for Peace in Sri Lanka. The Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal is based in Rome under the auspices of the General Secretary, Gianni Tognoni.

Thirty eye-witnesses and other experts appeared before the Second Tribunal, some at great personal risk.

The panel of eminent judges included, Daniel Feierstein, Professor, Faculty of Genocide, University of Buenos Aires and President of the International Association of Genocide Scholars and his Co-Chair, Dr. Denis Halliday, former Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations; Gabriele Della Morte, Professor of International Law, Catholic University of Milan; Jose Molto, Professor of International Law, University of Valencia; Javier Moreno, Colombian Theologian based in Bagota; Manfred Hinz, Professor of Public Law, Political Sociology and Sociology of Law, University of Bremen; Helen Jarvis, an Australian, working with Yale University’s Cambodian Genocide Program; Oystein Tveter , former Norwegian diplomat and international legal academic and Maung Zarni, Burmese academic and founder of the Free Burma Coalition in 1995.

The Tribunal found that genocide against the Eelam Tamil group has not yet reached the total destruction of their identity, however the genocide is a process and the process is ongoing; the military killings of May 2009 have been transformed into other forms of conduct causing serious bodily and mental harm to members of the group.

The Tribunal considered that the proof established beyond any reasonable doubt that the following acts were committed by the government of Sri Lanka:

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 part, including

*expulsion of the victims from their homes

*seizures of private lands

*declaring vast areas as military High Security Zones (HSZ) to facilitate the military acquisition of Tamil land

The Tribunal undertook to further examine allegations of forced sterilization and contraception of Tamil women.

The UK and USA were found to be guilty of complicity in the crime of genocide, including complicity by procuring means, such as weapons, instruments or any other means, used to commit genocide, with the accomplice knowing that such means would be used for such a purpose; and complicity by knowingly aiding or abetting a perpetrator of a genocide in the planning or enabling of such acts.

The Tribunal recognised that Sri Lanka did not have the capacity to achieve genocide without assistance and on the basis of evidence provided came to the conclusion that the UK, USA and possibly India are guilty of complicity. However due to the constraint of time the Tribunal limited its findings to the UK and the USA pending the availability of further evidence against India and other States not yet identified.

After the recent gift of two patrol boats to the Sri Lankan Navy, Australia is in danger of being one of those countries. The gift adds to the military capacity of the Rajapaksa regime to illegally detain and harm Tamil asylum seekers fleeing the repression noted above.

In recent times the Rudd and Abbott governments took it upon themselves to send Tamil asylum seekers back to Sri Lanka without hearing their claims. This was done on the basis that they were economic refugees – although how this determination was reached without first hearing claims is not explained. This illegal undertaking is now even more insidious given the findings of the Tribunal.

Australians, outside of government, involved with the welfare of Tamil asylum seekers have long known of the genocidal intent of the Sri Lanka government. However it has been somewhat of a puzzle why the Australian government was not informed of this by the Australian High Commission (AHC) in Colombo.

I took the opportunity at the hearings to ask some of the Tamil witnesses from within the country whether they thought the AHC was informed and they said yes on the basis that they had briefed Australian diplomatic officers. This raises the question of what is done with that information and the assumption must be that it has gone to Canberra and been ignored by government for reasons of policy and politics. This would suggest that both major parties knowingly acted illegally with respect to processing Tamil asylum seekers. How low can we go?

Lower it seems. I was also informed that the AHC has now ceased briefings from Tamil sources in the north, presumably on the basis of what they don’t know they don’t have to lie about. A form of deniability adopted and refined by Hitler’s Third Reich toward the final solution of the Jewish question.

The Tribunal requested that states able to do so should take Tamil asylum seekers as refugees.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator, human rights activist and retired diplomat.