According to successive Sri Lankan governments the only war crimes committed during the civil war, waged from July 1983 – May 2009, were those perpetrated by the Tamils; aggressive denial has defined their response.
There have been strong and sustained calls from the international community for crimes amounting to genocide to be investigated by an international tribunal, preferably the UN. To counter the aggressive propaganda of Sinhala nationalists, the calls for international action included the inclusion of war crimes committed by the Tamil Tigers. The Governments in Australia goes along with this in order to bolster the illegal policy of turning back asylum seekers arriving by boat. Returning asylum seekers and refugees to a place of danger is known as refoulement. The principal of non-refoulement is the cornerstone of asylum and international refugee law. Turning back boats makes Australia directly complicit in the crime of genocide.
Australia has done nothing to support calls for an international commission of inquiry even though the Sri Lankan Government continues to persecute Tamils.
The alienation of the minority Tamil population from the majority Sinhalese was a long process reaching a turning point in 1956 when the Sinhala language was determined to be the official language. The screws were tightened on Tamils by restricting their access to education, jobs in the public sector and professional bodies, with discrimination eventually resulting in state sanctioned pogrom against Tamils in 1983.
Many Tamils fled Colombo and the south for the north. The notion of a separate state was born as the means of surviving Sinhalese chauvinism. A military force was established to protect these aims; having forced the Tamils to this point the SLG then expressed surprise and anger that its soldiers and civilians should be attacked.
Hit and run tactics and suicide bombings eventually evolved into a full scale civil war ending in 2009 with the massacre of 80,000 Tamil civilians and fighters known as the Tamil Tigers.
The present government continues to received support and assistance from Australia. An AFP contingent is posted to the Australian High Commission in Colombo to assist the local police and navy stop boats. There are allegations that the AFP contingent is aware that Tamils returned illegally from Australian custody have been tortured in detention.
Australia supplied patrol boats to the Sri Lankan navy for the express purpose of turning back boats, despite it becoming public knowledge that the President’s brother, installed as minister for defence, was involved in the chain of people smuggling. On a visit to Sri Lanka in 2013, Tony Abbott, as Prime Minister, said that under certain circumstances torture could be justified, which was and remains an extraordinary statement.
The Sri Lankan Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, accused Abbott of doing a deal with the former President, Mahinda Rajapaksa. He said the agreement was that Rajapaksa would stop the boats if Abbott remained silent about human rights abuse in Sri Lanka. He said the close relationship between the corrupt Rajapaksa and Abbott was a mystery to Sri Lankans.
At the request of the SLG, ASIO kept over 50 former Tamil Tigers in indefinite detention, even though they were found to have been refugees.
As Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, referred to Tamil asylum seekers as economic migrants, despite all evidence to the contrary. His successor, Julie Bishop, has done the same. Australian governments have adopted the fiction that the minority Tamils were the aggressors in the civil war. Their position is that Sinhalese won the war, peace has been restored and the Tamils must accept it and get on with life; which consists of a military occupation of the north, confiscation of their land, desecration of their cemeteries, rape of the women and marginalisation from economic activity; all against a background of bribery, cruelty and corruption.
That is not the finding of the Peoples’ Tribunal on Sri Lanka which met in Bremen from 7-10 December, 2013. It found that, “On the strength of the evidence presented, the Tribunal reached the consensus ruling that the state of Sri Lanka is guilty of the crime of genocide against Eelam Tamils (Tamils from the north and east) and that the consequences of the genocide continue to the present day with ongoing acts of genocide against Eelam Tamils.”
The Tribunal determined that the following acts were committed by the government of Sri Lanka: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group and acting with the specific intent of destruction of a protected group. It also found that there was continuity of genocide through ongoing acts of genocide and that the state deliberately inflicted on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.
The new government of President Maithripala Sirisena undertook in 2015 to allow an internationally supervised investigation into the massacre which took place at the end of the civil war. This undertaking followed a UN Human rights Council resolution on 24 September 2015 calling for such an investigation.
However responding to growing pressure from within Sri Lanka, Sirisena has pulled back from implementing the decision. Visiting Sri Lanka in March 2016, the UN Human rights Commissioner, Zeid Ra ‘ad al Hussein said it was important the investigation took place, so that Sri Lanka could learn from its past mistakes. Australia has done nothing to encourage Sri Lanka to comply.
In the light of ongoing allegations of torture in Sri Lanka, Hussein renewed his criticism of Australia for turning back boats with asylum seekers. The Director of Freedom from Torture, Sonya Sceats, said in 2016 her organisation had received eight allegations of torture in Sri Lanka in the past year. She said a culture of torture was deeply entrenched in the Sri Lankan police and military.
Meanwhile in August 2016 Immigration Minister Peter Dutton returned asylum seekers to Sri Lanka who had been attempting to reach Australia by boat. Australia has not pressed Sri Lanka to comply with the UN resolution.
Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat, who served in Sri Lanka.