At least 164,000 Tamil men, women and children were being held in military internment camps – without access to humanitarian agencies, independent monitors, media or local civil authorities – when Stephen Smith, Australia’s foreign minister, visited Sri Lanka on November 9, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
Unlike his counterparts from Britain, France and Sweden, Smith made no attempt to visit these camps and made no statement of concern about the detention of the Tamils or the human rights violations reported in the camps by organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. He did, however, sign a memorandum of understanding with the Sri Lankan government on “legal cooperation against people smuggling” and announced an increase in Australian aid to Colombo of $11 million.
The memorandum “will increase opportunities for investigating and prosecuting people smugglers and seizing the proceeds of their criminal activity”, according to Smith’s office. Talking up his government’s record of seizing refugees en route to Australia, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told parliament on November 25 that Canberra “will continue to work closely with the Sri Lankan authorities”. He added that Australia will provide “more than $35 million in development assistance to Sri Lanka” in the 2009-10 financial year. Rudd drew attention to “the disruptions currently being engineered by elements of the Sri Lankan security forces”, which he described as “some 15 disruptions already, involving some 260 individuals. These are the practical actions in which we are engaged.”
Under the cover of opposing “people smuggling”, the Australian government is aiding the persecution of refugees. One month prior to Rudd’s comments, 29 people were arrested in the Colombo airport with the aid of closed circuit television cameras funded by the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship. They were mostly Tamils trying to leave Sri Lanka. According to a Sri Lankan official, only 11 of these people had been released when the story was reported in the October 28 Melbourne Age.
“Customs and border protection will spend $15.1 million over four years establishing posts in Sri Lanka and Malaysia, in an effort to strengthen regional co-operation on people-smuggling”, the Australian reported on May 13. This is part of a $1.3 billion spending spree on the Australian Federal Police (AFP), airport security and the Sri Lankan, Malaysian and Indonesian militaries in a bid to keep refugees out of Australia.
Last October, the Australian minister for home affairs, Brendan O’Connor, met with the Sri Lankan defence secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa (accused by Tamils of being a war criminal), at an Interpol meeting in Singapore. O’Connor said the AFP could support training for Sri Lankan police and provide logistical aid, such as computers, cameras and evidence collection kits, according to the October 15 Sydney Morning Herald. A spokesperson for O’Connor said, “This was an especially productive meeting”, adding: “Australia will provide the Sri Lankan government much needed resources to assist Sri Lankan authorities to combat people smuggling.” Sri Lankan navy spokesperson Athula Senarath told the AFP that the navy seized four fishing trawlers carrying 142 people heading eastwards for Australia in November. On December 5, Sri Lankan soldiers shot dead a 22-year-old man in a group trying to flee to Australia from a beach in eastern Santhiveli village, according to Associated Press.
According to the Asian Centre for Human Rights, Sri Lanka ranks as South Asia’s number one human rights violator. On January 7, United Nations special rapporteur Philip Alston confirmed that a video showing war crimes being committed by the Sri Lankan army was genuine. It showed a soldier shooting a captive in the head at point-blank range while many other apparently dead bodies lay on the ground. The video was provided to the BBC by Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka, which say the footage was taken on a mobile phone camera in January 2009, during the government’s military offensive against the Tamil Tigers. Since 2006 the government has refused to allow Alston entry to the country.
Despite the declaration by Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa in May 2009 that “terrorism” had been defeated with the military victory over the Tamil Tigers, the government has extended the use of “anti-terrorism” and emergency laws including the Prevention of Terrorism Act, resulting in the prosecution and conviction of human rights defenders, including journalists, according to a September report by the Asian Human Rights Commission. Since the election of Rajapaska in November 2005, 34 journalists and media workers have been killed. Twenty-nine were Tamils. Last year alone, more than 25 Sri Lankan journalists fled the country.
Figures cited in the 2008 annual report of the UN Working Group on Disappearances indicate that Sri Lanka has the second highest number of disappearances, next to Iraq. A disproportionate number of Tamils are among the disappeared. Three sitting members of parliament have been assassinated since 2006.
The UN, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have called for investigations into war crimes, but the Sri Lankan government prevents any investigation. Allegations include the use of heavy weaponry in densely populated areas, cluster bombs and chemical weapons. In 2009, deaths of Tamil civilians in the final stages of the war exceeded 20,000, according to UN officials quoted in the London Times. Independent monitors, UN officials, Red Cross and journalists were prevented from entering the so-called safety zone before and after the declaration of victory by Rajapaska.
Land in north-east Sri Lanka is being taken over by the government and re-designated as “high security zones” or “special economic zones”, with plans for construction of permanent military bases, preventing resettlement of internally displaced Tamils on their lands, according to an April 2009 study by the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions. Some of the owners of these appropriated lands are Tamils being held in the barbed-wire-ringed internment camps. There are still about 100,000 Tamils in military-controlled camps, half of them children according to Amnesty International. Those released have been issued with ID cards that identify them as having been in the camps.
Despite the massive body of publicly available evidence of human rights violations by the Sri Lankan aurhorities, Rudd has not criticised the violations, let alone made aid dependent on improvements. While Australia diplomatically and financially supports the human rights violators in Colombo, it is prosecuting those who allegedly oppose the regime, such as the three Australian Tamil men Aruran Vinayagamoorthy, Sivarajah Yathavan and Arumugam Rajeevan, who are charged with providing money to a “terrorist” organisation, the Tamil Tigers.
Clearly indicating backing for the Sri Lankan military’s persecution of the Tamil nationalists, immigration minister Chris Evans was quoted in the January 12 Australian as saying: “It had been clear for some time that because many Tamil Tigers operatives had fled the country it was likely the possibility that people who may be of interest to security agencies could be among the asylum seekers.” Evans’ comment came after the spy agency ASIO vetoed the successful refugee claim of five Tamils seeking to enter Australia.
Australian economic interests
Since the military defeat of the Tamil Tigers in May 2009, the Colombo stock exchange has nearly doubled in value; it was one of the three most rapidly rising stock markets in the world in 2009. Yet 29% of Sri Lankan children under five are underweight, according to the UN Development Report 2009.
The Sri Lankan government welcomes foreign ownership of “almost all sectors of the economy” according to its embassy in the United States. “Investors are permitted to repatriate 100 percent of their profits”, and foreign capitalists “also enjoy tax breaks and constitutional guarantees on their investment”, the embassy web site spruiks. Australian-based company Ansell Asia Pacific (formerly Pacific Dunlop) is the largest industrial employer in Sri Lanka, according to a briefing paper presented by the high commissioner for investing in Sri Lanka, Senaka Walgampaya, at a foreign investment seminar in Melbourne on October 30.
Ansell was one of 38 Australian companies registered with the Sri Lankan Board of Investment in 2007, the year an Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement between Sri Lanka and Australia came into force, guaranteeing protection of foreign investments, compensation for losses, including in the event of nationalisation, and reduced tax rates on share dividends, interest and royalties, the forms in which profits are returned to Australia.