SL's abused worthy of help

Immigration Minister Brendan O'Connor returns today from a visit to Sri Lanka, where he discussed the challenges of refugees and people smuggling.

Part of the ''Gillard government's commitment to deepening Australia's relationship with Sri Lanka'', the visit aimed to progress the Bali Process goals of tackling those difficult ''migration management'' issues.

Migration management is bureaucratic speak for ''what to do about asylum seekers'', but another thing happened last week, also concerning Sri Lanka, that should be of serious concern to Australia.

Amnesty International released an investigative report into the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the human rights abuses inflicted across the island nation.

Sri Lanka's Assault on Dissent concluded that the Rajapaksa regime was consolidating its political power through continued violent repression of its critics.

Since taking office in 2005, the Rajapaksa government has tightened its grip on power by targeting people in civil society at all levels who the regime believes can influence certain communities or hold sway with particular institutions.

Tamil Tigers committed many atrocities during Sri Lanka's civil war - as did the country's military - and there is little sympathy for them. But the end of the war in 2009 has not resulted in the end of conflict, and ordinary Tamils are being horrifically persecuted by victorious government forces.

Although the Rajapaksa regime denies it, the violations appear to be escalating.

''Sri Lankan officials and those working at their behest assault, jail, abduct and even kill those who challenge their authority,'' the report states.

Colombo is to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in November and Sri Lanka will then chair the Commonwealth for two years. And the Australian government is fine with that.

The Gillard government will complete its mostly admirable term in the role with the handover. What is not admirable is the government's willingness to allow a difficult domestic political issue to prevent it from taking a more principled stand internationally.

Even before the release of Amnesty's report, Canada stated an intention to boycott this year's CHOGM if an unrepentant Sri Lanka is to host it. Canada is filling the leadership vacuum in the Commonwealth created by Australia's silence.

And the reason Australia won't get tougher with Sri Lanka over human rights violations is because the government could hardly justify sending asylum seekers back there if it did.

Instead, Foreign Minister Bob Carr has taken to defending Sri Lanka and even belittling Canada's bold stand. The Coalition has done the same, with shadow ministers publicly pretending that things have markedly improved. It's simple - both the Australian government and the Opposition have made political decisions to send asylum seekers back to Sri Lanka. To criticise that country's human rights record would only highlight the flaws in both sides' policies.

Last year Carr foolishly raised the idea of sanctions against Papua New Guinea over the simple timing of an election.

It would not be foolish this year, however, for him to consider expressing a little more outrage than he has over continuing human rights violations by a nation destined to chair the Commonwealth.

In February, 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 would face if returned to Sri Lanka.

The British court gets it; Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper gets it; Amnesty International and the Australian Greens get it. But it seems the major political parties in Australia won't allow themselves to accept that human rights abuse in Sri Lanka should significantly influence asylum seeker policy here. (SMH)

  Comments - 0

You May Also Like