War is over, but not Sri Lanka’s climate of violence and threats

Australia’s defence of Sri Lanka’s human rights record disregards an ingrained culture of violence as part of that country’s political landscape. EPA/M.A. Pushpa Kumara

The Australian government has become the great defender of Sri Lanka’s post-war human rights credentials, it seems. But Sri Lanka’s (and Australia’s) insistence that the end of the civil war means an end to persecution ignores considerable anecdotal evidence of continued ethnic intimidation and a rise in Buddhist-nationalist violence.

And perhaps more significantly, it disregards an ingrained culture of violence as part of Sri Lanka’s political landscape.

The Australian government’s defence of Sri Lanka’s human rights record comes just days after UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay announced plans for a ten-month UN investigation into alleged human rights violations in Sri Lanka. The investigation was sanctioned as part of a US-sponsored resolution on Sri Lanka’s post-war accountability, adopted by the United Nations Human Rights Council in March.

The announcement also coincided with the release of a new book by the Asian Human Rights Commission detailing 400 cases of torture in Sri Lanka selected from over 2000 cases researched by the Hong Kong-based human rights watchdog. And in early July, the British House of Lords debated the need for international intervention in Sri Lanka after the British government declared Sri Lanka’s post-war mechanism had failed to meet expectations.

And yet seemingly oblivious to international calls for post war accountability, Australian prime minister Tony Abbott said recently that Sri Lanka was “a peaceful country”:

I don’t say it’s a perfect country, not even Australia is that. But it is a peaceful country and all of us should be grateful that the horrific civil war is well and truly over and that is to the benefit of every single Sri Lankan, Tamil, Sinhalese.

Abbott’s comment is startling given recent events.

Earlier this month, Buddhist hardline group Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) clashed with Muslims in southern Sri Lanka. Despite openly inciting violence, BBS leader and ordained monk Galagoda-aththe Gnanasaara dared police to arrest him. The fact that they didn’t – or wouldn’t – highlights the culture of impunity in Sri Lanka which even the police are powerless to curb.

The monk’s threats are symbolic of political rough justice and a culture of torture and unaccountability that has plagued Sri Lankan law enforcement over the past few decades. It has given rise to three armed insurrections, numerous waves of communal violence, extrajudicial killing, abductions and torture.

Australia’s dogged support for Sri Lanka’s human rights record is however unsurprising in light of its own domestic political drama surrounding the government’s handling of two asylum seeker boats from Sri Lanka. On July 6, the Australian government handed 41 Sri Lankan asylum seekers back the Sri Lankan navy, at sea, off the coast of Batticaloa. Some were later charged under Sri Lankan emigration law.

The fate a second boatload of 153 asylum seekers hangs in the balance after the High Court granted an injunction against their transfer back to Sri Lankan authorities. The Tamil Refugee Council claims at least 11 people on this boat are seeking asylum after being tortured by Sri Lankan intelligence service personnel.

While the legal wrangle over the boat in limbo played out in Australia, immigration minister Scott Morrison was on a whirlwind tour of Sri Lanka. Morrison gifted two “customs boats” to the Sri Lankan navy and posed for photographs with Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother, defence secretary Gotabhaya.

Morrison also met retired Major General GA Chandrasiri, the regional commander of Jaffna during the final stages of the war, who was later appointed Northern Province governor by president Rajapaksa. And yet for all his political mingling, Morrison did not meet any Tamil political or elected official, not even chief minister Visuvalingam Vigneswaran – a former Supreme Court judge and now one of Sri Lanka’s most prominent Tamil politicians.

Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s (with maroon shawl) government has resisted a UN investigation into human rights abuses. EPA

Interestingly, the Abbott government’s policy of returning asylum seekers and donating boats to Sri Lanka to help block asylum seekers leaving the country has found an unlikely ally in former Labor foreign minister Bob Carr.

Carr has defended the policy, claiming the Australian High Commission in Sri Lanka had found no evidence that returned asylum seekers were mistreated during his tenure as foreign minister between March 2012 and September 2013. This is despite 53 legal scholars from 17 Australian universities having argued that returning asylum seekers to their country of origin “raises a real risk of refoulement”.

But Carr’s claim flies in the face of his own comments as foreign minister during Sri Lanka’s Universal Periodic Review in November 2012. Then, he demanded that Sri Lanka:

… take action to reduce and eliminate all cases of abductions and disappearances; and take action to reduce and eliminate all cases of abuse, torture or mistreatment by police and security forces.

Despite all of the evidence, Australians are now being asked to believe the violence has vanished and the threats are no longer present. What’s more, they are being asked to believe it on trust alone from Australian politicians with vested interests and a Sri Lankan government vehemently resistant to investigation.

Sri Lanka has openly declared it will not allow Pillay’s UN investigation. Its press is fearful of criticising the government and the Secretariat for NGOs, which falls under the remit of the powerful Defence Ministry, has effectively gagged all NGOs. It demanded they cease all “unauthorised activities” such as:

… press conferences, workshops, training for journalists, and dissemination of press releases which is beyond their mandate.

The irony is that this opposition to transparency and appropriate investigation merely serves to reinforce fears that violence and intimidation persists. And as a result and despite the Australian government’s cheering, the presumption of innocence is lost and the allegations of torture continue to enjoy legitimacy.