By Gordon Weiss –
Australia’s chattering classes are humming with the news that our new government is selling two naval patrol boats to Sri Lanka. After almost 6 years of bickering, over-spending, and contradictory management of national affairs by a Labour government, conservative voters (this writer being one of them this time around) expected a steady, coherent, and liberal hand at the tiller, despite suspicions that Tony Abbot might be pointlessly regressive on social issues like gay marriage.
Instead, Australians are waking up to the fact that our conservative government has a fundamentally illiberal streak. The press reports and the steady stream of photos emerging from CHOGM Colombo of our Prime Minister jogging with a Rajapaksa scion, if true (after all, the photos might have been manipulated), indicate our government felt no discomfort continuing a line of diplomacy begun by the previous Labour government towards Sri Lanka.
Our former Labour Foreign Minister Bob Carr, who instigated the Sri Lanka policy, says that he thinks that Australia selling two mothballed Bay Class patrol boats to the Sri Lankan navy is “sound policy.” Australia has not so far placed any restrictions on the use of the vessels, but has expressly gifted the craft in order to reinforce its policy to prevent sea-borne landings on our shores. Carr dismissed suggestions that the boats might be used to perpetrate human rights abuses.
Diplomacy is only partly played out in the pages of newspapers, so it is unfair to second-guess the entire workings of Australia’s government and the foreign affairs bureaucracy through press reports. There is nothing to suggest that the Australian government is not steering a sensible and sustainable course in order to meet its stated objective to stop thousands of boat people arriving on our shores.
But what of this policy? This issue of “illegal” arrivals, or boat people, has become a monster in Australia’s domestic politicking. Both parties having roused this animal from the deep, and now none seem interested to assuage it. To the contrary our political class is largely committed to stemming the flow of arrivals, whatever their merits as refugees, although it continues to sail close to the wind when meeting, or being seen to meet, its obligations under the Refugee Convention.
It’s not that Australia cannot afford to be more generous, or a better helmsman of international affairs, or that we cannot develop a domestic policy towards boat arrivals that would suit our own immediate needs and interests (such as mandatory settlement of refugees in rural areas now short of manpower and skills). Rather, we have chosen not to take that course.
The war in Sri Lanka is over. Sri Lanka is not poor, and certainly it is a far better developed country than most in Asia, with high standards of literacy and a longstanding and robust healthcare system. Indonesians and Papuans, from considerably less well off nations, are not getting on leaky vessels to make the short crossing to our shores. Moreover, a majority of the arrivals from the island nation, strictly speaking, fall outside the ambit of the Refugee Convention. So what is wrong, and how to explain that they still come, risking their lives? People simply do not get on to boats, let alone with their children in tow, unless they feel desperate.
Those who do not directly fear for their lives, or have not directly suffered torture do so because they calculate that it is better to risk the lives of their children on a boat, and grant them hope, than to stay and face the tyranny of inequality, or the suppression of their religion, culture, and place in the Sri Lankan body politic. Dozens of mob attacks on Sri Lanka’s Muslims and Christians this year augur badly for other less public minorities too. Australian detention centres are now populated by Sinhalese for whom the rapid recent decay of the rule-of-law in Sri Lanka has affected their ability to earn a living. Land grabs affect everybody.
By cozying up to a demonstrably brutal, tyrannous, and chauvinistic government, Australia has chosen to turn its back on its origins. Prosperity, over-weening expectations, and immodesty have blinded us to the fact that we are a successful nation of immigrants, most of whom left their homes through a desperation that falls outside the strict definition of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, whether a war refugee like my father, or a five-pound-Pom. The English, the Irish, the Jews, the Balts, the Lebanese and the Vietnamese, most of us came here in waves.
Worse, for the voters of this country who voted for the Coalition, we have a big “L” liberal coalition that has forgotten the role of liberalism in facing down tyranny, and the fundamental liberal precept that freedom is a joint human enterprise. This is particularly important in the post-Cold War period, which has seen a surge in the strengthening of international laws and norms. Our current boat arrivals policy serves a narrow end, and ignores our larger interest, which is the protection of treaty obligations that strengthen the entire regime of international treaties and which are vital to our survival.
No person is better placed to appreciate the sweet scent of freedom than those who flee political, legal, and social persecution in their homelands. Ask any immigrant what they think of a policeman who calls them “Sir”, or an ombudsperson who provides recourse from an omnivorous Telco, or a school which forbids discriminatory language. These people want to protect and strengthen this country, not weaken it.
Diplomacy is full of wriggle room. Australia’s sale of patrol boats will not prevent it from supporting a resolution calling for an international war crimes investigation at the Human Rights Council in Geneva in March 2014. Yet while our nation crows about our prowess on the sports field, in the arduous and less measurable voyage of the growth of human rights and rule-of-law over the past three years, we are mere followers, not helmsmen.
*Gordon Weiss is a research professor at Griffith University’s Asia Institute, and an expert at the International Crimes Evidence Project. He was the UN’s spokesperson during the final years of the war in Sri Lanka, and is currently working on a Sinhalese translation of his widely published book “The Cage: The Fight for Sri Lanka and the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers.”