By Eva Sparks –
Tony Abbott has toed the diplomacy line delicately this week during his visit to Sri Lanka.
While leaders from Canada, India and Mauritius boycotted CHOGM citing the Sri Lankan government’s dismal human rights record, and British PM David Cameron visited the conflict affected areas and spoke frankly with President Mahinda Rajapaksa over the need for an inquiry into war crimes, Abbott has refrained from criticisms and instead gifted the Sri Lankan government with two navy patrol ships.
No doubt Abbott’s line-toeing was an effort to forge an amicable relationship with the Rajapaksa government in the hope they will cooperate on dealing with people smugglers. The issue of ‘boat people’ takes centre stage in Australian political life and was a central issue in our latest election. To fulfil his election promise to ‘stop the boats’ and instil confidence in his constituents, the focus of his visit to Sri Lanka had to produce some political capital for this Australian minefield. Two big boats makes for good photos and good capital.
But Abbott’s approach to Sri Lanka is ill conceived and shows his lack of understanding of how international relations work, and how countries outside Australia work. Boats will not be stopped brushing over human rights violations and giving an already highly militarised government more equipment. An effective policy would give some consideration to stopping people getting on the boats in the first place.
When calling for investigations into war crimes, leaders are wanting to see some resolution on the estimated 40 000 civilian deaths that happened in the final stages of the war. But of equal importance is the current situation of the increasingly authoritarian government that has tightened its grip in the post-conflict era.
Mr Abbott made the comment that it is most important protect is the right to freedom from death and violence from war. It’s a line that seems reasonable in a sound bite and justifies his silence, but by credible accounts just plain wrong when applied to Sri Lanka. War is sometimes not the worst situation.
Sri Lankan lawyer, human rights activist and journalist Kishali Pinto Jayawardena has been in Australia in the past week speaking at the Australian National University and to government groups about the current situation in her country. Her message is straight: the situation in Sri Lanka is worse now than it was during the war.
There has been a complete breakdown of legal systems as the Rajapaksa government tries to eliminate any opposition.
“When people come to me now, I say there’s no point in taking their problems to the Supreme Court.”
Last week the key opposition party in Sri Lanka, who also boycotted CHOGM, wanted an opportunity to talk about human rights. With a ban on protests in Colombo during the meeting, the Samagi Human Rights Festival was organised on private property outside of Colombo. It was aimed at giving people the chance to share their experiences.
On day one of the festival the opposition leader, Ranil Wickremasinghe’s car was attacked by pro-government protesters. On the second day of the festival it was violently interrupted by a Buddhist extremist group while the police refrained from intervening before issuing a court order to shut down the festival.
Since Thursday members of the opposition party have been followed and threatened. It is expected that once the attention of CHOGM subsides the government will crack down on those who were part of the festival.
The silencing of dissention is what Sri Lankans have grown accustomed to. Many journalists and activists fight for change knowing that one day they may be pulled into a white van and their family will not hear from them again.
These are not events that happened during the war, but last week while our PM was sitting less than an hour away hatching a plan to deal with boat people without talking about human rights. Never mind considering why people get on the boats. Never mind asking whether or not Mahinda Rajapaksa really cares about stopping the boats, after all, if the boats keep getting through, maybe he’ll get more military equipment.
Since the war ended in 2009 the Sri Lankan defence budget has dramatically increased. Soldiers wander around idly undertaking construction jobs, running grocery stores and guarding the many war monuments scattered about the country because in a country no longer at war, there is not enough for a military of that size to do. People smuggling boats are not getting through due to lack of equipment.
Despite Abbott’s silence on human rights issues, his opinion wasn’t necessary to make CHOGM the PR disaster for Sri Lanka that it was. Abbott can come home and tell the Australian public that he’s giving them two old ships as part of his promise to stop the boats. Politically, he toed the line and many constituents will consider it a job well done.
Logically and morally, he proved to be as short sighted as ever.