Ignoring human rights? Australia snubs UN probe into Sri Lanka war crimes

Ravinatha P. Aryasinha, permanent representative of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka to the United Nations office in Geneva, addresses the Human Rights Council, which adopted a resolution that requests the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to do an investigation into alleged human rights violations and abuses and other crimes in Sri Lanka. Photo by: Jean-Marc Ferré / U.N.

“If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever.”

That’s the imagined future George Orwell predicted in his dystopian novel “1984,” and what similarly happened during Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war — which proved the horrors of the real world are even more disturbing than fiction.

Before the fighting finally ended in late 2009, “stamping boots on human faces” had become quite common in the country, where civilians were used as human shields, women (and even men) were raped and subjected to relentless violence, and international aid for the Tamil victims was rejected and blocked by the Sinhalese government, among other abuses.

These horrors compelled the United Nations to push for an independent investigation into alleged war crimes to “advance the right to truth for all in Sri Lanka and create further opportunities for justice, accountability and redress,” a move fervently supported by most international donors — but not Australia.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop announced at the end of March that her country would not be supporting the probe, arguing Canberra was “not convinced” it was the right option and would pursue another type of “engagement” it failed to clarify.

Human rights advocates find that move “extremely disappointing.”

“The U.N. inquiry is a critical step toward achieving justice for victims of war crimes and serious human rights abuse in Sri Lanka,” Emily Howie, advocacy and research director at the Melbourne-based Human Rights Law Center, told Devex.

But is Australia’s snub a tell-tale sign of a new shift in putting less importance on human rights protection in its partner countries?

Howe believes so: “Australia’s reluctance to support a credible initiative that will help achieve justice and reconciliation in Sri Lanka is counterproductive [and] short-sighted. It is simply wrong to suggest that the inquiry is an attempt to isolate Sri Lanka. On the contrary, It’s an example of constructive engagement … with Sri Lanka to provide justice for victims of serious international crimes.”

“If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever.”

— George Orwell in ‘1984’


Australian human rights advocates insist that an investigation into the war crimes is definitely warranted, and even more so after the release in February of “Island of Impunity,” a comprehensive report detailing abuses during the height of the war from eyewitness accounts and victims compiled by the Sydney-based Public Interest Advocacy Center.

Howie noted that Sri Lanka has been making decent overall development progress since the conflict ended, but that’s still not translating into better lives for most people, including closure for the victims.

“The U.N. has recognized that while Sri Lanka has experienced some economic development, this is not enough,” she explained. “Economic development is not a substitute for democratic rights and freedoms, including the rights to justice for victims of international crimes.”

Recognizing and protecting people’s rights and freedoms is considered by most experts to be absolutely vital for sustainable and holistic development. U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay herself argued that “empowerment cannot be achieved if development policies are pursued in a human rights vacuum.”

That’s why Australia’s move is seen as particularly “surprising,” and some fear whether it will set a precedent for other top donors.

Bishop argued that a direct “engagement” is the best way forward.

But what engagement? That not only remains to be seen, but it’s like hiding the truth, according to Howie:  “Australia’s mantra of ‘engagement’ with Sri Lanka is a thinly-veiled attempt to hide the truth — that the Australian government will do anything to stop the boats, including denying justice to victims of some of the gravest human rights abuses in our region.”

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About the author

  • Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a former Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He previously covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics.

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