When Sri Lanka’s human rights record once again comes under the spotlight, Australia’s leaders may be compelled to trawl the depths of hypocrisy, writes Gordon Weiss, newly appointed Principal Research Fellow in the Human Protection Hub.
Since Sri Lanka’s armed forces killed an estimated 40,000 of its own citizens in 2009, governments around the world have debated a response. Should they praise the army’s crushing of a notorious organisation, the Tamil Tigers, which used suicide warfare in pursuit of political ends? Or should they condemn the atrocity as abhorrent and unjustifiable, and press for a war crimes investigation?
Further, if the latter, should all the leaders of Commonwealth nations now be rubbing shoulders in Colombo, as though the Commonwealth’s tea and tiara toothlessness really doesn’t matter in the modern world, because togetherness is so much more important than apartness?
Those who oppose Tony Abbott attending CHOGM in Colombo know that his presence means Australia recognises the transfer of the leadership of the Commonwealth from India to a government accused of war crimes. At least the Coalition Government cannot be accused of hypocrisy. When just an aspirant foreign minister before Australia’s last election, Julie Bishop travelled to Sri Lanka and essentially gave the Sri Lankan government an end-justifies-the-means clean bill of health.
Some other conservative Commonwealth governments are very different – possibly, however, for hypocritical reasons. Yes, Canada’s Stephen Harper has ‘boycotted’ the summit, the UK’s David Cameron has said that he will attend but will press for a credible war crimes investigation, and India’s Manmohan Singh withdrew at the last moment. Since few doubt the actual evidence of war crimes, their pronouncements seem strong and ethical. Yet unlike Australia, their political calculations are necessarily coloured by large Tamil constituencies that can influence the outcome of elections in their respective countries.
The issue is not whether to boycott or not. That the Commonwealth voted to hold the summit in Colombo, and to hand the two-year leadership of this considerable multilateral organisation to a government with blood on its hands, is eloquent self-condemnation. When it did so two years ago, the Commonwealth already failed to live up to its two-decades old proclamation that it would place human rights at the centre of its diplomacy. Its supporters who believe that human rights are fundamental to international law and a source of stability in the modern world are in despair.
A number of Commonwealth leaders have justified their attendance at CHOGM on the basis that it is better to engage and persuade than to simply condemn. Yet for four years since 2009, dozens of countries have urged, cajoled, and begged the current Sri Lankan government to abide by an agreement it signed with the UN secretary-general at the end of the war to both account for the deaths of those 40,000, and to place a serious political solution to the island’s woes on the table. Engagement has resulted in no credible account, and no political deal, while the family of President Rajapaksa has meantime slowly disembowelled the democratic structures of one of the Commonwealth’s oldest democracies.
No, the issue is not CHOGM, but is rather what will happen next with Australia’s adopted position on Sri Lanka, pursued by both Labour and Coalition governments since 2009, and the depths of hypocrisy that our own political leaders may shortly be compelled to trawl. Have our political leaders placed short-term domestic political considerations to deal with those thousands of boat people who inundated our shores last year, at some cost to our long-term interests?
The upper reaches of the Obama administration have closely watched Sri Lanka flout international law and norms. It too tried engagement for four years. Then, earlier this year, the US State Department declared that serious human rights abuses have continued unabated in Sri Lanka since the end of the war (indeed, as they have continued on the island for decades now, whatever the findings of Foreign Minister Bishop).
The US believes that stability and security are equally served by a respect for law and norms that must be upheld by individual nations, and by the collective when a fellow nation refuses. The US, it seems, is determined to bring Sri Lanka to book and to shore up the challenge to the post-Cold War order raised by an ascendant China and its chequebook diplomacy (China is the main funder of the Rajapaksa government).
Don’t take too much notice of CHOGM, which the Sri Lankan government mistakenly sees as an affirmation of its rehabilitation, and proof of the short-term memory of international politics. Much more importantly, in March 2014 the UN Human Rights Council will once again consider Sri Lanka’s human rights record since the end of the war. With patience exhausted by the current Sri Lankan government’s efforts to whitewash its record, it is conceivable that the HRC might well put a resolution for an international war crimes investigation to the vote.
Watch Australia in the round of diplomacy that will accompany that 2014 vote. It may well be hypocrisy, but of a variety that better serves the progress of multilateral cooperation on the great issues of our time than the colourful gathering in Colombo in the coming days.
Gordon Weiss is the author of The Cage: The Fight for Sri Lanka and the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers, a research professor at the Human Protection Hub at the Griffith Asia Institute, and an expert at the International Crimes Evidence Project.
Originally Posted in The Drum