I have always been an interested spectator on the situation in post-Civil War Sri Lanka, mainly because I have a number of friends from the island nation and because I spent a bit of time there as a lawyer in 2003.
I’ve read the haunting accounts, seen the graphic footage and of course heard about it from my Tamil and Sinhalese friends.
One of the most unforgettable accounts comes from the Editor of Sri Lanka’s Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickrematunge in his piece ‘And then they came for me’, in which he accurately predicts his own murder:
“Countless journalists have been harassed, threatened and killed. It has been my honour to belong to all those categories and now especially the last.”
Wickrematunge was killed on 8 January 2009 by four armed assassins on his way to work. His final piece was published posthumously.
Since entering Parliament in 2010 as the Member for Greenway, issues concerning Sri Lanka are raised with me regularly.
Family members disappearing, journalists being killed and land being assumed are frequently mentioned by members of the Tamil community I represent: a community of over 4,000 people, making it the largest concentration of Tamil residents in any electorate in the country.
And many reports from human rights agencies, journalists and visiting delegations back up these claims. The recent Amnesty International report, Sri Lanka’s assault on dissent makes for damning reading.
Flowing on from these human rights and governance concerns, the local community’s main objection is Australia’s participation in the upcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) set to be held in Colombo in November this year.
Foreign Minister Bob Carr has made it clear that Australia will participate in the upcoming CHOGM, and that engagement is the most effective way to encourage progress on human rights, the rule of law and democratic governance in Sri Lanka.
While a large number of people in my community would prefer to see Australia boycott this year’s CHOGM, Minister Carr believes otherwise.
Isolation versus engagement
Favouring engagement over isolation is a perfectly valid position. The only country to express a modicum of support for isolation and a boycott of this year’s CHOGM is Canada, and whether or not Canada will actually boycott still remains to be seen.
Amnesty International recommended that the Government of Sri Lanka neither hosts this year’s CHOGM or be awarded the role of 2013-15 Commonwealth Chair unless the Sri Lankan Government demonstrates beforehand that it addresses issues of human rights violations and its “persistent attacks on freedom of expression, association and assembly.”
With both major parties committed to continued engagement with Sri Lanka it is crucial that the rhetoric surrounding progress on human rights, the rule of law and democratic governance is backed up with real outcomes. Otherwise, we will betray the very values the Commonwealth seeks to promote.