OPINION: Sri Lanka stance needs urgent rethink

LAST week in Geneva dozens of countries combined to institute what will effectively be a UN criminal inquiry into the war in Sri Lanka that ended bloodily in 2009.

Gordon Weiss. Pic: Dean Osland

Gordon Weiss. Pic: Dean Osland

The United Nations says   between 40,000 and 70,000 civilians were killed just  in the last months of the war, most  from government bombardment. 

With war in Syria still raging, there are good reasons to worry when governments and rebels wage war.

Led by the US, Canada, and Britain, backed by the EU, and promoted by dozens of countries, some of which have experienced their own devastating ‘‘dirty’’ wars, the resolution at the UN Human Rights Council says   the conduct of both sides must be examined. 

It follows four years of Sri Lankan government efforts to stymie any account of mass civilian deaths, and negligible progress on a political solution to the civil conflict.

The resolution faced stiff opposition including, it seems, from Australia, which obliquely aligned itself with those opposed.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop quickly issued a statement that emphasised her opposition to the resolution, and the terrorist credentials of the Tamil Tigers. 

She outlined a belief that engagement  with the Sri Lankan government was the best way to achieve reconciliation, and  that government reconstruction in Tamil areas had not been sufficiently recognised.

It is an odd explanation, akin to saying  that reconciliation between Aboriginals and white Australia could be best achieved by building roads and bridges, and ignoring deeply held communal beliefs about injustice. 

Sri Lankan Tamils have almost universally made it  clear that an honest account of what happened to civilians, along with a political solution, is the only way forward.

Last year, as shadow foreign minister, Ms Bishop travelled to Sri Lanka and lauded post-war reconstruction efforts by the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Shepherded through Tamil areas by the Sri Lankan military, Ms Bishop was given a classic Potemkin tour.

The US government, which issues detailed annual appraisals of the human rights status of all countries, continues to accumulate reports of  continuing  disappearances, sexual violence, land grabs, and the military occupation of Tamil areas. US Secretary of State John Kerry says that the UN resolution is a prerequisite for accountability and reconciliation, given the now proven track record of continuing  human rights abuses in Sri Lanka.

The fact that the Tamil Tigers were a terrorist organisation does not justify mass killing of civilians. 

I described just how systematic and criminally purposeful the killing of civilians was in my book. The visual evidence can be seen in  No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka, which is on  tomorrow  at the Star of Mayfield Hall, Valencia and Villiers streets, at 7pm.

Our Foreign Minister is the only person who can cogently explain the illiberal position taken on our behalf. Australians should make up their own minds, based on the evidence.

Gordon Weiss is the author of The Cage: The Fight for Sri Lanka and the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers, and an adjunct professor at Griffith University.

He was the UN spokesman in Sri Lanka during the final three years of the war.