NGOs Slam Australia Over Sri Lanka

australiaBy Easwaran Rutnam

Human Rights Groups and NGOs have, in a joint report submitted to the UN Committee Against Torture (CAT), accused Australia of failing to protect even legitimate Sri Lankan asylum seekers.

The report, endorsed in whole or in part by 77 NGOs, was submitted to CAT which is currently meeting in Geneva and considering Australia’s compliance to international laws dealing with torture.

The report notes that the Australian Government’s lack of commitment to core human rights principles under CAT is illustrated by a statement made by Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott on November 15, 2013 during a press conference in Sri Lanka concerning the use of torture.
Prime Minister Abbott had started at that press conference that the Australian Government deplores any use of torture, but that ‘we accept that sometimes in difficult circumstances, difficult things happen’.

“The Prime Minister’s comment fails to recognise that the absolute prohibition on the use of torture is central to the protection of human rights of all people around the world, including the human rights of people in Australia. Many of those asylum seekers who do arrive in Australia are subject to non-statutory ‘screening’ procedures that prevent asylum seekers from having their claims for protection properly heard and considered. Since October 2012, Australia has returned 1248 Sri Lankans to their country using this process,” the report said.

It also noted that the most recent Australian Government data confirms that over 50 per cent of Sri Lankans arriving in Australia by boat are found to be refugees, yet Australia premises its treatment of Sri Lankans arriving by boat on the assumption that they are not in need of protection.

“What is clear, however, is that the decision to ‘screen out’ and return an asylum seeker to Sri Lanka is not subject to independent oversight or review,” the report added.

The report also notes that the Australian High Commission in Colombo has investigated four complaints about harm by returned Sri Lankans and although the Australian Government insists that the claims were not substantiated, documents show that Australian officials have turned a blind eye where torture may have occurred and in these circumstances, Australia is in violation of its responsibility to prevent and respond to the commission of torture and also the obligation of non-refoulement.