Australian silence on human rights is our gift to Sri Lanka

Tony+Abbott+xxx Australia is on the same team as China, Russia and the Congo in opposing the investigation.

For someone who was born in Sri Lanka and grew up in Australia, to see my two countries agree to oppose a landmark Human Rights inquiry is a shame.

9c449e17-66bf-45f6-a313-8e03b8ffa348-460x276What a photo: the smiling Sri Lankan defence secretary, accused of overseeing war crimes, gifting a premium box of Dilmah tea to the equally cheery Australian immigration and border protection minister, accused of running concentration camps. Apparently, the relationship between the two countries (cricket aside) genuinely could not be closer.

For some third-culture kids, immigrants who never really knew where they belonged, perhaps diplomatic camaraderie may in some nerdy way help to soothe a dislocated soul. But as someone who was born in Sri Lanka and grew up in Australia, this week’s headlines about the two nations’ mutual admiration club have not evoked pleasant thoughts.

After the United Nations reports on war crimes, the supply of Australian vessels to the Sri Lankan Navy to prevent the departure of people who want to escape, and the revelation that a former Sri Lankan military officer was overseeing the interment of Tamil asylum seekers on Manus Island, there was something about the smarminess of the exchange in that picture that caused me additional disgust and embarrassment. It was, after all, taken to celebrate a moment of “bold” solidarity between two nations who both agreed it was best not to support an international inquiry into human rights abuses at the end of the 2009 Sri Lankan civil war.

The Sri Lankan high commission’s obsequious statement thanks Australia for agreeing that “accountability and human rights concerns should be addressed within an internal mechanism and not by any international investigation as suggested by other countries”. The statement continues to say last month’s visit of the Sri Lankan defence secretary (and brother of the president) Gotabaya Rajapaksa to Australia had “positively raised the level of cooperation between the two countries and understanding the challenges that Sri Lanka faces due to unsubstantiated and unfounded allegations with bias (sic) attitudes”.

The gist of that diplomatic foot stamping may seem vaguely familiar to those following Australian politics recently. There’s a point when you can only laugh at the comparison because it’s too depressing to do anything else. Australia is currently not a member of the UN human rights council and did not vote against the resolution calling for the investigation, but declined to co-sponsor it. It was subsequently passed, and while I don’t purport to speak for anyone other than myself, I am utterly embarrassed and ashamed that Sri Lanka would offer the Australian government thanks for its actions. Australia is on the same team as China, Russia and the Congo in opposing the investigation.

I certainly do not mean to imply that defeating the Tamil Tigers, a terrorist organisation that deserves to be condemned, was not a good outcome. But there is a case to be answered. The inquiry mandated by the United Nations Human Rights Council comes after several other major investigations and it should be up to the inquiry to determine whether the allegations are unsubstantiated or unfounded, not the country being accused.

The allegations are of atrocities from both sides. The United Nations hascalled for an “independent and credible investigation” to “ensure justice and accountability” – precisely what one would expect to ensure both sides of the story are told and examined. The idea that the elected governments of both places from which I come have joined forces to suppress a human rights inquiry is a little hard to swallow.

There’s little consequence in this particular bi-national shame, of course. Nothing will change as a result of anyone’s unpatriotic mortification. We go about our business trying to do whatever we do, and in my case perhaps I’ll just agree when people assume that I am Indian. But there’s a part of us that knows we must speak out and say something, even if it seems like we cannot do anything meaningful right now.

And as we wait for the truth to come out, it’s also good to counter the self-serving spin of those who insist on keeping it quiet.