Abbott’s Sri Lanka comments ‘excuse war crimes’, Tamil refugee advocates say

Abbott describes former Sri Lankan government’s handling of country’s conflict as ‘unavoidable actions taken to end one of the world’s most vicious civil wars’

The former prime minister Tony Abbott has excused war crimes in comments that the Sri Lankan government’s actions in its civil war were “probably unavoidable”, Tamil refugee advocates have said.

In an article in Quadrant magazine Abbott defended his national security recordas prime minister: “I’m sure that the Sri Lankan president was pleased that Australia didn’t join the human rights lobby against the tough but probably unavoidable actions taken to end one of the world’s most vicious civil wars”.

The foreign minister, Julie Bishop, has rebuked one aspect of his comment, telling Guardian Australia that the government had “consistently raised human rights issues with the former Sri Lankan government”.

Abbott did not indicate what actions or lobby groups he was referring to.

BkFY8RtCMAEUW2wThe United Nations has said it found evidence “strongly indicating” war crimes, including torture, executions, forced disappearances and sexual abuse committed by the Sri Lankan security forces against the country’s Tamil ethnic minority, who were fighting a separatist war.

Asked about allegations of torture in 2013 at a Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Sri Lanka, Abbott said: “The Australian government deplores any use of torture … wherever it might take place.” He added: “But we accept that sometimes in difficult circumstances, difficult things happen.”

Tamil Refugee Council convenor Trevor Grant told Guardian Australia “he excused torture then, now he’s excusing war crimes”.

Grant said Abbott’s comments were “predictable but despicable” as Abbott had “a history of aligning himself with the brutal [Rajapaksa] regime”, referring to their cooperation on stopping boats of asylum seekers from Sri Lanka reaching Australia.

“For Abbott to say that sort of thing flies in the face of all known facts, put out there not just by Tamil groups but also by independent investigators of the UN.”

Grant said UN reports in 2015 and 2012 had concluded that the Sri Lankan military bombed hospitals and no-fire zones.

The 2012 report also found the Tamil Tigers were responsible for human rights abuses, including forced conscription of teenagers for their military service and as suicide bombers.

Grant called on Bishop to reject the claim the Sri Lankan government’s actions were unavoidable, which he said was “wrong and dishonest”.

Australian Tamil Congress national spokesperson Sam Pari said “it is disappointing that rather than upholding human rights, Abbott chose instead to please the Sri Lankan president who failed to protect and promote international human rights law and international humanitarian law”.

Human Rights Watch Australia director, Elaine Pearson, said Abbott’s comments were unacceptable and offensive.

“The UN has described the final stages of the war as a bloodbath – tens of thousands of people were slaughtered in indiscriminate shelling. To suggest that war crimes are ‘tough but probably unavoidable’ is giving a green light to abusive leaders and armies everywhere,” she said.

“It is a slap in the face to the tens of thousands of victims of wartime atrocities and their families.”

Abbott said Australia and Sri Lanka “became even stronger partners in the Abbott government’s most urgent initial task: to end the people-smuggling trade that had resulted in more than 1,200 deaths at sea, more than 50,000 illegal arrivals by boat and more than $10bn in border protection budget blow-outs”.

Labor’s foreign affairs spokeswoman, Tanya Plibersek, said: “I think it would be a good thing for the foreign affairs minister to have a few words to Abbott about some of these comments.

“One of the reasons Australia is so well regarded internationally over the course of our history is because we are a responsible international citizen and part of that means standing up against human rights abuses, whenever they happen.

“That’s not lecturing our neighbours, that’s just being a good international citizen that says that we value democracy and we value human rights and we value them not just for Australians but for all people.”

Julie Bishop says Australia has welcomed Sri Lanka’s recent commitments to establish independent and credible criminal and transitional justice mechanisms. “If effectively implemented, these proposals will provide Sri Lanka with a platform to achieve genuine reconciliation,” she said.

“For that reason, and as a long-standing friend, Australia stands ready to assist Sri Lanka as it implements these proposals for dealing with the past.”

Abbott has been contacted for comment.

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