According to a news report in The Canberra Times on Wednesday, the Australian Federal Police dismissed allegations of war crimes made against Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to Australia, Thisara Samarasinghe, more than four months ago. But that may not be the end of the matter, as Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon has again raised questions over the status of the former admiral ”while allegations of war crimes hang over his head”.
Samarasinghe joined the Sri Lankan navy in 1974 and retired in 2011, after his appointment to Australia became known. Samarasinghe was Chief of Staff of the Sri Lankan navy in 2009 when the navy carried out the shelling of Tamil women and children in a safe zone designated by the Sri Lankan defence force, in the north of the country, at the end of the civil war between the Tamils and the Sinhalese.
Whether he ordered the shelling or not, Samarasinghe as Chief of Staff held a very senior and responsible position in the navy and as a result must be held to account.
There is no question that Samarasinghe should be recalled. A former commodore in the Sri Lankan navy has been refused permission by the Canadian Federal Court to apply for refugee status in Canada because of his complicity in war crimes in 2009.
In 2005 and 2008 the Canadian government refused to accept nominations from the government of Sri Lanka for the position of high commissioner on the grounds that both nominees were guilty of human rights abuse.
In September 2011, former Sri Lankan general, Jagath Dias, who had been appointed ambassador to Germany and Switzerland, was recalled to Colombo, following accusations that he was complicit in the shelling of civilian and hospital targets at the end of the war.
In 1995 the nomination, as ambassador, of former Indonesian general Herman Mantiri was rejected by Australia on the basis of war crimes committed against the East Timorese.
The UN has accepted that the Sri Lankan defence forces were guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the final weeks of the war, just as they accept that both sides in the civil war were guilty of war crimes during the course of the conflict.
The president of the International Commission of Jurists in Australia, John Dowd, AO, released a statement on October 17 last year which said in part, ”Those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity at the end of the Sri Lankan civil war in 2009 must not be allowed to go unpunished. The expert committee established by the United Nations Secretary-General found credible allegations of serious violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law.”
Senator Lee Rhiannon of the Greens says, ”If the Prime Minister has information which clears the high commissioner of any complicity in war crimes then she should share this with the Australian people. If not, the Australian government should immediately ask the Sri Lankan government to recall its high commissioner, or move to expel him.”
The AFP should never have been tasked with investigating the matter of Samarasinghe’s culpability in condoning war crimes. They have a conflict of interest. Charged with preventing boat arrivals of refugees from Sri Lanka and with helping to organise disruption activities with the Sri Lankan navy, they are hardly in a position to bite the hand of a former representative of the service that AFP officers based in Sri Lanka are now working closely with. The Australian government condones this activity.
The Department of Foreign Affairs was said to have been opposed to Samarasinghe’s appointment but the AFP may well have pushed for it in order to assist their disruption activities, which Samarasinghe has admitted undertaking (ABC radio interview on July 17 ).
The unsupervised power of the AFP is a matter of growing concern, but the fact that they can drop an important investigation without informing Parliament or its representatives is symptomatic of the arrogance now attending this force as it seemingly prosecutes its own agenda, free from parliamentary constraint and supervision.
The Gillard government and the Abbott opposition are weak for having allowed this situation to develop and more so for now appearing to condone it.
Tamils in the north of the country remain under military occupation. Credible witnesses report a climate of fear. Women and children are abused, the economy is dead and there is no work. All this is denied by Samarasinghe and the government he represents, however, and this is why desperate Tamils continue to try and come to Australia by boat. Genocide is being carried out against the Tamils in the north.
When genocide was being carried out by the white South African government against black South Africans, not even a Coalition government was prepared to accept a general or admiral from South Africa as ambassador to Australia; so why do we bend and break the rules with Sri Lanka?
Is it all to do with the disruption program and the special ”relationship” we have forged with Sri Lanka over terrorism? Most likely. The terrorism bogey, from and within Sri Lanka, is long dead if ever it were alive for anyone but the Sri Lankan spin machine and ASIO expansion plans.
AFP involvement overseas with the disruption of refugee boats is corrupting and harming what should be a premier Australian police force. It is preventing the AFP from fully gaining the respect of Australians and distorts their ability to focus on non-political police activities. They should have no role in the formation and conduct of aspects of Australian foreign policy, and yet they do.
Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Sri Lanka.