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Geoffrey Robertson on human rights abuses in Sri Lanka

ABC-Radio National- Presented by Geraldine Doogue- 4 May 2013

The QC Geoffrey Robertson is one of a growing number calling for the leaders of Commonwealth countries to boycott the CHOGM heads of government meeting, planned for Colombo Sri Lanka, in November.

He conducted a review of the process that led to the impeachment and sacking of the country's chief justice earlier this year, that found Sri Lanka's legal system wanting.

A recent report from Amnesty International also claims there are mounting human rights abuses in the country against anyone who is critical of the government.

Listen to Audio:

No Fire Zone- Sri Lanka's Killing Fields-Australian Tour

No Fire Zone Screening in Australia

ABC Lateline -Hon Malcolm Fraser Leads Call for Boycott of CHOGM 2013

EMMA ALBERICI, PRESENTER: There is growing pressure on Commonwealth countries to boycott this year's Heads of Government meeting in Sri Lanka after credible reports of torture of Tamil civilians and Government sanctioned abuse of journalists, judges and Opposition politicians. Canada's Prime Minister says he won't be going if the Sri Lankan situation doesn't improve and Britain's foreign affairs Select Committee has recommended that David Cameron stay away too. Now former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser has weighed in, saying Sri Lanka does not have the moral right to host CHOGM. Shortly I will be talking to Foreign Minister Bob Carr but first this report from Kerry Brewster.

KERRY BREWSTER, REPORTER: Sri Lanka has rejected calls from the United Nations to investigate allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the 2009 at the end of the long civil war. The BBC's former correspondent there, who until recently headed Amnesty International's news section, says crimes were committed by both sides but that primarily the killing was perpetrated by the Sri Lankan Government.

FRANCES HARRISON, FORMER BBC SRI LANKA CORRESPONDENT: You are talking about tens and tens of thousands of people killed, possibly even 100,000 in the space of five months alone. People were shelled in hospitals repeatedly, in food queues and safe zones, they saw people die in front of them. When you add that up, there isn't really anywhere in the world where you have had such an intensity, a speed and scale of killing quite so fast. You know, for me, going around interviewing all these survivors from that war, it was a bit like interviewing holocaust survivors; it was very, very harrowing.

KERRY BREWSTER: The Sri Lankan Government denies it deliberately killed any Tamil civilians, only Tamil Tiger rebels. In the view of the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, it's a denial so blatantly untrue that he's warned he won't be going to Colombo for CHOGM

STEPHEN HARPER, CANADIAN PRIME MINISTER: I have indicated unless changes occur in Sri Lanka. I will not be attending the Commonwealth summit there, and I am concerned with further developments since I made that statement which are taking that country in a worse direction.

KERRY BREWSTER: Now the former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser says Australia should not attend.

MALCOLM FRASER, FORMER PRIME MINISTER: No, we shouldn't and we should have been arguing at the Commonwealth conference in Perth, that Sri Lanka was an inappropriate place to have the conference. From all the reports that we're getting, there is still continuing human rights violations in Sri Lanka.

THISARA SAMARASINGHE, HIGH COMMISSIONER TO AUSTRALIA: I don't think he is qualified to comment on the moralities of the Sri Lankan Governments, having been in the politics 40 years ago. Sri Lanka has all the moral obligations, moral values as a founding member of the Commonwealth to host this Commonwealth conference as agreed by people who matter.

KERRY BREWSTER: But a number of recent reports, including one from the UN Human Rights Council, paint a grim picture of deteriorating security for Tamil civilians who are reportedly subject to extortion, torture and rape.

FRANCES HARRISON: Last week in London I met a woman who in November, so we are talking a few months ago, was arrested and put in a police station and continuously gang raped, brutally gang raped for 47 days. This is after her mother and sister had been burned alive in their home and her father previously had been beaten to death.

KERRY BREWSTER: Sri Lanka's High Commission tore Australia says allegations of torture and rape of Tamils are baseless.

THISARA SAMARASINGHE: Do not get carried away by these Western interest parties bringing certain degree of evidence from any corner without any validated substantiation of any credible evidence has no place in the court of law.

KERRY BREWSTER: Sri Lanka was accused of taking an authoritarian turn after impeaching its most senior judge in January. Both Amnesty International and the International Crisis Group claim the Government's sanctions that physical abuse of journalists, judges, human rights activists and opposition politicians.

VOICE OVER: Sri Lanka has cross a threshold into new and dangerous terrain through its politically motivated impeachment of the Chief Justice, and its attacks on the judiciary and political descent.

FRANCES HARRISON: This is not your average you know, human rights problem in a developing country. This is way beyond that and so to reward them and rubber stamp them by having world leaders go there and endorse the Rajapaksas, is shocking actually.

KERRY BREWSTER: The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting is scheduled for November in Colombo.

Sri Lankan State and Communities

Sri Lanka covers an area of around 25,000 square miles, almost the size of Ireland or Tasmania, and has a population of around 20 million. Sri Lanka’s population consists of two main ethnic groups, the Sinhalese majority who make up 74% of the population, and the Tamils. Both Sinhalese and Tamils trace their origins to India, although there is no consensus regarding the differences that may exist between these two communities on their ethnic origins. The Tamil people represent both the Sri Lankan Tamils, whose ancestors have lived on the island for more than 2,500 years, and the Indian Tamils, who the British colonialists introduced to the ‘tea country’ of south-central Sri Lanka in the 19th century as tea and rubber plantation workers. The Sri Lankan Tamils account for around 12% of the population and the Indian Tamils around 5%. The rest of the population consists predominantly of Muslims (around 8%, who also mainly speak Tamil, resulting in a total Tamil-speaking population of around 25%) and supplemented by others such as Malays, Burghers and various minor groups. Traditionally Sinhalese embrace Buddhism as their religion whilst Tamils are mostly Hindus, though both groups also have a significant number of Christians amongst them.

The Tamil Struggle for Equality in Sri Lanka

Once known as a tea-exporting, cricket-loving paradise (Ceylon), Sri Lanka has gained international notoriety for more disturbing reasons. Sri Lanka consistently makes its way into the list of failed states, has been voted out of the UN Human Rights Council, and was positioned near the bottom of the press freedom index. It had also illegally detained more than 300,000 people in internment camps, and has an atrocious human rights record with hundreds of enforced disappearances occurring each year for which no one has ever been brought to justice . While international condemnation and action against the Government of Sri Lanka has been restrained, progress has occurred on at least two fronts, with the UN recently calling for a full independent war crimes investigation and the European Union withdrawing trade concessions to Sri Lanka due to their appalling human rights record.

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