Adjournment speech — Maaveerar Naal, Tuesday 27 November 2012
by Senator Lee Rhiannon
Lee Rhiannon is the Australian Greens Senator for New South Wales.
For Tamils all around the world, including in Sri Lanka, 27 November marks a very important and hauntingly sad day. In Tamil the day is known as Maaveerar Naal.
Veerar means ‘warrior’ or ‘hero’; Maa means ‘great’; and Naal means ‘day’.
It is a day on which millions of Tamils will remember the hundreds and thousands of brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, children and the elderly who sacrificed their life in the 26-year-long struggle for their freedom.
Last year on this day I joined around 2,000 Tamils in Sydney’s west to pay respect to the courage, strength and sacrifice of the Tamil people. The overwhelming distress and pain of the Tamil community as they stood in line to lay down a flower in respect for the fallen was a piercing emotional experience for me. I am in parliament today so I will not be able to join the community, but I still stand beside them as their friend on this significant day.
I have come to know the Tamil community in Sydney intimately and I know that their grief and feeling of betrayal by the international community, world leaders, and the United Nations is still very raw. These emotions are perpetuated by the discrimination and brutality the Tamils continue to face at the hands of the Sri Lankan government, including the sexual abuse and exploitation of women, imprisonment, land grabs, torture, assassinations and kidnappings.
Australia’s continuing ‘friendly’ relations with Sri Lanka in order to stop Tamils from fleeing their country is a matter of despair. The Australian government and opposition’s discriminatory views and actions towards Tamil asylum seekers who do manage to make the dangerous journey here is shameful.
The recent assassination in France of a French Tamil community leader is an example of the ongoing challenges that the diaspora Tamils face. Over the weekend, thousands of Tamils across France and Europe gathered in Paris to pay their respects to Mr Nadarajah, also known as Parithi, who was murdered on 8 November. It is alleged that his killing was orchestrated by Sri Lankan government officials. When investigating these crimes I trust that the French authorities will be thorough and transparent with any information that may indicate it was a political assassination.
At the service, there were community representatives from Australia, Canada and New Zealand. French politicians were reportedly present. The mass attendance and the state-like ceremony that was performed reflects the commitment and resolve of the Tamils. Amidst their show of communal grief, they have once again sent a powerful message to the international community that they will not be silenced in their work to achieve a war crimes investigation and justice for Tamils in Sri Lanka.
A few weeks ago the UN made international headlines when a leaked internal UN report prepared by Charles Petrie concluded that various UN agencies had failed to meet their responsibilities in the last months of the civil war in Sri Lanka. The report concluded that ‘events in Sri Lanka mark a grave failure of the UN’. Writing for Canada’s The Globe and Mail on 19 November, Frances Harrison, a former BBC correspondent in Sri Lanka and author of Still Counting the Dead: Survivors of Sri Lanka’s Hidden War, stated:
… the latest UN report documents how UN staff members were in possession of reliable information that showed that the Sri Lankan government was responsible for the majority of deaths. And that two-thirds of the killings were inside safe zones unilaterally declared by the Sri Lankan government purportedly to protect civilians. This was information senior UN managers decided not to share with diplomats when they briefed them.
The BBC reported that the Petrie report points out that in Colombo ‘many senior UN staff did not perceive the prevention of killing of civilians as their responsibility, and agency and department heads at UNHQ were not instructing them otherwise’ and that there was ‘a continued reluctance’ among UN personnel in Sri Lanka ‘to stand up for the rights of people they were mandated to assist’. The report also talks about the UN’s reluctance to publish casualty figures. During the war, the UN maintained a figure of about 8,000 Tamil deaths. After the war, a former UN spokesperson in Sri Lanka, Gordon Weiss, put this figure as high as 40,000. The Petrie report says that ‘credible information’ indicates ‘that over 70,000 people are unaccounted for’. Dr Sam Pari, spokesperson for the Australian Tamil Congress, says Tamil church leaders and civil society, using census statistics, have calculated the death toll to be 146,679.
Against this figure of 146,679 Tamil deaths, the UN estimation of 8,000 is an insult. Even a possible 70,000 figure is hard to trust. So, three years on, we still have no agreed figure of how many men, women, children and elderly were killed in the first five months of 2009.
What this internal review has revealed is nothing new. All throughout the final months of the war, Tamils all over the world pleaded with international leaders to take notice of the massacre taking place in Sri Lanka. Thousands of Tamils continuously took to the streets in India, Australia, Canada, US, Malaysia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Germany and France. In Britain an unprecedented 300,000 Tamils closed off Parliament Square crying out for a ceasefire. Numerous young Tamils were on hunger strike, and in India young men burnt themselves alive, unable to bear the news of what was happening to their brothers and sisters. In a blog post on 15 November, former UN spokesperson, Gordon Weiss, said:
… Sri Lanka pulled off one of the nastiest episodes of mass killing since the Rwandan genocide – and got away with it.
He went on to say:
Despite a clear advantage over the near-vanquished rebels, the army bombed packed hospitals, used starvation tactics, executed civilian captives, raped and killed female guerrillas and corralled women and children into “safe zones” before shelling them. When that was done, it interrogated and then killed the Tamil Tiger political and military leadership, along with their families.
I find it hard to believe that Western governments did not know what was going on. It has been confirmed that the UN certainly did know. While there were diplomatic efforts by some European leaders, the overall efforts were minimal.
I congratulate the aid workers, Tamil doctors, priests, Tamil net journalists and diaspora Tamils who stayed in the conflict zone and did everything they could to make the world listen. Many died. Today, I will remember them on Maaveerar Naal.
In responding to the leaked UN internal review, UN chief, Ban Ki-Moon, said in a statement:
… I am determined that the United Nations draws the appropriate lessons and does its utmost to earn the confidence of the world’s people, especially those caught in conflict who look to the Organization for help.
I welcome Mr Moon’s statement. It is important to hear that the UN is determined to draw the appropriate lessons. Mr Moon has said he will organise a senior-level team to provide him with careful consideration of the recommendations and advise on a step forward. It is a step in the right direction, but we have to acknowledge that it is a very small step. Many feel it is too late.
My concern with Mr Moon’s statement is what he omitted: will anyone in the UN be held responsible? In his blog, Gordon Weiss speaks of an incident during the war when Australian UN humanitarian worker, James Elder, warned that children were being killed and a Sri Lankan government official accused him of supporting terrorists. The government expelled Elder.
That government official, Palitha Kohona, is now Sri Lanka’s representative at the UN. His deputy is a former general accused of mass killing during the war. Is Palitha Kohona going to be held accountable? And what about Vijay Nambiar, who was Mr Moon’s then chef de cabinet?
Writing for The Huffington Post on 16 November, Frances Harrison says Mr Nambiar implored the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, to dilute her statement when she wanted to speak about potential war crimes by the Sri Lankan government. Will Mr Moon do anything about him? And what about a war crimes investigation? Will Mr Moon take the necessary steps to appoint an independent war crimes investigation to set the record straight? And will member states give him the backing that he needs?
The Australian government has maintained a complicit silence regarding the Rajapaksa regime and the allegations of war crimes against it, and it continues to give a former navy official during the war—Thisara Samarasinghe—diplomatic immunity in Canberra. I note here a sentence from page 28 of the Report of the Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka:
From as early as 6 February 2009, the SLA —the Sri Lankan Army — continuously shelled within the area that became the second NFZ — no fire zone — from all directions, including land, air and sea.
The failure of the Australian government and other Western governments to take decisive actions, such as adding their support to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s call to boycott CHOGM if it is held in Sri Lanka in 2013, adds to the pain and anguish that so many Tamils and their supporters feel, particularly on a day as important as today.
I congratulate all those who are working to ensure that there will be a war crimes investigation. As 27 November dawns around the world, I acknowledge the grief and courage of Tamils who gather together to remember and reflect on the enormity of the lives lost.
I repeat the call that crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in Sri Lanka must be independently investigated.