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Statement by the Australian Foreign Minister on Sri Lanka

March 17, 2010

$12 million will be provided to the World Bank to co-finance their Emergency Northern Reconstruction Project. 

Over an 18 month period, the World Bank project plans to help over 100,000 displaced people by providing cash grants, raising standards of living and rebuilding essential community infrastructure...

$8 million will be provided to co-finance the Asian Development Bank's North East Community Restoration and Development Project...

Large scale damage to basic housing infrastructure in the north remains a critical challenge, with the total number of houses damaged or destroyed reported to exceed 230,000. 

This follows on from the $3 million Australia provided in November 2009 to UN Habitat to provide cash grants to affected families for quick repairs and longer term reconstruction of housing, as well as restoring land titles.

Statement by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Hon Stephen Smith, MP

Sri Lanka

17 March 2010

I wish to update the House on the situation in Sri Lanka since my last report to the House on 14 September 2009.

In particular, I want to update the House on the ongoing political and humanitarian challenges facing Sri Lanka and Australia’s strengthened financial and diplomatic support for the people of Sri Lanka to help Sri Lanka meet these challenges.

I highlight some recent progress on resettling internally displaced civilians, an immense task.

I underscore Australia’s long-standing bilateral relationship with Sri Lanka, underpinned by substantial people-to-people links.  Our bilateral cooperation continues to expand in important areas, including combating people smuggling and human trafficking.  Addressing transnational issues such as these is important, not only to Sri Lanka and Australia but to our region.

I do so at a time when President Mahinda Rajapaksa has recently been re-elected, following Sri Lanka’s first nation-wide election after over two decades of conflict.  And at a time when Sri Lanka prepares for parliamentary elections on 8April.


Political challenges

Mr Speaker, as I said in my statement to the Parliament in September last year, the military victory in Sri Lanka has changed the situation on the ground irrevocably. 

During my visit to Sri Lanka in November last year, I urged the Sri Lankan Government to win the peace, after decades-long military conflict, by forging an enduring political settlement for all Sri Lankans.

I acknowledged that this would not be easy.  Nor would it occur overnight.  It would come only after a process of political reform and rapprochement between all parties and communities. 

While the outside world could help in practical ways, the solution needed to come from within Sri Lanka, from the people of Sri Lanka. 

The re-elected Sri Lankan Government has both a special responsibility and opportunity to use its second term to promote the political freedoms and the reforms, including the empowerment of minority communities, that will enable all citizens to have a stake in the country’s future.

Australia believes that Sri Lanka’s democracy, its rule of law and its national security would be enhanced by a stronger civil society and an independent and free media. 

Such freedoms could enhance Sri Lanka’s prospects for lasting reconciliation.

Another crucial part of the reconciliation and peace building process is the proper conduct of elections.  In this regard, it was notable that polling for the Presidential election proceeded reasonably peacefully in most areas.

There were, however, reports of violence and possible violations of election law in the lead up to and following the Presidential election. 

As we approach the 8 April elections, Australia urges the Government of Sri Lanka and its civil institutions to ensure that there are credible investigations into past election incidents and measures are put in place to prevent similar problems arising again.

Mr Speaker, as Members would be aware, the former Army Chief and Presidential candidate General Sarath Fonseka was taken into detention on 8 February and faces charges of undertaking political activities while still in the military and violating military procurement guidelines. 

General Fonseka was brought before a military court at Navy Headquarters on 16 March and is due to appear again today.  General Fonseka is challenging the legality of his detention through Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court.

The international community, including Australia, has been and is watching these developments closely. 

Australia has underlined the importance of General Fonseka and his supporters being treated fairly and transparently in accordance with Sri Lankan law.

Mr Speaker, decades of civil war have impacted terribly and adversely on Sri Lankan civilians. 

Australia made repeated calls during the conflict, and since, for all parties to make the welfare and protection of civilians the absolute priority, and for international law to be respected. 

Australia has called on the Sri Lankan Government to investigate allegations of human rights violations and violations of international law. 

Proper and transparent investigation of these allegations is an important step towards reconciliation.

We welcomed the announcement by the SriLankan Government on 26 October 2009 that it would establish an Expert Committee to investigate allegations contained in the recent US State Department’s Report to Congress on Incidents during the Recent Conflict in Sri Lanka. 

The deadline for the Committee’s report was extended from 31December 2009. 

It is important that the Expert Committee moves more quickly to progress its investigations and implement its findings.  We look forward to the Committee’s report, due by 30 April 2010.

I welcome President Rajapaksa’s re-election statement on 27January in which he committed to govern for all Sri Lankans, build on the peace already achieved and move forward on a reconciliation program.

Others have indicated a willingness to explore options for reconciliation and long term stability. 

The Tamil National Alliance said in its platform for parliamentary elections to be held on 8 April that it would accept a “federal structure” in the north-east.  Obviously this is a sensitive political issue for Sri Lankans to resolve.

I encourage all political voices to engage together in a sincere process to achieve lasting political reconciliation in SriLanka. 

Humanitarian challenges

Mr Speaker, following my visit to Sri Lanka over 9-10 November last year, which was the first by an Australian Foreign Minister since 2004, it was very clear that the humanitarian task facing SriLanka was immense.

Australia has been a close observer of the humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka both during the recent intensified fighting and since the end of the military conflict in May 2009. 

Throughout, we have stressed the need to make the welfare of civilians an absolute priority. 

Australia held concerns about the camps for internally displaced people and we put these concerns directly to the Sri Lankan Government at the time, calling for freedom of movement for displaced persons and management of the camps in accordance with international humanitarian standards.

My discussions with the Sri Lankan Government in November 2009, including with President Rajapaksa and Foreign Minister, RohithaBogollagama, revealed that progress had been made in tackling the challenging task of resettling hundreds of thousands of displaced citizens and rehabilitating their communities. 

However, for several reasons – including the scale of the resettlement task – the Sri Lankan Government was not able to meet its self imposed deadline of 31January for completing the return of all internally displaced people to their place of origin.

This process is continuing.  Of the nearly 300,000 civilians displaced by the conflict, over 185,000 have been released and are living either in their own homes or – in greater numbers - with host families.  

Living conditions in the 12 remaining camps, which now house over 90,000 internally displaced people, continue to be difficult but reduced numbers have relieved the problem of over-crowding. 

Efforts are being made to meet the basic needs of people still in these camps and essential services are being provided.

During my November visit to Colombo, I discussed with the Sri Lankan Government the importance of freedom of movement for all internally displaced civilians.

Accordingly, Australia welcomed the SriLankan Government’s announcement of 1December 2009 which allowed freer movement for people in the camps. 

Tens of thousands of people have taken advantage of that decision to travel outside the camps.

Many of these civilians and those recently resettled have suffered immensely through decades of conflict which has resulted in significant trauma for many Sri Lankans.

In addition to the situation in the camps and resettlement areas, we remain watchful of the conditions for over 10,000 individuals who have been separated from the civilian population and held in detention as ex-combatants. 

We urge the Sri Lankan government to regularise the legal status of this group and afford international agencies access to those held in detention.

Enhanced diplomatic efforts

Mr Speaker, Australia has adopted an enhanced diplomatic and humanitarian effort to help Sri Lanka address the challenges of recovery from over two decades of civil war.

On 2 November 2009, the Prime Minister announced the appointment of Mr John McCarthy as Australia’s Special Representative to Sri Lanka. 

MrMcCarthy’s role has reinforced the messages that I and our High Commissioner in Colombo have put to the Sri Lankan Government on the importance of – and Australia’s support for - stabilisation and resettlement of internally displaced civilians within Sri Lanka.

Special Representative McCarthy has also engaged with the international community widely on the challenges faced by Sri Lanka. 

He has been consulting extensively on the importance of supporting reconstruction and rehabilitation programs in the north of the country.  These programs are important both for humanitarian reasons and for laying the foundations for lasting peace.

Mr McCarthy visited Colombo with me in November and has just completed a further visit to Sri Lanka this month, where he met President Rajapaksa. 

During this February visit, Mr McCarthy was also able to travel north with our High Commissioner to the Jaffna Peninsula where they visited camps for internally displaced civilians and resettlement areas, and met local government and community leaders.

In a number of discussions overseas, both in the corridors of international meetings and bilateral visits, including in London in January and in New Delhi in March, I underlined the importance of international support to assist Sri Lanka meet its challenges.

Humanitarian assistance

Mr Speaker, Australia continues to respond generously to the humanitarian challenges facing SriLanka. 

Our aid program is targeted to meet the needs of displaced civilians, their resettlement and the rehabilitation of their communities.

Our aid efforts in the camps are focussed on the well-being of internally displaced people, and not on the camps being a long-term settlement option. 

The proper, transparent and compassionate treatment of those citizens of the north and east will be important for post‑conflict reconciliation in Sri Lanka. 

It is for this reason that Australia continues to advocate resettlement of all remaining displaced persons in safe and dignified conditions as soon as possible.

Australian officials in Sri Lanka are working closely with central and local government authorities and community groups to determine how best Australia can continue to address the needs of the displaced, and support their resettlement and rehabilitation. 

A senior AusAID official visited resettlement areas in Northern Sri Lanka in late February for this purpose.

In many cases resettlement areas have been badly affected by conflict. 

There are impassable roads, destroyed houses and a lack of potable water.  Infrastructure, including schools and health facilities, is damaged or non-existent.  Large swathes of agricultural land are as yet unusable and tools to restart livelihoods are scarce. 

In addition, there is the ever-present danger of landmines and unexploded ordnance.

Mr Speaker, demining is an essential first step to allow people to return home and rebuild their lives. 

For this reason, Australia has already announced its commitment to provide up to $20 million for demining over the next five years to ensure that the northern part of Sri Lanka can be made safe for resettlement. 

Aid announcement

In November 2009 following my visit to Sri Lanka I informed the House that Australia was looking favourably to assisting both the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank on their reconstruction projects in the north and in the east. 

In Singapore in the margins of APEC I had a conversation with Mr Zoellick, the Executive Director of the World Bank, indicating Australia's in-principle support for those reconstruction efforts so far as the World Bank is concerned.

Today I announce that Australia will provide an additional $20 million in targeted assistance to Sri Lanka.

This support will be delivered through international organisations who are making a practical contribution to stabilisation efforts.

It is focussed on enabling people to return to their home communities and to re-establish the economic and social infrastructure required for recovery.

$12 million will be provided to the World Bank to co-finance their Emergency Northern Reconstruction Project. 

Over an 18 month period, the World Bank project plans to help over 100,000 displaced people by providing cash grants, raising standards of living and rebuilding essential community infrastructure. 

Australian funding will go directly to resettling families, allowing them to regain some control over their own lives and to start repairing their houses and clearing their fields and wells.

Our assistance will also provide seeds and essential farming and fishing implements to improve food security.

$8 million will be provided to co-finance the Asian Development Bank's North East Community Restoration and Development Project.

This project aims to rapidly improve living conditions by restoring basic social infrastructure including critical health facilities and schools.

It will restore village roads, provide irrigation and water supply schemes and restore electricity supplies.

It will give priority to districts affected by conflict including parts of Vavuniya, Jaffna, Mannar and Kilinochchi.

The assistance I am announcing today builds on Australia's existing support for housing to enable internally displaced people to be resettled more quickly. 

Large scale damage to basic housing infrastructure in the north remains a critical challenge, with the total number of houses damaged or destroyed reported to exceed 230,000. 

This follows on from the $3 million Australia provided in November 2009 to UN Habitat to provide cash grants to affected families for quick repairs and longer term reconstruction of housing, as well as restoring land titles.

Bilateral Relationship

Mr Speaker, Sri Lanka is important to Australia.  Australia and Sri Lanka share strong bilateral relations, built on our shared Commonwealth membership, as well as links in trade and investment, defence, education, sport, culture and development cooperation. 

The people-to-people links between Australia and Sri Lanka are strong with around 100,000 persons of Sri Lankan extraction now living in Australia, contributing to all aspects of our society. 

The opportunity now exists for the diaspora to play a constructive role in promoting the conditions for sustainable peace.  I urge the diaspora to look forward and work in positive ways to help communities inside Sri Lanka realise a peaceful future for themselves.

Australia is committed to working with SriLanka to help address the serious challenges facing today’s world, including counter-terrorism and people smuggling, climate change and organised transnational crime. 

Such issues require global solutions and Australia is firmly committed to supporting and enhancing the vital role of multilateral institutions, including the United Nations, in meeting these challenges.

People smuggling is an issue that affects our entire region, not just Australia. 

We are working more closely than ever before with international organisations, in particular the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and with regional partners to combat this issue, through such groupings as the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime.

People smuggling remains a high-priority transnational issue for source, transit and destination countries in our region. 

People smugglers and people smuggling syndicates work without regard for human safety or national legal frameworks.

Australia is working together with Sri Lanka to address people smuggling. 

In a Joint Ministerial Statement I issued with the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister on 9November2009, Australia and Sri Lanka reaffirmed our continuing commitment to work together to combat people smuggling and related organised criminal activities, including:

  • enhancing cooperation to bring to justice the criminal organisers of the people smuggling trade;
  • taking a leading role to promote regional cooperation to act against transnational people smuggling networks, and
  • undertaking a public information campaign to alert Sri Lankan citizens to the dangers of maritime people smuggling.

We acknowledged our ongoing constructive bilateral cooperation between key domestic operational agencies and underlined our commitment to work together in practical ways to address people smuggling issues in a cooperative and comprehensive manner.

Conclusion

Mr Speaker, Sri Lanka is emerging from a long period of conflict and insecurity towards greater stability.  With new presidential and parliamentary terms soon to begin, now more than ever is the time to forge a new beginning for all its citizens and take forward national reconciliation and lasting peace.

As a long-time friend, Australia has been, and will continue to be, committed to working with Sri Lanka to build a peaceful and prosperous future for all Sri Lankans.