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Tuesday, 12 May 2009
Page: 3501


Mr STEPHEN SMITH (Minister for Foreign Affairs) (3:58 PM) —Mr Speaker, I wish to update the House about the grave humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka.

As members would recall, I delivered a ministerial statement on Sri Lanka on 5 February. At that time, I said that the long-term security and prosperity of Sri Lanka would only be achieved through a political solution or settlement that met the legitimate aspirations of all Sri Lankans. For Sri Lanka to achieve a lasting settlement and an enduring peace, political reform and rapprochement between all parties and communities is clearly required. That remains Australia’s view and the basis of Australia’s policy on Sri Lanka. It is a view I have continued to relay to the Sri Lankan government, including when I spoke to Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama on 30 April. I also relayed to him our profound concern at the worsening humanitarian situation in the north of Sri Lanka.

The safety and protection of civilians must be the absolute priority for all sides fighting in northern Sri Lanka. Tragically, many civilians have been killed and further loss of life is inevitable unless both sides cease hostilities to allow civilians to leave the conflict zone. It is essential that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) allow civilians to leave the conflict zone.

There can be no doubt that the military advance of the Sri Lankan government has been rapid. Having at one stage reportedly controlled about a third of Sri Lanka’s territory, the LTTE leadership is now confined to a small strip of land less than five square kilometers. It is clear that a military victory by the Sri Lankan government is imminent, irrevocably changing the situation on the ground after decades of conflict. All of us in the House and in the Australian community must recognise the qualitatively changed situation in Sri Lanka. Recognising these new circumstances and motivated by our concern for the safety and welfare of civilians, Australia supports the call of the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon for a humanitarian pause in fighting.

In my 30 April conversation with Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Bogollagama, I welcomed the Sri Lankan government’s announcement that combat operations using heavy calibre weapons, aerial weapons and combat aircraft which could cause civilian casualties would cease. Noting that then as now there were reports of such operations continuing, I told him that it was vital that these commitments were implemented in full. Mr Bogollagama reassured me this commitment was being met.

I note with deep concern, however, that fighting is continuing in this area and I am aware of reports over the weekend of many civilian deaths as a result of shelling within the conflict zone. Further offensive action will inevitably cause further civilian suffering. As the United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator, John Holmes, has said, there are now ‘twin’ emergencies in northern Sri Lanka. The first emergency involves tens of thousands of civilians still trapped in the conflict zone. These people need safety from the fighting. We can be certain that they desperately need food and medical assistance. Their plight deteriorates with each passing day.

The second emergency is the situation of those who have recently escaped the conflict zone. Nearly 200,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) are living in camps in northern Sri Lanka. The United Nations has the full support of the Australian government as it works with the Sri Lankan authorities to address the worsening humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka. Australia commends the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross, international and Australian NGOs and the Sri Lankan government for their efforts in meeting the critical needs of civilians in the camps.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon has repeated his call for UN humanitarian teams to gain access to the conflict zone to assess the full extent of the civilians’ situation in the area. Australia strongly supports this call. There is no justification for refusing to allow the United Nations and key humanitarian aid agencies full access to affected areas. Australia also urges the Sri Lankan government to ensure as a matter of urgency that the process of evacuation from the conflict zone is open to monitoring by the International Committee of the Red Cross and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other UN officials. Such access would underline the Sri Lankan government’s commitment to the protection of its civilians and build confidence in its management of this difficult situation.

With the growing crisis, the Australian government has responded to assist affected civilians in Sri Lanka. I announced last week that, following an urgent United Nations appeal for emergency international assistance, Australia would provide a further $10 million in humanitarian assistance to meet the needs of civilians adversely affected by the conflict, particularly those in displaced people’s camps or those near the conflict zone. The additional funds will be provided through United Nations agencies, including UNICEF and the World Food Program, as well as Australian NGOs. Australian assistance will provide water, sanitation, shelter, food and health care to civilians in need. Australia’s total contribution to assist the victims of the conflict in Sri Lanka since December 2008 now stands at $23.5 million.

Australia also welcomes the commitment and efforts of its international partners. Recent international missions to Sri Lanka have included that of United Kingdom Foreign Secretary David Miliband and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner. I have spoken to both ministers about their visit and I support their call overnight for the UN Security Council to address the humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka. Mr Miliband’s account of his visit to Sri Lanka, along with reports from others, reveals that there remains much human suffering among the civilians trapped in the conflict zone. Reports of abuses from within the conflict zone include accounts of civilians forced by the LTTE to stay in its territory, of forced recruitment of children and adults by the LTTE, of deaths and injuries from bombs and artillery, and of families desperately seeking news of their loved ones. There are also reports of anxieties among Tamil civilians about their future in government-held areas.

Australia continues to condemn the terrorist tactics of the LTTE. Australia urges the LTTE to allow civilians caught in the conflict zone to leave, to end its practice of forced recruitment and to renounce terrorism. Australia continues to urge the LTTE to lay down its arms. We again condemn the LTTE’s targeting of civilians in or departing the conflict zone and the completely unacceptable use of civilians as human shields. The government further urges the Sri Lankan community in Australia to add its weight to help ensure that civilian life is protected in the north of Sri Lanka.

Many members of the Sri Lankan Tamil community in Australia have written to me concerning loved ones in Sri Lanka. They have recounted stories of their own, often tragic, personal and family experiences. Many others have conveyed their concerns about the humanitarian crisis, including through peaceful demonstrations, letters and dialogue with members and senators on all sides. I have also heard from leaders of Australia’s religious communities, most recently from the Catholic Auxiliary Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn, Pat Power. They have let me know their distress at the grave humanitarian situation of civilians in this conflict.

The Australian government shares fully these concerns. We will continue to convey them forcefully to the Sri Lankan government. There is no military solution to Sri Lanka’s civil conflict. Australia, a longstanding friend of Sri Lanka, urges its government to ensure its civilians have confidence in the government’s commitment to their protection. As my French and United Kingdom foreign ministerial colleagues have made clear, in the Sri Lankan government’s moment of military victory it must show the humanity and self-interest to win the peace.

I ask leave of the House to move a motion to enable the Deputy Leader of the Opposition to speak for nine minutes.

Leave granted.


Mr STEPHEN SMITH —I move:

That so much of the standing of the sessional orders be suspended as would prevent Ms J. Bishop (Deputy Leader of the Opposition) speaking in reply to the ministerial statement for a period not exceeding 9 minutes.

Question agreed to.