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Monday, 24 March 2014
Page: 2922

Mr NIKOLIC (Bass) (11:05): The coalition government is committed to international standards of human rights and takes seriously all allegations of abuse. As someone who served on Australia's initial deployments to Afghanistan and southern Iraq, and as a senior public servant managing our international defence relationships, I confirm that these issues are front of mind for our senior military officers and bureaucrats. I acknowledge the ongoing human rights concerns in Sri Lanka, on both sides of the civil conflict that ended in May 2009. I know that members of this House aspire to genuine reconciliation and a less violent future for the people of Sri Lanka.

As history has repeatedly proven, governments are at the heart of genuine reconciliation. The Sri Lankan government is no different, and the terrible events on both sides of the conflict must be explored. That includes accountability for alleged crimes, as the member for Greenway says, by both sides of that conflict, both the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the Sri Lankan government. We further this aspiration by engaging the government of Sri Lanka, not isolating it. My career as a senior military officer and senior public servant working within the international system has repeatedly reinforced the value of working with states in relation to human rights, not shouting at them from the sidelines.

Instead of finger-pointing from a distance, Australia raises issues of human rights directly with Sri Lanka's government and we remain in regular contact with political, official and community representatives on Sri Lankan issues here in Australia. Just a few weeks ago, on 5 March, foreign minister Bishop met Mr M.A. Sumanthiran, of the Tamil National Alliance, to hear his views. In the margins of CHOGM in Colombo last November, Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Foreign Minister Bishop raised human rights at the most senior levels of the Sri Lankan government. And in relation to our participation in CHOGM in Colombo, Bob Carr got that call absolutely right. Our high commission in Colombo regularly does the same, including, most recently, with the secretary of Sri Lanka's Foreign Ministry about the 16 March arrest of Father Praveen and Ruki Fernando. We are very pleased to see that they have since been released.

We continue at a variety of levels to urge the Sri Lankan government to give the highest priority to implementing the recommendations of its Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission process. As for co-sponsorship of the US-led resolution on Sri Lanka, this decision, as with all good policy decisions, will be based on due consideration of the final text and an evidence-based consideration of all factors. It is important to acknowledge the Sri Lankan government's progress on resettlement of internally displaced persons, de-mining and infrastructure development in the war-ravaged north and east. I note that Australia has provided an aid contribution for de-mining and reconstruction of housing and schools in these areas in the north and east of the country.

The September 2013 Northern Province Council election, which was won by the Tamil National Alliance, was an important step forward. A political settlement between the central government and the Tamil community is critical for reconciliation. Properly implemented, Sri Lanka's commission of inquiry on disappearances which was established late last year will also be an important contributor to accountability and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. Transparency, inclusivity and early progress with concrete results will be key for such a large and difficult undertaking.

So at every level of our polity and of our bureaucracy, our engagement with countries like Sri Lanka both bilaterally and in multilateral forums assists in taking that process of reconciliation forward, and we do that most effectively when we participate. Throughout my career I have found that furthering the cause of good governance, furthering the cause of strengthened institutional structures in countries in our region, is best accomplished from within than without. I know that I join every member of this House in wishing the Sri Lankan people the reconciliation and brighter future they deserve.