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Tuesday, 12 May 2009
Page: 3503

Ms JULIE BISHOP (Deputy Leader of the Opposition) (4:07 PM) —The coalition supports the efforts announced by the Minister for Foreign Affairs to help civilians caught up in the humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka’s north. We welcome the minister’s announcement last Friday, 8 May of a further $10 million in humanitarian assistance to meet the critical needs of civilians affected terribly by this conflict, particularly those in displaced people’s camps or those near the conflict zone.

The minister has responded to the launch on 4 May of an urgent United Nations appeal for emergency international assistance. The United Nations estimates that 6,500 civilians have been killed this year and tens of thousands of civilians have fled their homes. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or LTTE—the Tamil Tigers, the separatist militant organisation that has fought for an independent homeland for Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority since 1983—have been pushed back by government forces into a tiny pocket of territory. It is estimated that, over the 26 years of this conflict between the government and the LTTE, more than 70,000 people have been killed and over 400,000 people have been displaced from their homes.

The United Nations continues to plead for access to the conflict zone so that people can be evacuated and the sick and wounded be attended to. But, with an estimated 50,000 civilians still trapped in this zone just three square kilometres in size, over last weekend the situation has become dire. According to the United Nations spokesman in Colombo, Gordon Weiss, more than 100 children were among a large number of Tamil civilians killed in a weekend.

A doctor inside the zone reportedly estimated that up to 1,400 people may have been killed in two days of air and artillery attacks. Colombo has denied using artillery or aircraft and has accused the LTTE of using mortars to fire on civilians for propaganda purposes. There is little opportunity to verify these claims or casualty figures, particularly because independent journalists are denied access to the conflict zone.

While the government describes the conflict zone as a government designated safe area, the United Nations has described the situation inside that area or zone as a bloodbath. Sri Lanka has objected to the remark and intends to formally complain. However, a statement issued today by the United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, reiterated that he is:

… appalled at the killing of hundreds of civilians in Sri Lanka over the weekend. Thousands of Sri Lankans have already died in the past several months due to the conflict, and more still remain in grave danger.

He went on to say he was:

… deeply concerned by the continued use of heavy weapons in this situation. The reckless disrespect shown by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) for the safety of civilians has led to thousands of people remaining trapped in the area.

The Secretary-General called once again in the strongest terms possible for both sides to adhere to their obligations under international humanitarian law and has demanded that the LTTE allow the estimated 50,000 civilians remaining in the conflict zone to leave immediately. He urged the government to bring the conflict to an end without further bloodshed. The government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE have blamed each other for causing the deaths through each side’s artillery bombardments.

The world is watching events in Sri Lanka closely and is greatly disturbed at the further violations of international law. Mr Ian Kelly, United States State Department spokesman, said overnight that the United States was deeply concerned at the unacceptably high level of civilian casualties. He confirmed that the United States has repeatedly urged the Tamil Tigers to lay down its arms and allow the civilians to leave the safe zone. He went on to say:

The government of Sri Lanka should abide by its April 27th statement that combat operations have concluded and security forces should end the use of heavy weapons which of course could cause civilian casualties.

Back in March, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton expressed to the Sri Lankan government the United States deep concern over the deteriorating conditions and increasing loss of life. Secretary Clinton said:

… a durable and lasting peace will only be achieved through a political solution that addresses the legitimate aspirations of all of Sri Lanka’s communities

Secretary Clinton called on the Sri Lankan government to put forward a proposal to engage Tamils who do not espouse violence or terrorism and to develop power-sharing arrangements to achieve a lasting peace and reconciliation. We join with the government of Australia in strongly supporting this stance of the United States.

We note that United Kingdom Foreign Secretary David Miliband has also demanded an end to the killing. Mr Miliband has called on the United Nations Security Council to take up this crisis and for all levels of the United Nations to hold discussions on the conditions facing Sri Lankan civilians trapped by the conflict. The coalition notes the efforts made by the two representatives of two Security Council member countries to resolve the crisis—the United Kingdom and France. It is with regret that the international community notes that the visit to Sri Lanka on 29 April of Mr Miliband with French Foreign Minister Kouchner did not result pacifying the situation.

While we welcome the Australian government’s humanitarian assistance to date to help alleviate suffering in northern Sri Lanka, we also join with the government in its view that Sri Lanka’s conflict cannot be resolved through military means alone. We consider a political solution to be essential for long-term peace in this long-suffering nation. The coalition will welcome further announcements of assistance by the government to the thousands of people who remain trapped in the conflict zone. We join international calls for both sides to cease hostilities and allow innocent civilians to leave harm’s way. The coalition believes that there should be a ceasefire to enable urgent humanitarian assistance to reach civilians trapped in the conflict zone and for civilians to safely leave the conflict area. We call for greater access for international humanitarian agencies to the Sri Lankan government temporary camps in order to treat the sick, monitor the activities of both sides of the conflict and to evacuate innocent civilians.

The coalition is saddened to hear of reports today that a shell has killed a local staff member of Caritas Australia who was working in one of the troubled regions in Sri Lanka’s north. Caritas Australia’s CEO, Jack de Groot, said that the tragic death adds to the growing number of innocent victims caught in the brutal conflict. Without an urgent ceasefire, many more innocent lives will be lost.

We consider that the Australian government should raise with the International Monetary Fund the possibility of linking progress on these urgent humanitarian issues to the requests of the Sri Lankan government for a US$1.9 billion loan. Sri Lanka is a country with a rich cultural history and a great natural beauty. It was once described by explorer Marco Polo as ‘one of the finest islands’. It has been the subject of a great body of art and literature and its beauty captured gloriously in a long poem by a Mrs Dent written in 1886:

Here, the proud ocean basks beneath his rays,

As pearl-entangled fringe the golden sands

Caress with murmurs soft, while fitful plays

The diamond spray, whose jewelled and glitt’ring bands

Encircle thee, Queen of the Indian Sea.

Ceylon! what land can e’er compare with thee?

The whole world urges Sri Lanka to again ensure that its citizens can live peacefully on this island of great beauty and serenity. Its citizens deserve no less.