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Monday, 16 November 2009
Page: 11673

Mr CHEESEMAN (2:45 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Foreign Affairs. Would the minister update the House on his recent visit to Sri Lanka?

Mr STEPHEN SMITH (Minister for Foreign Affairs) —I thank the member for his question. Last week on Monday I visited Sri Lanka, Colombo, together with the government’s special representative to Sri Lanka, John McCarthy, the Ambassador for People Smuggling, Peter Woolcott, and also the acting Director-General of AusAID, Peter Baxter. There I met with President Rajapaksa, my counterpart Foreign Minister Bogollagama and also the Sri Lankan Minister for Law and Justice and the Minister for Human Rights and Disaster Management. As members of the House would appreciate, Sri Lanka has been through a terrible conflict, a civil war lasting over 25 years where thousands of people were casualties and thousands of people were displaced. We have only recently seen the end of that conflict. The challenge for Sri Lanka, with the assistance of the international community, is now to win the peace.

There were three areas of discussion that I had with the president and his ministers: firstly, cooperation on people-smuggling; secondly, how Australia could assist on the resettlement of displaced people and also reconstruction of considerably damaged territory, particularly in the north and in the east; and, finally, a reconciliation or a healing process so that all people in Sri Lanka would feel as though they had a role in Sri Lanka’s future. So far as people-smuggling cooperation is concerned, Australia already cooperates well with Sri Lanka on people-smuggling matters but a memorandum of understanding was signed between Australia and Sri Lanka, by the special representative on Australia’s side and a senior Sri Lankan official on Sri Lanka’s side, to enhance our cooperation, particularly in legal areas, particularly with building capacity so far as prosecutions and disruptions are concerned.

Secondly, we also agreed that it was important, given that we are dealing with very difficult and complex issues so far as source and transit and destination countries are concerned, that both Australia and Sri Lanka continue to work very hard within the Bali process, the regional institution for dealing with people-smuggling and human-trafficking matters. In Australia in the middle of December, officials, under the guise of the Bali process, will consider some of the difficult people-smuggling matters associated with Sri Lanka. Dealing with that matter, there was a memorandum of understanding, as I have said, but Foreign Minister Bogollagama and I released a joint statement which dealt not just with those matters but also with questions of resettlement and also questions of reconciliation.

So far as displaced people are concerned, members would be aware that thousands of people were displaced and earlier in the year we had anywhere up to a quarter of a million Sri Lankans in displaced people’s camps. Initially Australia, together with the international community, was very, very concerned about lack of international agency access to those camps. Over time that access has improved. Indeed, special representative McCarthy last week visited one of the displaced people’s camps. We have welcomed very much the fact that in recent weeks, in the last month or so, a substantial number of people have been resettled from those camps, but there is still a substantial job to be done. In the past Australia has rendered assistance to this. Some $35 million worth of humanitarian and development assistance has been given by Australia to Sri Lanka over the last two years or so and in very recent times $10 million to improve conditions in the camps but, more importantly, to resettle. I announced when I was there a further contribution by Australia of $11 million: $6 million to assist in de-mining to ensure that the areas where people are resettled to are free from the terrible blight of landmines; also $3 million to help through the United Nations with housing to resettle these people from displaced camps into accommodation; and, thirdly, $2 million worth of food through the World Food Program.

I very much made the point to the President and his ministers that, in ensuring this resettlement occurs, freedom of movement so far as those displaced people are concerned is absolutely essential. I also made the point that Australia was looking favourably to assisting both the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank on its reconstruction projects in the north and in the east, and 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.

Finally, it is absolutely essential—and here Sri Lanka needs both the urgings and the assistance of Australia and the international community—that, having won the war, the Sri Lankan government now needs to win the peace. That can only be done through a process of reconciliation, through a process of political rapprochement, through a process of healing. It is very important that the Sri Lankan government continues to move on this front, continues to look seriously at questions of devolution, continues to ensure that all Sri Lankans have a view that they have a share in the country’s future. I made the point that Australia has made publicly in the past, that at the end of the conflict there are very many allegations of atrocities and breaches of human rights. We expect that these atrocities will be independently and credibly investigated. We welcome the fact that Sri Lanka has responded to the report of the United States Department of State by establishing a commission of inquiry. We will watch that very closely and we hope that that will be a credible and independent investigation of these allegations made on both sides of the conflict.

Lastly, the special representative, Mr McCarthy, will submit a full report to me of his visit. We are proposing to share this report with our friends and partners in the region, with our like-minded friends. It is very important that Australia not only holds Sri Lanka to account on these key issues but renders as much assistance as we can to help Sri Lanka win the peace.