The cream of Australia’s security establishment are gathering in the plush surroundings of Canberra’s Rydges Lakeside Hotel for their annual shindig, the “Safeguarding Australia Summit”.

The list of sponsors reads like a who’s who of the military-industrial-media-academic complex: the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet; the universities of Melbourne and New South Wales; defence contractor Thales and the Australian Defence Business Review, to name but a few. The after-dinner speaker is none other than the US Ambassador, Jeffrey Bleich.

For a cool $795, delegates can gain admission to the showpiece event, a one-day conference on “threats and responses”, where they will hear a presentation from one Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe, who is studying for a masters degree at Curtin University and is billed as “Analyst, South Asian and Indian Ocean Region Politics and Security”.

The theme of his talk is “Counter-insurgency Lessons from Sri Lanka”. Boasting of his contacts with the Sri Lankan government, DeSilva-Ranasinghe does seem to be able to reach some influential audiences. Earlier this week, he addressed military and government officials in a talk at the Royal United Services Institute of the ACT, giving a free preview of the line he is likely to take at the “summit’.

The RUSI talks take place under Chatham House rules, so nothing can be attributed directly, but it would be no surprise if Safeguarding Australia delegates heard recommendations to boost troop numbers “in theatre”, in order to hold territory (with particular reference to the Afghanistan “troop surge”); that diplomatic backing, from neighbouring countries, is vital and that public support and vigilance are indispensable in preventing terrorist attacks.

So far, so familiar: the typical rhetoric of security experts, who seem to have proliferated on countless TV screens over recent years. To contemplate such strictures in the context of Sri Lanka today is, however, to pass through a looking-glass in which the unthinkable is in the process of being “normalised”.

The “vigilance committees” sponsored by Colombo tend to be likened, by people such as Mr DeSilva-Ranasinghe, to Australia’s own neighbourhood watch schemes, but the comparison makes them sound misleadingly innocuous. The sinister twist is evident when such speakers describe how reports from local sources were, during the war against the Tamil Tigers, “streamlined into the intelligence bureaucracy” and “passed up the line” so suspected militants could be “rapidly intercepted and eliminated”.

Time and again, independent observers, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, sounded the alarm over the systematic disregard for the rule of law that saw thousands of Tamils seized and tortured, imprisoned without trial or simply disappeared — spirited away in the infamous white vans favoured by the intelligence bureaucracy, never to be seen again.

Australian-based supporters of the government of Mahinda Rajapaksa have attempted to play down such aspects of the conflict. United Nations sources briefed journalists that the casualty count from the final stage of the “counter-insurgency campaign”, in the early months of last year, included at least 7000 civilians, with the true number almost certainly much higher. Now, the president’s brother, defence minister Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, claims the bodies of rebel soldiers were dressed up in civilian clothes to exaggerate the numbers.

The human rights monitoring groups were being “misled”; the UK’s Channel Four News, which screened a mobile phone video showing Tamil detainees being executed in cold blood, had been “duped”; concerns over conditions in the internment camps, where hundreds of thousands were corralled after the end of the war, were “misplaced”, according to the government line.

But there is an overhang of injustice from this sequence of events, which, if left unaddressed, risks plunging Sri Lanka back into violence. The nature of the counter-insurgency campaign itself has bequeathed one of the biggest problems: the island’s power elite, from the Rajapaksa brothers down, are implicated in what there is a very good case for regarding as unpunished war crimes.

A report from the US State Department collated eyewitness accounts of civilian deaths, including several in which Tiger fighters had been using villagers as human shields. But the vast majority detailed incidents of bombing and shelling that can only have come from the government side.

Unlike Australia — and about four-fifths of the international community — Sri Lanka has never signed up to the 1977 Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions, intended to strengthen protection for non-combatants. “The presence within the civilian population of individuals who do not come within the definition of civilians”, they say, “does not deprive the population of its civilian character”.

Insurgents are never going to want to go “toe-to-toe” in the conflict arena with a conventional military force, but rather, to emerge, briefly, from a community, then blend back in. The vast majority of countries regard that as the lesser of two evils: the greater evil would be to attack regardless. In Sri Lanka’s “counter-insurgency” campaign it was the other way round.

That should caution us against attempting to “learn lessons” from the likes of DeSilva-Ranasinghe. And we should keep a focus on the continuing suppression of government critics, civil society, and media; the restricted access for independent monitors to the northern and eastern parts of the country where the fighting occurred and the disturbing lack of information about an estimated 8000 alleged Tamil Tiger fighters currently detained, without trial, in so-called “rehabilitation camps” that remain closed to outside observers.

Australia has been notably backward in joining international efforts to press these concerns. It never backed the call, by the UN Commissioner for Human Rights, Judge Navi Pillay, for an independent international investigation of alleged war crimes. It did not join the European Union in making trade conditional on improved behaviour, or the US and some European countries that tried to apply a squeeze through the International Monetary Fund.

Instead, Canberra appeared preoccupied with securing Sri Lanka’s co-operation in forestalling boat departures of refugees, and the political problems they might bring in their wake. Perhaps that is why blandishments of the kind likely to be served up with the vol-au-vents at the Rydges can be expected to go down well with many of the delegates.

Jake Lynch is associate professor and director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney.

Peter Fray

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