Australia now appears to have an asylum seeker-based foreign policy. Our relationship with Indonesia has already been damaged by the government’s ham-fisted efforts to implement its commitment to turn back asylum seeker boats. Now the Prime Minister has permitted his eagerness to secure the co-operation of the Sri Lankan government in preventing Tamil asylum seekers from leaving to curtail any Australian efforts to raise legitimate questions about the responsibility of that government for war crimes in the country’s long civil war (during which, it should also be remembered, Tamil separatists routinely inflicted appalling atrocities on Sinhalese Sri Lankans).
Further, in gifting the Sri Lankan government two patrol boats, it seems as though Australia is comfortable with arming that government despite ongoing concerns about its human rights abuses, which are by no means limited to Tamils.
In contrast, Tony Abbott’s Tory counterpart, David Cameron, elected to visit Sri Lanka but used his visit to direct confront the Sri Lankan government on these issues. The United Kingdom receives about the same number of asylum seeker applications from Sri Lanka as we do — about 2100 in 2012 compared to 2300 in Australia; in 2011, the UK received more than five times the number of applications for asylum from Sri Lankans that we did.
But worst of all, Tony Abbott appears to have allowed the issue to override Australia’s policy on torture. On the weekend, the Prime Minister stated “my government deplores the use of torture but we accept that sometimes in difficult circumstances difficult things happen”.
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Australia does not merely “deplore” torture. We are a signatory to the Convention Against Torture, which states that no circumstances justify torture; the official position of the Australian government is that the prohibition on torture is an absolute right. “No circumstance justifies a qualification or limitation of absolute rights. Absolute rights cannot be suspended or restricted, even during a declared state of emergency.”
Abbott appears to have directly contradicted that position. Today, Civil Liberties Australia has called upon the Prime Minister to clarify his remarks and indicate that our position remains that we never endorse torture. The Prime Minister should do so as quickly as possible.