Monday, 1 June 2009
Private Members’ Business
Debate resumed, on motion by Ms Parke:
That the House:
- expresses its concern about the grave humanitarian situation of the Tamil peoples of Sri Lanka, many of whom are presently detained in camps following the recent conflict in Sri Lanka;
- calls upon the Sri Lankan Government:
- to allow full access to United Nations and other humanitarian agencies to the camps to provide all necessary aid; and
- to agree to an independent international investigation into war crimes alleged to have been committed by both parties during the recent conflict in Sri Lanka; and
- expresses its hope that Sri Lanka can move forward from this difficult period in peace and with full respect for the human rights of all its peoples.
Since my motion on Sri Lanka was listed, I have been contacted by a number of people within the Australian Sri Lankan community and have met with the Sri Lankan High Commissioner. In each case, concern has been expressed to me that this motion would unfairly criticise the Sri Lankan government or that it would give undue support to the LTTE at a time when Sri Lanka is seeking to move beyond what has seemed to be a permanent cycle of violence. So let me say at the outset that I welcome the end of hostilities in Sri Lanka and that I am not speaking tonight in support of the LTTE, which has been rightly condemned over the past 28 years for its acts of terrorism and brutality.
The points I wish to make in raising this motion before the House are quite simple. The first is that the United Nations, as the world’s paramount unilateral organisation, must always be given the scope to perform its role. The second is that, in my view, lasting peace can be built only on a foundation of truth and reconciliation and through a transparent process of restorative justice. As the Secretary of the Australia-Sri Lankan Parliamentary Friendship Group, it is in the spirit of openness and friendship that I speak to this motion. I am aware that these are sensitive issues, yet if we did not speak of issues because they are sensitive we will always be turning away from the matters of principle and conscience that offer whatever hope there is in human progress, in progress towards greater global cooperation, understanding and peace. I commend the statement made by Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs in this place on 12 May when he said that in the Sri Lankan government’s moment of military victory it must show humanity and self-interest to win the peace.
According to reports, there are now almost 300,000 displaced Tamil people in desperate situations in government camps. Last week, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called for unrestricted humanitarian access to the displacement camps and for an independent and credible international investigation into allegations which have consistently surfaced in the course of the fighting regarding serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law on the part of both sides. I am advised that the UN agencies are still not being granted full access to the displacement camps. As someone who has worked in humanitarian operations for the United Nations, I say clearly that all restrictions on the access and effective work of UN agencies, the ICRC and humanitarian NGOs in displacement camps must be removed to ensure that adequate medical, food and other basic assistance can be immediately provided. As the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights noted, this will make the difference between life, illness or even death to many.
There is also some semantic disagreement on whether those in the displacement camps are being detained or are simply prevented from leaving for their own safety pending the separation of LTTE combatants from civilians and pending the appropriate remediation of the conflict zone. It is to be hoped that the government will quickly allow freedom of movement to the vast majority of people within the camps who do not pose a security threat and that it will establish a transparent process for the demobilisation of former LTTE fighters in accordance with the Geneva convention and other accepted international standards.
The most sensitive issue of all is the question of war crimes. That is true not just in this conflict but throughout recent human history. I doubt that there has ever been or ever will be a crimeless war. As a matter of principle, all countries should have the courage and confidence to allow a fair examination of their military conduct and to give justice where crimes against international law are committed. In the fight against terrorism, democratic governments distinguish themselves by the standards they uphold.
In this conflict it is alleged inter alia that the LTTE prevented civilians leaving the conflict zone, forcibly conscripted minors and other civilians for military purposes, used civilians as human shields and fired upon fleeing civilians. It is also alleged inter alia that the Sri Lankan army used heavy artillery indiscriminately in areas where civilians were known to be located, that it shelled hospital clinics and that it killed LTTE members who had surrendered or who were trying to surrender. These are serious claims and, despite the suggestion from both sides that such allegations are nothing more than propaganda, there is enough evidence and testimony to merit an impartial investigation of the claims. The very best antidote to suspicion and distrust is transparency and truth.
In his recent visit to Sri Lanka, the UN Secretary General appealed to the Sri Lankan government to ensure that a comprehensive process of accountability and examination of alleged human rights violations would occur. I wish the Sri Lankan government all the necessary strength and conviction required to participate in such a process. Openness, accountability, compassion, full respect for human rights and an inclusive process of dialogue between representatives of all ethnic communities will support the course of reconciliation that must occur in Sri Lanka’s near future to avoid a return to the past. This is my humble plea in the spirit of the great friendship between our countries.
Having had a long association with the Australian Sri Lankan community and having watched closely the atrocities committed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, LTTE, over many years, few were more thrilled at the prospect of Sri Lankan peace and unity than me when I saw that the Tamil Tigers were defeated recently. The member for Fremantle’s motion alleges war crimes have been committed by the Sri Lankan government as well as the LTTE. I believe that this compromises her role as secretary to the parliamentary friendship group with Sri Lanka. I can only assume that the member’s views are supported by the member for Lowe, an historical LTTE sympathiser, based on his statements in this House in the last week.
I understand that the Sri Lankan community in the member for Fremantle’s electorate are understandably concerned by the motivations of her motion. Over three decades the rights of millions of Sri Lankans were violated by the LTTE and an estimated 80,000 people were killed in the 26-year civil war. I have said in the House on several occasions that the LTTE was one of the most brutal and militant terrorist groups in the world. In addition to brutalising the Sinhalese people in its battle for territory, it sacrificed its own minority ethnic group of Tamil people and used them as human shields and suicide bombers and recruited child soldiers from them.
As recently as February this year I wrote to the Attorney-General to request the immediate listing of the LTTE as a terrorist organisation under the Security Legislation Amendment (Terrorism) Act 2002. The European Union, the USA, Canada and Britain are among more than 30 nations who have recognised the LTTE as a terrorist group. My sentiments echoed the calls of Senator Hutchins, who is the chair of the friendship group. I understand that the Attorney-General began the prescribing process; however, the states must agree to such a prescription and New South Wales opposed the prescription and as a result it was thwarted.
Speaking on this motion today it is important to stress at the outset that Australia has a strong humanitarian record. We will provide aid but we cannot support or condone aid to terrorists. To cast a slur on the Sri Lankan government—quoting their defeat of the LTTE, a known terrorist organisation—is an insult to the democratically elected government and damaging to relations with Australia. As a former chair and the current deputy chair of the Sri Lankan parliamentary friendship group I have maintained a strong relationship with the Sri Lankan community over my time in parliament. I have attended their community events and have heard their stories and watched with horror as the LTTE group brutally murdered many innocent civilians. The former High Commissioner to Australia, who I was proud to call a friend, was viciously targeted by the LTTE last year. A suicide bomber in Anuradhapuresa killed 27 people and injured 80, including Major General Janaka Perera and his dear wife, Wijira.
To call for an investigation into the actions of the Sri Lankan government is damaging at home and abroad. To ambush the Prime Minister with calls for an investigation into human rights abuses is both disturbing and politically motivated. The Sri Lankan government maintained a zero civilian casualty policy and to meet this policy slowed their advanced considerably in consideration of the ethnic Tamils being used as human shields. The member for Fremantle, who touts her UN credentials at every opportunity, should acknowledge that the UN in a special session passed a resolution praising the efforts of the Sri Lankan government in addressing the needs of displaced people and also welcomed the commitment of Sri Lanka to the protection of human rights. The resolution also condemns the Tigers and welcomes the liberation by the government of tens of thousands of citizens kept by the LTTE against their will as hostages.
While the Sri Lankan community moves forwards the LTTE sympathisers continue to be divisive. The Australian media has reported that LTTE fronts through various groups across Australia have raised funds to support the tactics of the LTTE and demonised the Sinhala people. It is these actions that culminated in recent ethnic attacks in Sydney. The situation is certainly volatile.
The member for Fremantle also raised the issue of humanitarian aid into those camps. Her motion says they are detained but they are actually homeless. An estimated 250,000 Tamil civilians are in internally displaced persons camps because their homes and livelihoods have been destroyed during the conflict through the indiscriminate targeting of the LTTE. The Sri Lankan government works feverishly to construct temporary shelters, schools and hospitals. (Time expired).
I commend the member for Fremantle on her motion in parliament tonight. As you know, Mr Deputy Speaker Bevis, I have been speaking out in this place on the conflict in Sri Lanka since I arrived here almost 11 years ago and I intend to keep speaking out on this appalling humanitarian crisis. As we speak in this parliament tonight there are some 300,000 Tamils incarcerated in atrocious conditions in government-controlled camps in the north of Sri Lanka. These innocent citizens have been herded into barb-wire camps and are suffering poor health, poor nutrition and shortage of water, as well as having to endure awful sanitary conditions.
The member for Fremantle’s motion is a very important motion that goes to the heart of the concerns we should all share for the suffering of innocent victims and it goes to the heart of respect for human rights the government of Sri Lanka must now show to its Tamil citizens. The Sri Lankan government is taking false and dishonest comfort in the recent United Nations Human Rights Council resolution that supports the current crisis in the north of Sri Lanka as a ‘domestic matter that doesn’t warrant outside interference’. The Sri Lankan government is taking false and dishonest comfort in the resolution that supports the government’s insistence on permitting aid organisations access to some 300,000 Tamil civilians held in camps only ‘as may be appropriate’.
I ask: if outside parliaments like ours and all the other parliaments concerned about human rights throughout the world do not speak out for the Tamil people now, how can we ever expect justice for the Tamil people from the Sri Lankan government? I also ask: what pressures were placed by the Sri Lankan government on the members of the United Nations Human Rights Council to achieve this flawed outcome? The vote of support for the Sri Lankan government by the council makes a total mockery of the recent vote by the council that went against Israel in relation to the killing of some 700 innocent Palestinian civilians in Gaza and the instigation of a fact-finding mission to report on violations of international human rights and humanitarian law by both sides in Gaza.
Confidential United Nations documents obtained by The Times newspaper reveal that more than 20,000 Tamil civilians were killed, mostly through shelling, in the final stages of the Sri Lankan civil war. Further, those documents show that 7,000 innocent civilians lost their lives in the no-fire zone of Sri Lanka up to the end of April, despite the Sri Lankan government claiming that their forces had stopped using heavy weapons on 27 April. Moreover, the United Nations confidential documents reveal a further 1,000 civilians were killed on average each day up until 19 May.
What double standards has the United Nations Human Rights Council exhibited in the case of the civil war in Sri Lanka compared with the conflict in Gaza? How can the United Nations Human Rights Council vote for a fact-finding mission to report on violations of international human rights and humanitarian law by Israel and Palestine in Gaza and not support a similar fact-finding mission for Sri Lanka? How dare the Sri Lankan ambassador to Geneva claim last week that the European nations had failed with their ‘punitive and mean-spirited agenda’ against Sri Lanka? I ask, on behalf of the 300,000 Tamils suffering in horrendous conditions tonight in Sri Lanka: how punitive and mean-spirited is the government of Sri Lanka?
Immediate, full and unimpeded access to the civilians held in the barb-wire camps must now be given by the Sri Lankan government to United Nations and other humanitarian agencies. Moreover, there must be an independent and thorough international investigation into the bloodbath and war crimes associated with the 26 years of civil war in Sri Lanka. You only have to note the words of International Crisis Group Sri Lanka analyst Alan Keenan quoted in the Australian newspaper today warning that many people will be vulnerable to denunciations as Tamil Tigers, which is one reason why it is essential—but unlikely—that the Sri Lankan government should make the refugee camps open to independent eyes. As I said in this place last week, the selective and government-controlled tour by the United Nations Secretary-General, His Excellency Mr Ban Ki-moon, raises even more concerns for the many thousands of unaccounted-for Tamils as well as the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced civilians in government-controlled camps.
The European and other nations who have spoken up for the Tamils are not fools. The international community are not fools. We are not fools. I repeat what I said here in this place last week: the Sri Lankan government must immediately enter into honest diplomatic negotiations in good faith with representatives from the Tamil community and recognise their aspirations as stipulated in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. All people have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right, they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development. (Time expired)
I rise to speak to this motion on Sri Lanka because in the electorate of Greenway I have Sri Lankans of Sinhalese and Tamil descent, all who call Australia home. I thank the member for Fremantle for moving this motion. I hope for a lasting ceasefire and enduring peace where a mutually viable and appropriate plan for reconciliation between the government and the Tamil community and/or solutions in this instance are likely to require a practical, political approach, which at the moment seems to be beyond the reach of all involved.
If we look at the history of this conflict, we see it has been going on for some 25 years, involving more than 100,000 deaths in the conflicts both in the north and the south. Successive attempts to resolve the ethnic conflict between the Sri Lankan Tamils, who have traditionally inhabited the north and north-east regions, and the Sinhalese, concentrated in the central and southern regions, have been tried since the 1950s, but still we see no success. The nature of the main Tamil national organisation, the LTTE, has made any peace settlement particularly hard, but the Sinhalese dominated political parties have also consistently failed to reach consensus on reasonable power-sharing or devolution proposals that might be acceptable to the majority of Tamils.
If we look at the peace process which began in 2002, we see that talks broke down due to misunderstandings and a lack of will on both sides. Ongoing fighting has produced a major humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka’s north-eastern region. The numbers are hard to estimate, given the challenge of accessing that region. Over 50,000 civilians remain trapped in the crossfire between government forces and the Tamil Tigers and more than 150,000 are displaced in government camps and detention centres with no freedom of movement and in conditions that fall far short of international standards.
Since fighting intensified in mid-January 2009, the UN estimates some 6,500 civilians, including at least a thousand children, have died and more than 10,000 have been injured. Some 100,000 civilians managed to escape to government controlled territory in the wake of the army’s assault on 21 April, but information on the ground suggests that more than 50,000 are still trapped in the region. Those who took part in April’s exodus faced desperate conditions with relief agencies denied access to the initial points of reception and military-screening centres. The military are unequipped to offer urgently needed food, water and medical care. Camps for the displaced have been overwhelmed by the new influx.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, is demanding an independent investigation into atrocities committed by both sides in the conflict. Here tonight, while we debate and discuss the challenges facing Sri Lanka, we should consider the priorities. It will take willingness on both sides—a willingness to negotiate a mutually viable and appropriate plan. But, first, there needs to be a response to this humanitarian conflict. It is important that the Sri Lankan government opens up the way to allow full access to UN and other humanitarian agencies to the camps so they can provide all necessary aid to individuals, particularly to the children. It is time that both parties came together and looked realistically at mutually agreeable solutions, and that will take willingness on both sides—a willingness to look at what is required and a willingness to move forward to a better future for all Sri Lankans.
I have chosen to speak on the motion put forward this evening by the member for Fremantle because I am very concerned, as are my colleagues here in the chamber, about the conflict in Sri Lanka, which has taken a very tragic toll on its people, many of whom have families and relatives here in Australia. In my capacity as the member for Calwell, I have had quite a bit to do with members of the Australian Sri Lankan community from both sides of the conflict. Recently, following the Sri Lankan government’s military offensive against the LTTE, I met with leaders of the Sinhalese community and I have also met with leaders from the Tamil community. I must say that I was encouraged by their willingness to ensure that the tensions in their homeland will not spill over here in Australia. While blame can be apportioned for past mistakes to both sides of this conflict, it is not my intention here this evening to adjudicate which side must shoulder the greatest burden of responsibility but, rather, to focus at this critical juncture of this conflict on the future.
From the outset, I want to reassure my friends, both Sinhalese and Tamils, that the Australian government and the Australian parliament are deeply concerned about the current humanitarian disaster in Sri Lanka and recognise that it requires strong political leadership to navigate through these trying political times. This House is particularly concerned about the current grave humanitarian crisis that has left more than 20,000 Tamil civilians dead. Equally, the House strongly desires a resolution to the tragic aftermath of the cessation of hostilities for the sake of all Sri Lankans. I strongly believe that in these difficult times in intercommunal relations, more than ever a rapprochement and a process of reconciliation need to take place between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities, both in Sri Lanka and here in Australia. I sincerely hope that the management of displaced persons and the re-establishment of government control over the north and north-east of the island will occur with fairness, transparency and respect for the human rights of the Tamil minority because this is the only way to truly bring about a lasting peace.
The first step in this direction is the immediate establishment of appropriate living conditions for the Tamil population, which has been displaced during the final stages of this conflict. Families who have lost loved ones and livelihoods are now located in temporary refugee camps. The United Nations and other international organisations must be allowed in all of these camps to assist civilians with food and medical care as an urgent priority. Caring for the estimated 200,000 internally displaced Tamils should be the priority concern of the international community as it must be the concern of the Sri Lankan government. It is certainly the focus of this House, and I am confident that the Australian government and the Australian people will contribute generously and assist in this humanitarian endeavour.
I am certain that once the living conditions and dignity of the homeless and displaced are restored, then a true dialogue can genuinely commence between the communities, one that works towards the establishment of a lasting peace. It is crucial that the international community is involved in relief and reconciliation efforts to provide resources, fairness and a sense of justice to the rebuilding process. The Australian government is committed to the establishment of a lasting peace between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities, both in Sri Lanka and amongst its Australian diaspora. To avoid hostilities between the communities, constructive dialogue must be encouraged. To that end, this House expresses its hope that Sri Lanka can move forward and supports efforts by members of both communities to reach out using this opportunity to begin a healing process rather than fuelling divisiveness.
There have been a number of emails sent to all members of parliament suggesting that this private member’s motion is an attack on the Sri Lankan government. Let me assure everyone that I, and I am sure my colleagues who have spoken to this motion, respect the concerns that have been expressed, but as far as I am concerned this debate this evening does not aim to be partisan. It does not aim to be divisive either. Rather, it places for debate in the forums of this House the very sensitive and difficult issue of Sri Lanka’s need to reconcile for lasting peace. It will not be easy and I acknowledge that recriminations have and will continue, but progress can only be made if we all have the courage to tackle the hard and difficult issues surrounding the Sri Lankan crisis.
This evening I rise to support the sentiment of the motion moved by the member for Fremantle and would like to put on record my acknowledgement of the previous speaker and others. The current circumstances in Sri Lanka and what the way forward might look like are sensitive issues. I want to clearly state that I grieve with everyone in this parliament for the 100,000 Sri Lankans of various backgrounds who have lost their lives during two decades of fighting and conflict. As the former parliamentary secretary for foreign affairs, I travelled to the north of Sri Lanka on Heroes Day. I flew into Jaffna. It was not a good time to be in a government-of-Sri-Lanka military aircraft landing at Jaffna, which was a stronghold of the Tamil community and very much part of the area that is now feeling great pain. You could not help but see why feelings were so strong. We landed at a military air force base and drove a distance—the distance a mortar round would fire—to an area that had been cleared out, where magnificent villas on the north of the island had been someone’s proud home, where vegetation now grew through those buildings and where the upper storeys had snipers following our travels as we moved into that now populated area of Jaffna. It was the day after Heroes Day, when the Tamil community pays respect to those who have lost their lives in this conflict.
The signs on the walls were of soldiers ripping out the hearts of children. The mood was tense and it was very clear that people were tired of fighting, because this fighting has been going on for so long. People could not see the way forward. In fact, my contribution was to offer a peace dividend to the Sri Lankan government and the people involved in the conflict to try and find a way of bringing peace to this island. You could sense everyone wanting to get on with their lives. So many resources have been burned up in 20 years of fighting, killing and tragedy, where young children have been engaged in war, where families have seen their sons stolen in the middle of the night to be recruited as soldiers in a battle that gave us suicide bombers and some of the worst activities around and where we now see reports of the government shelling displaced persons’ camps and, in return, displaced persons are being used as human shields. This is a tragedy that needs to be got past somehow. I hope that the current military position encourages people of goodwill to come forward and work out what the future looks like. I think the government of Sri Lanka deserves, however it is elected, to have territorial integrity on the island. Then we need to move forward. We have seen people of Tamil origins, particularly in the east, losing their lives for collaborating too closely with the government.
Throughout my role as parliamentary secretary, I handled and oversaw the day-to-day management of Australia’s response to the tsunami. There was the frustration of aid and assistance in Sri Lanka. After the tsunami, we visited places like Hikkaduwa, where we put in aid money to put in place proper waste water treatment so that there were livelihood prospects for the communities. All of that was wiped out by the tsunami. Then there was fighting over whose brand was going to go on the aid. If it was going to head north, the Tamils wanted to say it was from them; if it was going somewhere else, the government of Sri Lanka wanted to put their sticker on it. We just said, ‘For heaven’s sake, there are people who need help here.’ Our help has been there all the way through, supporting the efforts to secure peace and putting money into programs like the United Nations Children’s Fund. It was part of my responsibility to see that families were able to find where their kids had gone. In some cases, they actually bought the kids back so that they could go to school.
Landmines that still dog so much of this area need to be removed. In fact, the military base in downtown Colombo, where we took off on an Antonov troop carrier that was older than me, was surrounded by landmines. When you go to the war front, which has moved so many times over two decades, there are more and more landmines. We were there putting our money in to turn those battlefields into farming fields so that people could get on with a better life, with better prospects for their future. I hope that what comes out of this most recent military offensive—where the carnage and loss of life has been extraordinary, where the number of people who have been lost in this conflict total the number of Australians who have been lost in all wars—is that this island can find some peace and serenity and get on with it. To the extent that this motion encourages that and supports those who have been displaced, I support the motion. But let’s not get caught up in the histrionics. There is a lot of work to be done now.
I thank the member for moving this motion. Any motion on Sri Lanka and the conflict there—in fact, any speech on that particular issue—is difficult, particularly for those of us who have both Tamil and Sinhalese communities in our electorates and hear the many strong views on the role that Australia should have in its relationship with the Sri Lankan government. For some, nothing less than the calling for an independent Tamil Eelam with the Tamil Tigers as the government is enough. For others, on the other side, any association with a Tamil community organisation, even attending a concert by Tamil musicians, as I did in my first year, gives rise to accusations of giving sustenance to terrorists. The arguments are strident and sometimes vicious.
Even in Australia there are well-run campaigns by both sides. But I do not rise tonight to speak for the people who run the campaigns or to support either of those positions or to assign blame, though many would like me to; I want to speak for the many people in my community who have lost family members in the conflict, some from government soldiers, others, both Tamil and Sinhalese Australians, who have lost loved ones to the Tigers themselves. I speak for the people who have an overwhelming wish for peace and dignity in their homeland—people with a sense of desperation and some disbelief that Sri Lanka will finally get the peace right for all of its people after so many years of war.
I have known my Tamil community for many years and have watched their hope turned to despair as the peace process crumbled, to shock as the tsunami decimated the already war-ravaged areas in the north-east and to grief as the death toll rose as the final battles were fought. I have seen their fear for the many trapped in a war zone and for those displaced, and, finally, the questioning of what the future holds for the Sri Lankan Tamils in the north and east.
Sri Lanka has been wracked by a violent conflict for most of the past 25 years, suffering 150,000 deaths. Fighting intensified in mid-January this year. Estimates of the number of civilian deaths vary significantly, but the UN estimated that some 7,000 civilians, including at least 1,000 children, had died by early May and that over 300,000 people had been displaced.
Rebuilding Sri Lanka will require trust. If truth is a casualty of war, so too is trust, but rebuilding Sri Lanka will require extraordinary levels of trust and good faith from all sides. It is almost impossible for me to imagine the level of effort that will be required to ensure that the green shoots of healing that will appear survive in such a desolate landscape. Rebuilding is a massive task. Regrettably, the Sri Lankan government’s decision to exclude journalists and aid agencies from the conflict zone and the camps leaves a lot of room for speculation on what has happened and what will happen now. Speculation is well and truly rife—some plausible, some ridiculous, but all showing levels of fear and insecurity about the future of Sri Lanka.
Australia has consistently stated that the protection of civilians should be the absolute priority. Sri Lanka faces a humanitarian crisis of massive proportions, and we remain deeply concerned about the safety and welfare of at least 300,000 displaced persons. I welcome the Sri Lankan government’s commitment to resettle over 80 per cent of civilians from IDP camps by the end of 2009. In particular, the Australian government has called upon the Sri Lankan government to ensure that internally displaced people’s camps are administered in line with international standards and to ensure that international observers, particularly the International Committee of the Red Cross, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and United Nations Children’s Fund personnel have ready access to the IDP camps. Recent reports have suggested that such access has become restricted, and the Minister for Foreign Affairs has reiterated that full and unimpeded humanitarian access to civilians is essential so that these trusted international organisations can work with the Sri Lankan government to ensure civilians receive the assistance they need. Finally, can I endorse the sentiments of the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that ‘the task now facing the people of Sri Lanka is immense and requires all hands’? Can I urge the Sri Lankan government to make every effort to enter into negotiations immediately with the Tamil community to build a viable community for all Sri Lankans?
I rise tonight to welcome this motion from the member for Fremantle which goes to the heart of what we ought to be considering as a parliament in that it addresses the grave humanitarian situation that has developed in Sri Lanka and is a concern that we ought to do something about. While all of us here would seek to reject violence and renounce terror as a means of legitimate political activity to achieve any objective that we are seeking, we ought to take into account that the victims of this terror and violence now require the international community to step in and assist them. I am disturbed and distressed by the reports that some 300,000 people are now displaced within Sri Lanka, who have no home, who have been subject to months of particularly vicious fighting, who are not involved or participants in that fighting but are merely civilians caught up within a complete war zone.
The history of this conflict is a profound one. The member for Lowe made a comparison with the Middle East, which at the time I thought was a little unhelpful and which is always an unhelpful thing to raise in terms of any conflict. A deep, longstanding ethnic conflict has been engaged upon within Sri Lanka. It is not something that we can or should seek to take a side upon. However, we cannot ignore it.
Tonight I want to commend the member for Fremantle because this motion is calling upon us to recommend that the United Nations and humanitarian agencies be allowed full access to this conflict zone. I think that is entirely right and proper. It is something that ought to have occurred throughout this process, which would have provided for a better outcome and perhaps potentially the saving of many lives within this conflict zone.
I want to raise a point that the member for Canning took up. There are many allegations on both sides about the nature of this conflict and about what acts have or have not been committed. I do not think that anybody ought to have anything to fear from an independent international investigation or from the United Nations establishing properly conducted investigations into serious allegations of war crimes. Perhaps the best mechanism for us as an international community to be able to determine what has occurred is to allow the United Nations full access to examine what has and has not occurred. In this way many of the speculations and claims made on both sides could be investigated, no facts would be removed and we would all have a clearer picture perhaps to the betterment of both sides and the ongoing viability of these two communities living together in peace. I think that would be a positive step forward. I have no problem in supporting that part of the motion which says that we would agree to an independent international investigation into war crimes. That is entirely proper. When you examine the nature of the claims made on both sides I think that is something that nobody of any goodwill would have anything to fear from.
There is no doubt that there has been fault on both sides. There have been wrongs committed and things done that all of us would like to have seen not done. I had many members of the Tamil community in my constituency visit me with some very concerning and disturbing stories. They have family members still caught up in the region that they have not heard from and continue to not be able to contact at this time. However, I also saw—as other members here tonight from Sydney would have seen—violence erupt within our own community here in Australia. That is something that all of us would reject and seek to ensure that we prevent.
By supporting this motion here tonight we can assist the process of healing and assist the process of seeing a better resolution to what has occurred there by allowing the United Nations to have full access to this area. In this motion we are talking about aid and we are talking about UN inspectors—a worthwhile and productive endeavour. This motion has my full support, and I look forward to supporting all future motions in this place that will seek a betterment of the situation for the people of Sri Lanka.
I rise this evening to support and endorse the motion moved by the member for Fremantle and thank her for enabling us as a parliament to discuss and put on record our very deep concerns at what has occurred in Sri Lanka and for providing us with the opportunity to add our voice to the voice of the international community that is urging a peaceful resolution in that very troubled country. I also commend the previous speaker, the member for Mitchell, for clarifying those words in the motion which refer to the allegation of war crimes. I think the member for Canning misunderstood the motion when he suggested that the member for Fremantle was one-sided in her comments about war crimes. Section (2)(b) of the motion clearly calls for an independent international investigation into war crimes alleged to have been committed by both parties during the recent conflict. I think that is fairly clear and I do not think anyone in this parliament would have concerns with that particular wording.
Since being elected to the seat of Bonner I have met with a number of residents from the Tamil community who live locally in my area. I have heard firsthand from them of the suffering and the concerns they and their families who are still living in Sri Lanka, particularly in the north, have as a result of these troubles and this conflict. It certainly brings it home when you sit and discuss those personal stories with people. It cannot help but move you to try to take some small action. That is why I am supporting this motion tonight. I think we would all acknowledge that the some 300,000 members of the Tamil community who are currently in camps in Sri Lanka are certainly living in conditions which we would not support. There are concerns about degradation, deprivation, oppression, the treatment of Tamil women and other such problems that have been raised by the Tamil community and that we need to have investigated. As Chair of the Human Rights Subcommittee of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, I felt it was imperative to support this motion. I urge both the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil community to find ways to peacefully resolve this conflict, keeping in mind the human rights of all of their citizens in those discussions.
This particular motion simply asks for access by the United Nations and other humanitarian agencies into the camps that I talked about earlier, and to have a full independent analysis of what is actually occurring and how those people can be helped and supported. This is a very small step in what will be a massive task to rebuild the communities of Sri Lanka, to rebuild the trust and to heal many of the rifts that exist. It is important that we acknowledge that the responsibility is very much now on the Sri Lankan government to lead this particular path to peace and to find a long-term and more enduring resolution to this conflict than the violence that we have seen over the past decades. The defeat of the LTTE places greater responsibility on the government to make sure that the human and civilian rights of all citizens, most importantly those of the Tamil community, are protected and that negotiations lead to a peaceful resolution which ensures that all citizens are cared for and their rights are respected. I urge all leaders in the Sri Lankan community and all those in positions of power and influence to do whatever they can to find a peaceful political solution to this current situation.
I endorse the comments of our Minister for Foreign Affairs, Minister Smith, who has called for a political solution. Long-term security and prosperity in Sri Lanka can only come through a political solution and through a cessation of the conflict. It can never come from the continuation of violence. We know that nobody wins from a violent conflict. We know that the casualties are great and that there is never an enduring resolution. I simply add my voice to those calling for a peaceful resolution.