Will Aust give diplomatic immunity to an alleged war criminal?

January 25, 2011 Comments Off on Will Aust give diplomatic immunity to an alleged war criminal?

The Age – Concern over Sri Lankan envoy

AUSTRALIA is under pressure to reject Sri Lanka’s choice of a senior military commander as its next top envoy in Canberra over a war crimes controversy dating from Sri Lanka’s grisly civil war with Tamil separatists.

Former Sri Lankan navy chief Thisara Samarasinghe has reportedly been nominated to fill the vacant position of high commissioner to Australia.

But The Age understands the Foreign Affairs Department – which must decide if it will accept the nomination – sees the appointment as ”problematic” for Australia amid calls for a United Nations investigation into human rights violations in Sri Lanka.

No specific allegation of war crimes arising from the conflict have been made against Vice-Admiral Samarasinghe, who took over as chief of the Sri Lankan Navy in July 2009 after the end of the civil war.

But Tamil community leaders in Australia have demanded that Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd reject the nomination in protest at Sri Lanka’s refusal to allow an international war crimes tribunal.

Plans to send another senior military commander as Sri Lanka’s envoy to Britain were reportedly scotched by Colombo after protests in London.

”It clearly shows that Sri Lanka is slowly becoming a military state,” said Sam Pari of the Australian Tamil Congress. ”Their diplomatic posts are being taken over by military or former military personnel and I think that’s a very, very worrying sign.”

The Foreign Affairs department and the Sri Lankan High Commission in Canberra both declined to discuss the nomination.

The bitter 26-year conflict with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam – who demanded a homeland for Sri Lanka’s Tamil ethnic minority – ended in May 2009 after government troops finally crushed the insurgents.

Thousands of civilians were trapped inside a military cordon in the island nation’s north-east in the closing phase of the conflict as government troops hemmed in remnants of the militants and pounded the area with heavy artillery, mortars and combat aircraft.

Aid groups complained that Sri Lankan forces deliberately targeted civilians during the fighting, especially in the province of Mullaitivu, while the government accused the Tamil Tigers of imprisoning locals for use as human shields.

UN estimates at the time put the civilian death toll at more than 6500 in the four months before Mullaitivu was finally overrun. About 300,000 Tamils were forced to flee the violence to emergency camps.

The fighting sparked the 2009 exodus of asylum seekers from Sri Lanka, many of them later attempting to reach Australia by boat from Indonesia.

Admiral Samarasinghe commanded operations in the country’s eastern and northern waters during the final three years of the fighting. Earlier, he was a base commander on the Jaffna peninsula, a one-time Tiger stronghold.

He retired from the navy 10 days ago and Sri Lankan media report he is expected to be Colombo’s next representative in Canberra, following the departure of the previous high commissioner in December.

But former NSW Attorney-General and Supreme Court justice John Dowd – who is collecting evidence for the International Commission of Jurists to present to an eventual war crimes tribunal in Sri Lanka – said the nomination raised concerns.

”The nature of a war crime, it doesn’t necessarily have to be the person who fires the shot or gives the order,” he said. ”The person in charge can be responsible for a war crime and commit a war crime by not stopping it.

”It’s very difficult to see how anyone in a senior command position – army, navy or air force – is not going to have a likelihood of allegations of war crimes, and indeed evidence of war crimes.”

Mr Dowd said he had recorded stories of shelling of civilians from naval vessels offshore during the war in Sri Lanka.

It is not the first time a proposed appointment of an ex-military figure has complicated Australia’s ties with Sri Lanka. Retired general Janaka Perera’s posting to Australia in 2001 sparked local community protests but he remained as high commissioner until 2005.

Australia’s relations with Indonesia were also poisoned in 1995 after Canberra was forced to reject the nomination of a former Indonesian general, Herman Mantiri, who had earlier excused a military crackdown in occupied East Timor.

Diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks in recent weeks show the US believes a war crimes tribunal in Sri Lanka will not occur as President Mahinda Rajapaksa bears much of the responsibility for the abuses.

The civil war in Sri Lanka is thought to have cost up to 100,000 lives.

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