Diplomats concerned Australia is undermining Sri Lanka inquiry call

Diplomats preparing for the United Nations Human Rights Council session in Geneva next month have expressed concern Australia is working to ''actively undermine'' a push for an international inquiry into human rights abuses in Sri Lanka, because of the government's eagerness to co-operate with that country's leaders on asylum seekers.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced in November that the government would give Sri Lanka two Bay-class patrol boats, at a cost of $2 million, to help the country stem the flow of asylum seekers to Australia. It is part of a wider agreement between the countries, which has led to the Sri Lankan navy, with Australia's help, intercepting and returning boats trying to depart the Sri Lankan coast.

Well-placed sources involved in the preparations for the UN meeting said there is ''deep concern'' among United States and British officials at Australia's position.

The US will sponsor a resolution at the meeting criticising Sri Lanka's human rights record, and there have been reports it could call for an international investigation into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the dying days of Sri Lanka's civil war in 2009. It is thought between 40,000 and 70,000 civilians lost their lives in the final phase of the war, particularly as government forces advanced on the Tamil Tigers in the country's north.

Australia has supported the US's resolutions on Sri Lanka in the past. However, Australia was accused by some officials of undermining discussions last year, while publicly backing calls for an investigation into possible Sri Lankan war crimes.

''[They] are concerned that Australia may spring a nasty surprise this year and not only fail to co-sponsor [the resolution] but work to weaken or defeat it,'' a source said.

''If that was the case, it would have Australia joining forces with such human rights pariah states as Russia, China and Cuba and working against traditional allies such as the US, UK, Canada, Norway and France.''

In November, when Mr Abbott visited Sri Lanka for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, he made clear he would not follow the lead of Britain and Canada's leaders and raise concerns about human rights violations, saying: ''I don't propose to lecture the Sri Lankans on human rights.''

He also appeared to brush aside concerns about abuses, saying ''sometimes, in difficult circumstances, difficult things happen''.

A spokeswoman for Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop said Australia had raised human rights issues with senior members of the Sri Lankan government, ''in the margins of CHOGM''.

She said Australia would make a final decision on its position on the US's resolution ''after due consideration of the final text and the balance of issues it raises''.

''We encourage all parties to take a constructive approach and any resolution must be seen to assist the process of reconciliation …'' the spokeswoman said.

''The government has consistently urged Sri Lanka to ensure that all allegations of serious international crimes committed by both sides … are investigated in a transparent and independent manner.''

The story Diplomats concerned Australia is undermining Sri Lanka inquiry call first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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