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Australia and the Sri Lankan Crisis of 2009

Published 22 Jan 2024
Renuga Inpakumar

Australia’s involvement in the events surrounding the tragic massacres in the northeast of Sri Lanka in 2009 raises important questions about our nation’s commitment to protecting innocent Tamil civilians. The Tamil civilian population in Sri Lanka endured significant suffering due to strategic actions taken by the Sri Lankan government that infringed upon various international human rights conventions. Regrettably, Australia was among several nations that faced allegations of complicity in these human rights violations. It is essential to acknowledge that Australia could have taken a more proactive stance in addressing the ongoing discrimination towards Tamils in northeast Sri Lanka. Instead, our actions fell short of what was needed to address human rights violations.

Australia did express some concern about the escalating conflict and the protection of civilians. For example, Canberra co-sponsored a United Nations Human Rights Council resolution in May 2009 that called for an investigation into alleged human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. However, it can be argued that Australia’s diplomatic engagement seemed to wane as the conflict intensified. As the conflict intensified, thousands of Tamils were killed without accountability demanded of Sri Lanka. The lack of diplomatic engagement during the intense period of 2009 resulted in 14 years of no progressive actions being taken after 2009 in northeast Sri Lanka. For instance, there were allegations that Australia, in its pursuit of a bilateral asylum-seeking deal with Sri Lanka in 2013, prioritised its interest over concerns about human rights and the well-being of Tamil refugees.

Australia’s perceived reluctance to take a more proactive stance on human rights during the crisis may have inadvertently influenced the Sri Lankan government’s post-2009 behaviour. For instance, the Sri Lankan government faced international allegations of war crimes and human rights abuses during the final stages of 2009. Australia’s perceived reticence to support an independent international investigation into these allegations, exemplified by its abstention from a UN Human Rights Council resolution in 2009, may have contributed to the lack of accountability for these alleged violations. This absence of accountability has had a lasting impact, hindering reconciliation efforts and sustaining a culture of impunity in Sri Lanka.

The combination of physical hardships and a lack of international assistance had a profound psychological impact on Tamil civilians. They endured not only the immediate consequences of conflict but also the mental anguish of feeling abandoned and forgotten by the international community. This psychological toll contributed to long-term trauma and suffering among Tamil survivors.

In conclusion, Australia’s perceived limited humanitarian and diplomatic intervention during the 2009 indiscriminate killings in Sri Lanka left Tamil civilians in a highly vulnerable and precarious situation. Will Australia ever intervene with Sri Lanka’s human rights violations towards Tamils, or do we as a society expect another situation similar to 2009 to occur?

Renuga Inpakumar is in her third-year at Western Sydney University, studying Bachelor of Arts/Laws majoring in International Relations and Asian Studies and minoring in History and Political Thought. Renuga has been focusing on human rights issues surrounding refugee issues since she was 10 years old. Renuga has had experience in speaking at the 43rd session of human rights at the United Nations in Geneva on refugee related matters. She is the spokesperson for Tamil Refugee Council where she has been featured in various media outlets. Renuga has an interest in international affairs and hopes to become involved in international law in the future surrounding human rights and criminal matters.

Renuga is an intern with the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW.