Jake Lynch

There’s a fascinating exhibition at the Australian museum in Sydney. Titled ‘Up Close and Spineless’, it features winning entries in a photography competition focusing on the colourful world of invertebrates.

These, along with the permanent insect exhibits, struck me as an apt metaphor for Australia’s ‘Foreign Affairs community’: a swarm of politicians, public servants, think-tankers and academics. Research on recent international events, and the reactions of world governments, confirmed the impression that Australia is home to the most spineless foreign ministry anywhere on earth, along with 12 percent of the known species of cockroach.

Two episodes in particular have outraged global opinion – Israel’s attack on Gaza in January, and, last month, the massacre by the Sri Lankan army of 20,000 Tamils. Each government accused a non-state armed group of using civilians as human shields – then went ahead and attacked them anyway. This is explicitly ruled out by a norm of humanitarian protection accepted by the vast majority of the international community. The 1977 Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions specify that:

“The presence within the civilian population of individuals who do not come within the definition of civilians does not deprive the population of its civilian character.”
(Article 50)

The list of signatories includes 160 of the 200-odd UN member states, Australia being one. Among the absentees are Israel, Sri Lanka and the United States.

Among the ‘big beasts’ of the international community, responses to this year’s events show abundant double standards. America provided diplomatic cover for Israel as usual, including a last-minute abstention at the Security Council, which scuppered a ceasefire resolution. Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State in the new Administration, later called on the IMF to suspend development aid to Colombo. India, vocal in its condemnation over Gaza, kept shtum about Sri Lanka to the point where one of its retired generals publicly accused it of complicity.

Timid bottom-feeders, meanwhile – countries that would not necessarily develop an opinion, like, say, Bulgaria, Botswana and Bolivia – were ‘covered’, in strong statements put out on their behalf by the European Union, African Union or Organization of American States. Even ASEAN, through the Heads Statement of its 14th Summit, identified Israel’s attack as the cause of a humanitarian crisis, and called for an immediate ceasefire.

The only such club Australia belongs to – the Commonwealth – has a Ministerial Action Group, which is supposed to uphold standards of human rights agreed in the Harare Declaration of 1991. Except it spent the early months of 2009 belying its name by steadfastly refusing to meet.

New Zealand piped up with a call at the UN General Assembly for Israel to “end its military offensive” and “condemning” its “appalling attacks on United Nations personnel and facilities”. Deputy Permanent Representative Kirsty Graham mentioned “allegations of serious violations of international humanitarian law” and affirmed New Zealand’s support for “the UN Secretary General’s call for an impartial inquiry”. The statement features in the list of media releases on the NZ foreign ministry’s website.

And what do we find, in the ‘media room’ of its Canberra counterpart? Nothing. Zilch. Nix. Yes, Australia is the only democratic country on earth not to have uttered so much as a peep of condemnation of either of these two violations of international humanitarian law. Each merits two press statements, drawing attention to Australian aid. Important, of course, but to confine oneself to that is to connive in the project the late Israeli political scientist, Baruch Kimmerling, called ‘politicide’: a plot to get the world to see the Palestinian cause not as a political struggle but in purely humanitarian terms, instead.

Following the fall of the LTTE, Foreign Minister Stephen Smith did call for access by international humanitarian organizations to the displacement camps where thousands were now held by the Sri Lankan government, but he conspicuously failed to back the call, by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, for an independent investigation into alleged war crimes. The recent report by a Colombo-based human rights group, highlighting important signs that both sides were guilty of atrocities in the closing days of the military exchanges, emphasises the need for an authoritative version of events to be independently reached.

“Now that the conflict is over”, Smith told Sky News on May 19, “people will be in a better position in time to make judgements about the conduct of the military engagement”. Well, they are: as UN Human Rights Council president Martin Ihoeghian Uhomoibhi put it, “the international community must strive to deliver justice to victims of human rights violations wherever they occur and ensure that those found guilty of such crimes are held accountable for their actions”.

Instead, Australia appears impatient to return to business as usual. Last week, the Victorian Government hosted a Sri Lankan delegation for trade talks, including the country’s Prime Minister and Education Minister. Next, Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard is off to Israel, on a junket with politicians, journalists, academics and executives. Payback, perhaps, on her statement, at New Year, that the attack on Gaza amounted to nothing more than Israel exercising its “right to defend itself”.

There does seem to be something about Australian politics that sees human rights as an inconvenience, to be brushed aside from important conversations about making money. Canberra refuses US requests to accept 17 Uighurs from Guantanamo Bay for resettlement here, because China views them as ‘terrorists’. Asylum was granted to 42 leaders of the West Papuan struggle, but only after a large picture of them making landfall on Australian territory featured prominently in the media, making them unignorable. The subsequent Lombok Treaty appeased Indonesia by shoving human rights off the countries’ joint agenda altogether.

Israel should not be able to enjoy normal relations with the outside world as long as there is no justice in respect of its serial violations of international law. In the Sri Lankan case, a clear path of action has been set out for the international community, in the statement by Tamil representatives here. As well as the investigation of alleged war crimes, Australia is being asked to join other countries in insisting that Sri Lanka open up the war zone, and the internment camps where 300,000 Tamils are presently held, to international scrutiny, and release detainees including three doctors who treated the wounded almost to the bitter end.

Smith has warned Sri Lanka that its “longstanding international reputation is now very much at stake”, but there is no sign that Canberra is willing to make any part of its relations with Colombo conditional on these demands being met. He also called for “political reconciliation” in Sri Lanka, but you can’t get reconciliation without justice. The Palestinian and Sri Lankan Tamil struggles are for human rights, based on human needs, and those cannot be traded away. So the conflicts will continue, and if we don’t join in providing forms of access to justice that don’t involve further violence, we will be helping to make that grim turn of events more likely in future.

The timidity of governments leaves the rest of us to take matters into our own hands. Hence the growing campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel. One highly symbolic target here is the tour by Sri Lanka’s cricketers, scheduled for a test series against Australia in 2010-2011. The national sport relies, for pre-eminence, on a wholesome image, appealing to every section of the Australian community. British politicians have already appealed to the English Cricket Board to break off contacts with Sri Lanka until some of these issues are satisfactorily addressed – it’s time for Australia to follow suit.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 14 Jun 2009.

Anticopyright: Editorials and articles originated on TMS may be freely reprinted, disseminated, translated and used as background material, provided an acknowledgement and link to the source, TMS: UP CLOSE AND SPINELESS WITH AUSTRALIA’S DEPARTMENT OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS, is included. Thank you.

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