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Stephen Smith’s speech in Parliament on 14th of September

September 15, 2009

I wish to update the House on the situation in Sri Lanka, in particular the situation confronting internally displaced people, the need for their resettlement, and the need for political reconciliation.

Australia recognises and acknowledges the profound sufferings of the past in Sri Lanka, including the many civilian casualties caused by decades of war.

In the face of the long-standing, terrible costs of war, it is often hard to look to the future.

While acknowledging past suffering, today I outline how Australia will continue to assist the Sri Lankan people in the rebuilding of their country.

As members might recall, I presented an earlier Ministerial Statement to the House on Sri Lanka on 12 May.

At that time, I said that a military victory by the Sri Lankan Government was imminent, irrevocably changing the situation on the ground after decades of conflict.

That military victory came to pass on 18 May, some four months ago.

Australia welcomed the end of this decades-long conflict.  It cost tens of thousands lives, uprooted hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans, and left an economic divide between north and south, east and west.

No Sri Lankan has been untouched by the conflict.

Australia has consistently stated that the solution to the conflict was never going to be by military means alone.

The time is here for the Sri Lankan Government to win the peace and to forge an enduring political settlement for all Sri Lankans.

This will require political reform and rapprochement between all parties and communities.

Sri Lanka faces the tremendous task of resettling hundreds of thousands of displaced citizens.  This process has started, but since the fighting stopped four months ago at least 250,000 people remain in camps for internally displaced people.

Civilians in northern Sri Lanka have lived under difficult conditions for many years and suffered greatly, especially in the last months of the conflict.

It is now vital to move quickly, more quickly than has been the case to this point, to create the conditions for them to rebuild their lives.

Australia and the international community continue to watch closely to see how the Sri Lankan authorities treat people in camps for internally displaced people; how they manage their resettlement; and how they institute political reform and reconciliation.

Success in these areas is vital to the Sri Lankan Government creating a peaceful, stable and prosperous future for Sri Lanka and all of its people.

I have spoken directly to Sri Lanka’s President and, on a number of occasions, to Foreign Minister, Rohitha Bogollagama, about these matters.

Australian officials at the Australian High Commission in Colombo also continue to make the same points.

I have also outlined Australia’s views on Sri Lanka in discussions with the United Nations and with my Foreign Ministerial counterparts, including those representing the Tokyo Co-Chairs, the United States, the European Union, Norway and Japan.

Australia has consistently stated both during the conflict and since that the welfare and protection of civilians must be the absolute priority.

Australia will continue to respond to the humanitarian challenges facing Sri Lanka through our aid program, especially the needs of internally displaced people and their resettlement.

Last financial year, 2008-09, Australia devoted $24.5 million to meet humanitarian needs in Sri Lanka.

Australian aid was delivered through international humanitarian organisations, such as the World Food Program, UNICEF, the International Committee of the Red Cross, as well as Australian non government organisations working on the ground in Sri Lanka.

Through this assistance Australia has provided:

shelter, water, sanitation, health and nutrition for internally displaced people security and coordination for relief efforts social and educational services for children adversely affected by conflict, and trauma support, particulary for mothers and children.

This financial year, 2009-10, Australia will provide more than $35 million in development assistance to Sri Lanka.

Supporting resettlement is a major focus for the coming months.

Yesterday I said publicly that recently I had approved $2 million to support the resettlement of displaced people in Sri Lanka.

Today I announce a further $3 million for this vital work.

This assistance will be delivered through international organisations such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration.

This funding will include assistance for continuing the process of documenting internally displaced people to facilitate their return, their assistance with essential items, including food and water for travel and reintegration, and assistance to families hosting displaced people.

Australia welcomes the Sri Lankan Government’s commitment to resettling over 80 per cent of civilians from camps for internally displaced people by the end of this year, 2009, and looks forward to the resettlement of all civilians as soon as possible.

Freedom of movement for the civilians in the north is essential.

The start of the monsoon season this month has increased the urgency for voluntary resettlement and other solutions that provide freedom of movement.

Australia’s call applies especially to children, the sick and the elderly, but it extends to all those citizens of Sri Lanka currently in the camps for internally displaced people.

Australian officials visited the camps in Sri Lanka late last month with the aim of identifying priority needs for Australian aid.

Our next steps will focus on support for release and resettlement of these internally displaced people.

As well, a prerequisite for the revival of northern Sri Lanka is the demining of former conflict areas.

It is the case that the demining challenge will affect the resettlement of displaced people from the camps.

That is why in June, Australia provided over $1 million to non-government organisations for demining and why we responded in August to a further request by the Government of Sri Lanka to provide a further $1 million through the International Organisation for Migration for demining efforts.

The voluntary resettlement process requires full access by international humanitarian agencies to areas of return and to information to ensure effective coordination.

Australia has consistently called upon the Sri Lankan Government to ensure that such access is afforded and such information provided.

It is important that the Sri Lankan Government, UN agencies and other non government organisations work together in a constructive partnership to address these challenges.

Mr Deputy Speaker, members will have seen reports about an Australian UNICEF official Mr James Elder.  I have looked at Mr Elder’s reported remarks and they do not cause me any difficulty.  Indeed he has been making the point, as has the Australian Government, that we need to see unimpeded access by international agencies to the camps for internally displaced people.

I take this opportunity to commend the work of UNICEF, with which Australia works closely and which does vitally important work in Sri Lanka and around the world.

Australian resettlement assistance is not only focussed in northeast Sri Lanka.

In northwest Sri Lanka, where the conflict ended in 2008, Australia has helped to resettle internally displaced people by funding the construction of housing and providing support for basic services and the revival of income generating activities.

Our aid in the coming year to Sri Lanka will also support development across the country.

We will deliver aid to help communities to recover from the adverse effects of conflict and to lead safe and productive lives, including peace-building, basic education and natural resource development.

Mr Speaker, earlier today in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, I met about 20 representatives of the Australian Tamil community from across the country.

I hope this process of dialogue will continue between members of the Sri Lankan diaspora and Australian officials.

I outlined to them the steps that the Australian Government is taking – both in terms of advocacy and of practical assistance – to help Sri Lanka and its citizens.

I recognised the suffering that many among that group have experienced and the depth of concern they feel for members of their community in Sri Lanka, particularly those still in camps for internally displaced people.

Some community members advised of their view of the need to address war crimes that were allegedly committed by both sides during the conflict.

I responded that, in the interests of reconciliation, it was important that allegations of human rights abuses be dealt with through a credible and independent process.

It was clear to me from our positive and productive discussion of the important role that diaspora groups will play in Sri Lanka’s future.

I encourage all members of the diaspora to look for ways to engage constructively to promote the well-being and future prosperity of all Sri Lankans.

Reconciliation will take time and will require sustained effort by Sri Lanka, its diaspora and the international community to overcome the grief, resentment and anger, and the lack of confidence and trust that is the inevitable consequence of decades of armed conflict.

Australia’s belief is that Sri Lankan democracy, rule of law and security would be enhanced by a strong civil society and an independent and free media.

The Sri Lankan Government must seize the opportunity to promote the political freedoms that enable all citizens to have a stake in Sri Lanka’s success.

Australia’s historic links to Sri Lanka provide the potential for greater bilateral engagement, including through increased trade and investment.

Australia values its long-standing relationship with Sri Lanka, reinforced by strong people-to-people links.

Mr Deputy Speaker, Sri Lanka has an opportunity, an historic opportunity to forge a new beginning for all its citizens.

As a friend of Sri Lanka, Australia is committed to helping Sri Lanka to address these challenges after years of conflict and to help Sri Lanka win the peace.

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