The best by-product of the Commonwealth Heads Of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo this month would be the release of 43 Tamil refugees indefinitely detained in Australia.
To continue to detain the Tamils, despite heavy criticism from the UNHCR, is a show of diplomatic weakness by Australia.
It demonstrates a willingness to put external demands from a Commonwealth colleague below standards of rule of law, human rights and freedom from arbitrary detention.
Australian diplomats should walk into discussions in Sri Lanka with a deal to release the refugee detainees into community detention, or on conditional visas, in exchange for assurances that incentives for Tamils to continue to leave Sri Lanka (such as threats of violence) will be addressed.
The 43 Tamil refugees have been detained for an average of four years because they are believed to have some level of engagement with the pro-separatist Tamil movement in Sri Lanka.
Some are believed to have been members of the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) and may have trained with the militant organization.
They continue to be held in detention because it is believed that they are ideologically supportive of the Tamil struggle for independence and that their links with the Tigers make them likely to act in ways that are “prejudicial to Australia’s national security”.
Successive Australian governments have been reluctant to set aside security recommendations from ASIO that the men (and two women) pose a risk to national security – despite a number of High Court challenges.
Whatever the individual circumstances of the refugees, the fact they have been found to be refugees is inconsistent with a finding that they are criminally active or prospective criminals: they would be excluded from being refugees if this were the case.
A number of reports and experts have contemplated ways in which the refugees could be released from detention with conditions that ensure any lingering security risks are mitigated.
The most obvious risk to Sri Lanka (not necessarily Australia) is that the Tamils will band together to lobby and act for independence of Tamil homelands in Sri Lanka.
Many Tamils in Australia are already active in the political movement for self-determination. Over the past decade, none of the activities in Australia to protest or speak out for Tamil self-determination or freedom have caused security issues in Australia.
Government leaders in Sri Lanka speak openly of their fear expatriate Tamils will stir up sympathy for Tamil self-determination. They see Canada’s refusal to join CHOGM as an example of Tamil refugees acting against the interests of a reconciled Sri Lanka.
But for the nation of Sri Lanka to expect Australia to assess Tamils with links to the Tamil Tigers (however weak) as security risks to Australia, and therefore maintained in expensive and damaging indefinite detention, is extraordinary.
For Australia to continue to comply with this expectation is even more extraordinary.
The Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon should have known better than to call a provocative media conference on foreign soil. But the sensitive reaction by the Sri Lankan government, in confiscating her passport and temporarily detaining her, does vindicate the point made: that speaking out in Sri Lanka is punished.
This should also highlight to Australia that Tamils speaking out in Sri Lanka, in ways that our Liberal government should celebrate as expressions of free speech, are harshly condemned.
The libertarian values of the current Abbott government should not support the indefinite detention of Tamils who may or may not have once spoken out in favour of a particular political view.
The assumption that the refugees are dangerous, or pose security risks to Australia is nonsense – if only they were given opportunities in a court of law to prove it.
If the Prime Minister does not raise this issue with Sri Lanka during CHOGM, he is once again showing himself to be weak in the face of diplomatic challenges.
For Australia, a prosperous, secure and free country, to keep 43 broken Tamil men and women in indefinite detention to appease the Sri Lankan government, is a sign of serious diplomatic weakness.
Prime Minister Abbott needs to stand up for the freedoms his party espouses.