The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, joins Lateline live from New York to discuss her recent week-long fact-finding mission to Sri Lanka.
TranscriptEDITOR'S NOTE (October 10): The interview below contains an inaccurate paraphrase of the Prime Minister’s statements earlier that day, The ABC acknowledges a question that better paraphrases Mr Abbott's comments that day would have been: "How do you feel about a world leader describing the boats issue as a passing irritant between Australia and Indonesia?".
EMMA ALBERICI, PRESENTER: Our guest tonight is Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
She was born and raised in South Africa where she rose to become the first non-white female judge of the high court. She's also served as a judge of the International Criminal Court and president of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.
She has just returned from a week-long visit to Sri Lanka. Navi Pillay is the most senior UN official to visit the north since Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in 2009.
She joins us now from UN headquarters in New York. Navi Pillay we're so pleased you could be with us.
NAVI PILLAY, UN HIGH COMMISSIONER FOR HUMAN RIGHTS: Good evening and thank you for having me Emma.
EMMA ALBERICI: During your fact finding mission to Sri Lanka, did the Tamils feel free and safe to tell you their stories?
NAVI PILLAY: Let me say regularly how pleased I was that the Sri Lankan Government did not place any obstacles in my seeing whoever I wished to, going wherever I went to. And that enabled me to meet both Tamil and Sinhalese communities both sides lost family - sons, husbands, fathers. Both families from both sides just wept and asked for my help in tracing their relatives.
EMMA ALBERICI: What did they tell you about what life has been like in the four years since the end of the civil war?
NAVI PILLAY: The Tamils in particular in the north have huge complaints. For instance they feel completely threatened by the very heavy military presence there, the military have been positioned over Tamil lands, so that's the seconds complaint that lands have been taken away.
I met about 700 people in IDP camps, all of them has been fishing folk or planted rice on paddy fields and their lands have been confiscated without compensation, some of them said that the military have built their structures over that.
Huge levels of insecurity, fear, surveillance and I saw that for myself. People whom I'd interview such as a Jesuit priest, a Christian father were immediately visited by the military even while I was still in the country and I complained to the Government about this.
EMMA ALBERICI: What evidence did you specifically uncover that led you to express deep concern that the Government of Sri Lanka was heading toward what you called "authoritarian rule"?
NAVI PILLAY: What concerned me is that previously there were various independent commissions and it was the commissions who made recommendations on who should be sitting as judges, who should be sitting on Electoral Commissions and so on and these commissions have been disbanded and all the selection now is in the hands of the President himself.
He recently created new ministry of law and order and he's placed that under him in the presidency, similarly defence is under the presidency.
I'm also concerned that NGOs now have to undergo a registration system and that goes through the defence and obviously under the presidency so these are the authoritarian trends I was concerned about in a country that calls itself a socialist democracy, these just are totally inappropriate.
EMMA ALBERICI: This week you criticised Sri Lankans for not properly investigating allegations of war crimes during the country's civil war. You said that if they didn't show progress on this by March of next year that the international community would have to establish its own inquiry. That has already drawn a rebuke from Sri Lanka's ambassador to the UN, so what happens next?
NAVI PILLAY: Let me say that all this stems from the commission set up by the Sri Lankan Government itself, called the LLRC, the lessons learnt, and the rehabilitation committee. It's their own committee who made various recommendations including the investigation of crimes, during the conflict, and justice for victim, reparation for victims and memorial to be erected for all those who lost their lives.
And this is where the human rights council comes in, they have urged Sri Lanka to implement their own recommendations and I then reported to the council that that has not happened. Now, the LLRC recommendations fall short of our expectations on what should be done for proper accountability.
Nevertheless, they have not fulfilled even their own recommendations, I view this with some seriousness and this is why I am urging the human rights council to consider that if implementation is not carried out, say, by March next year when I will filing my further report, then the council should consider credible international investigations.
EMMA ALBERICI: Now, some of your concerns about Sri Lanka specifically where you talk about Tamils telling you of their fear and insecurity, those sorts of reports are at odds with what Australia's own Immigration Minister found when he visited the north himself six months ago.
He said Tamils were most likely seeking asylum in Australia, not for fear of persecution but rather than they were looking for better job, a change in lifestyle?
NAVI PILLAY: I just heard your news report just before your program, Emma and here, there we heard a very public transparent harassment and violence against a candidate who eventually won in those elections. Now if something can happen where in the eye of the public you can imagine how much more is happening.
I have spoken to actual victims, I did not - I went with an open mind, I wanted to hear from the people themselves so definitely there are huge grounds for fear, people are disappearing, journalists, activists, NGOs are being harassed. These have to be investigated and stopped.
I would urge Australia and particularly the immigration department, to review each case on its merits, when they're looking at a refugee or an aslyum seeker. and not follow the Government statement on this.
EMMA ALBERICI: More than 1,000 people from Sri Lanka have already been sent back by the Australian Government, that's the previous Australian Government. They say they couldn't find any evidence to justify claims of persecution. Do you think that's likely to be because the situation has improved dramatically over the past four years or could it be because the Sri Lankan authorities have become better at covering up their misdeeds?
NAVI PILLAY: The Sri Lankan Government is justly proud of all the reconstruction, the building of roads, and other physical structures that they've put in place. These are obviously of benefit and it's very visible improvement in the north, that with the help of other Governments including Australia, including the United Nations, they were able to achieve a physical reconstruction.
But that is totally incomplete if you do not address the human rights situation, address the concerns of people and this is not the image then that Australia should take on board when they're looking at refugees. According convention on refugees, the 1951 convention to which Australia is a party, there has to be an individual case by case review of refugees and aslyum seekers.
For instance, when I was in Australia, in 2011, and visited the detention centres, I found a sizeable number of Sri Lankan refugees being held there, there was a group being held indefinitely, allegedly because of security concerns, now that is a cause for concern in August this year, the human rights committee ruled against Australia on this and requested Australia to release those detainees.
EMMA ALBERICI: Just today our very new Prime Minister Tony Abbott has expressed the hope that aslyum seekers that arrive by boats would be no more than a passing irritant for his Government and for the Indonesians. How do you feel about a world leader describing aslyum seekers as irritants?*
NAVI PILLAY: I am deeply concerned by statements such as that because they promote a stigmatisation of a whole group of people and totally against the vision and concept of the convention on refugees to which Australia is a party.
Australia is actually known for having provided sanctuary and safety for many refugees, from the region and other parts of the world, Australia is known for readily rescuing people who are in distress, in boats that are unsafe and against this good record I am appalled at statements such as this which justify discrimination against a whole group, a minority group, people who are coming to Australia, because conditions in their own countries are unbearable.
And let me emphasise again - these are poor marginalised men, women and children who are seeking safety in Australia, they should be rehabilitated and will be of benefit, migrants, refugees, must be seen for the value they can add to a country, rather than as some kind of irritants or toxic waste.
EMMA ALBERICI: Is it though not legitimate for a Government to want to protect its formal immigration processes including an orderly humanitarian intake?
NAVI PILLAY: This is what the refugee convention is about. It understands the legitimate interest of a country, of Australia and Government, the Australian people, that they're not flooded with refugees, I know that in every state nationals are very wary that their jobs are being taken away by immigrants or migrants which actually is not factually correct.
Nevertheless there is that fear I understand then that Governments do have to protect their own citizens against an influx of outsiders, but international human rights standards must be observed at all times, because these are human beings we are dealing with, they're entitled to fundamental rights and one of them is individual screening to understand their situation and obviously no indefinite detention of people on so-called security grounds which the human rights committee has ruled against Australia in August.
EMMA ALBERICI: Finally, the intergovernmental panel on climate change which reported just in the past hours, says it's now 95 per cent certain that global warming is a result of human activity. What to you is the most urgent human rights challenge that that presents?
NAVI PILLAY: Let me say as High Commissioner for Human Rights how concerned I am that it is the poorest women, men and children who are most affected by climate change, who have least contributed to the causes of climate change, who have the weakest voices and the least influence on policies and this is one of the rights I espouse which is the human rights of participation and consultation.
The protection of their rights must be paramount in all climate change policies. In the islands around Australia, there is deep concern, in Fiji, Kiribati for instance where they have identified hundreds of communities who will be affected by climate change.
EMMA ALBERICI: Navi Pillay we've run out of time. I thank you so much for taking your time to speak to us.
NAVI PILLAY: Thank you Emma.