Turnbull Government Reverses Myanmar Stance to Co-sponsor UN Resolution on Rohingya Muslims
The Turnbull government has abruptly reversed its opposition to an international investigation into atrocities against Rohingya Muslims, including mass rapes, torture and the slaughter of babies.
The government has co-sponsored a resolution at the United Nation's top human rights body in Geneva to send a fact-finding mission to Myanmar to investigate what the UN says could amount to ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.
Human rights groups praised the 47-member forum for passing the resolution in Geneva on Friday without a vote and despite Myanmar saying it was "not acceptable."
Australia's late turn-around came after human rights groups condemned Canberra for calling on Myanmar to conduct its own investigation with international help into the atrocities in the country's Rakhine state, home to more than one million Rohingya.
Investigations already underway in the Buddhist-majority country are considered a white-wash as the government lead by Aung San Suu Kyi has repeatedly denied widespread atrocities have taken place.
Earlier in March, Australia told the Human Rights Council that despite evidence of serious human rights abuses, Canberra "considers a collaborative approach is the best way to help Myanmar address its human rights challenges."
The statement referred to the "scale and complexity of the transition that Myanmar is undergoing" and acknowledged "positive steps" taken by its government since taking office last year.
Australia's stand at that time ignored a motion passed unanimously in the Senate on February 16 urging the Turnbull government to consider pushing for a UN commission of inquiry.
Greens Senator Scott Ludlam was last week denied leave to pass a motion in the Senate urging Australia to co-sponsor the resolution brought in the UN council by the European Union.
"The mass murder and forced displacement of the Rohingya people in Myanmar is beyond belief and needs urgent international intervention," Senator Ludlam said.
"Instead the government even refused to contemplate a vote to this effect."
Emily Howie, director of Legal Advocacy at Australia's Human Rights Law Centre, said that Australia, which is campaigning for a seat on the Human Rights Council, must show the world it has what it takes to protect victims of the world's most serious human rights abuses.
"Support for international fact finding in Burma (Myanmar) is a step in the right direction," she said.
"However, true leadership requires more than hopping on other states' resolutions at the last minute."
A devastating UN report last month based on interviews with 220 Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh said Myanmar's security forces carried out a "calculated policy of terror" under the guise of a military lock-down of villages after attacks on police posts last October.
The report described how soldiers stomped on the stomach of a woman in labour and slit the throat of an eight-month-old baby when he started crying because he wanted be breast-fed while his mother was being gang-raped.
The Dalai Lama and Pope Francis were among world's leaders who called for Buddhists in Myanmar to end the violence.
The council's motion calls for "ensuring full accountability for perpetrators and justice for victims."
Australia's decision to co-sponsor the resolution is likely to deliver more support for its campaign for a two-year term on the council from 2018.
"This decision is a credit to the Australian Government and sends a clear message that Australia can and will take a stand against human rights violations," said Marc Purcell, chief executive office of the Australian Council for International Development.
Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch, said establishing an independent, international fact finding mission was crucial for bringing justice and accountability for the protection of the Rohingya population, and could significantly contribute to preventing further atrocities.
"If Australia wins a seat on the council it will be even more important that Australia shows leadership on countries in crisis, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region," she said.
"It would be better if Australia came on board with co-sponsoring resolutions earlier in the process, investing diplomatic capital to help get other countries to also support resolutions."