A new project established for the purposes of gathering evidence of war crimes in Sri Lanka has been launched by the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) and the NSW Young Lawyers today.
A collaborative effort between the two organisations, the project aims to gather statements from witnesses to the long-running civil conflict between Sri Lankan Government forces and the Tamil Tigers.
It is hoped the evidence will eventually be used in a war crimes tribunal, the establishment of which is currently under consideration by the Secretary-General of the United Nations.
Alternatively, it is anticipated that any cogent evidence of war crimes which emerges from the project might persuade the Australian Government to prosecute individuals under the principle of universal jurisdiction.
"Australia has a long history of taking Sri Lankan refugees, and it does often happen that the perpetrators are in amongst the refugees," said project leader Dr Robert Dubler SC at a press conference today.
"Where there are war crimes, genocide or crimes against humanity ... the Australian Government could commence a prosecution for those offences committed in Sri Lanka. [The project] ... might provide an incentive for the Australian Government to launch a prosecution, if the evidence is there."
John Dowd AO QC, president of ICJ Australia, said another aim of the project is to deter perpetrators from committing future atrocities, particularly in relation to the 90,000 Sri Lankans still held captive by government forces.
"[This] is an offence in international law. If [the captives] are being treated without proper dignity ...it is an offence," said Dowd.
"There is a series of offences occurring now. These people should be allowed out. They should be allowed to go back to their homes ... we will inevitably find evidence of such crimes."
Much of the ground work will be carried out by a team of around 60 volunteer young lawyers, who will work at different phases of the project depending on their training and level of experience.
"Young lawyers are very interested in this [project] and we have had a phenomenal response," said Anne-Marie Doueihy, lawyer and former vice-chair of the Young Lawyers International Law Committee.
"We are hoping this will be a precedent. We are interested in having a process in place that can be easily followed for other war crimes," she added.
"If we can save lives, that is the aim, and I think that is why young lawyers are really involved in this project."
And while it is anticipated that the Australian Government may not be entirely supportive of the project, it does not faze the project's leaders.
"The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) is not necessarily concerned with the administration of justice," said Dowd.
"They are concerned with inter-government relations. Australia is helping the government of Sri Lanka, so there will inevitably be a conflict with DFAT and some other departments. That is not our concern. Our concern is the rule of law and the administration of justice."
- Claire Chaffey