UN passes resolution against Sri Lanka rights record

Pro-government activists are reflected in the glass of the US embassy during a protest in Colombo on March 21, 2013, Pro-government demonstrators have been protesting outside the US embassy denouncing the resolution

The UN's Human Rights Council has passed a resolution highly critical of Sri Lanka's record.

The resolution encourages Sri Lanka to conduct an independent and credible investigation into alleged war crimes.

Correspondents say the US-sponsored resolution has been watered down compared with earlier drafts.

Sri Lanka's army defeated separatist Tamil rebels after a brutal 26-year war in 2009, but it is the final phase of that war which has come under scrutiny.

During the council's proceedings, Sri Lanka's representative spoke out against the resolution, arguing that it would endanger an ongoing reconciliation process.

The delegate also accused the United States of targeting countries that did not conform to its political agenda.

But the resolution was passed with 25 countries voting in favour, 13 against and with eight abstentions.

'Continuing violations'

The BBC's Charles Haviland in Colombo says the draft that was up for debate is much milder than an earlier one - among other things "encouraging" Sri Lanka to take actions rather than "urging" it, and deleting an earlier assertion that Colombo had broken its own commitments on political devolution to Tamil areas.

Analysis

Though milder than its initial drafts, this resolution is more detailed, and tougher than last year's. Although it suggests Sri Lanka set up a "truth-seeking mechanism" on abuses and calls for an investigation, it does not demand an international one. It also asks Colombo to extend invitations to some of the UN's special rapporteurs, although it deleted the first draft's reference to their portfolios.

What difference might it make on the ground? The government may not appear to care very much. One of its MPs told the BBC: "these things don't matter any more", saying internationally the country's stock had fallen low but nationally the government remained popular.

Yet Colombo does at least care about one thing - the Commonwealth summit is due to be held in Sri Lanka in November and it wants to resist growing pressure from international campaigners that it be relocated.

Two local rights activists welcomed the resolution. One called it "forward-looking", saying the clause on the rapporteurs would entail "a bit more monitoring". Another said it would at least give hope to families of victims of rights abuses, pointing out that the government responded to the 2012 resolution by setting out a plan for the implementation of its war commission's recommendations - although Ms Pillay has said this is full of gaps.

Sri Lanka's media minister, Keheliya Rambukwella, said that issue had been blown up out of proportion.

"As long as there are extreme elements in the world you have these things, in even the most five-star democracies," he said.

Amnesty International said that while the resolution successfully highlighted rights violations, it failed to establish an independent and international investigation into the conflict.

Its strongest passage voices concern at reports of continuing violations. It expresses concern at reports of enforced disappearances, extra-judicial killings, torture, threats to the rule of law, religious discrimination and intimidation of civil society activists and journalists.

This reflects the recent sacking of the top judge in a process domestic courts deemed illegal, and a wave of hardline Buddhist attacks on Muslims and Christians.

The resolution also acknowledges progress made in rebuilding infrastructure but notes that "considerable work lies ahead in the areas of justice, reconciliation and the resumption of livelihoods".

India voted in favour of the resolution as it did last year.

On Tuesday a Tamil party from south India pulled out of India's governing coalition, accusing it of not taking a hard enough line against the Sri Lankan government.

The move comes amid protests in Tamil Nadu state denouncing the prospect of a resolution that was not tough enough. Meanwhile pro-government demonstrators protested outside the US embassy in Colombo, hours before the vote was to take place in Geneva.

Death toll unclear

Both sides were accused of human rights abuses throughout the conflict with much focus on what happened in its final stages, when thousands of civilians were trapped in a thin strip of land in the north of Sri Lanka as fighting raged around them.

College students burn a poster of Sri Lanka"s President Mahinda Rajapaksa during a protest in the southern Indian city of Chennai March 21, 2013 There have also been protests in Tamil Nadu, demanding India take a stand against Sri Lanka

The entire conflict left at least 100,000 people dead, but there are still no confirmed figures for tens of thousands of civilian deaths in the last months of battle: estimates range from 9,000 - 75,000.

One UN investigation said it was possible up to 40,000 people had been killed in the final five months alone. Other rights groups suggest the number of deaths could be even higher.

But the government released its own estimate last year, concluding that about 9,000 people perished in those few months.

Allegations of war crimes committed by government forces have also dogged the island state. The 2011 report commissioned by the UN said that most of the civilian deaths were caused by government shelling.

Video footage has also emerged appearing to show serious abuses committed by the army. All of these allegations have been vociferously denied by Colombo, which maintains such evidence is fabricated.

The Sri Lankan government commissioned its own investigation into the war in 2011.

Its Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) cleared the military of allegations that it deliberately attacked civilians. It said that there had been some violations by troops, although only at an individual level.

In November 2012 an internal UN report said that the UN had failed in its mandate to protect civilians in those final months of the civil war.

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