UN Rights Council Backs Call for New Sri Lanka War Probe

The United Nations Human Rights Council voted in favor of a U.S.-sponsored resolution calling on Sri Lanka to again investigate alleged abuses during its 26-year civil war, stepping up pressure on the government in Colombo.

The resolution that passed in Geneva today 24-15 with eight abstentions urges the Sri Lankan government to begin another probe into claims the nation’s army and Tamil Tiger guerrillas committed war crimes during the conflict that ended in 2009. India, Sri Lanka’s northern neighbor and biggest trade partner, backed the resolution, which had 40 additional co-sponsors, after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was lobbied by Tamil allies in his government.

Sri Lanka, which in a November report cleared the military of unlawful activity and said any abuses committed by soldiers were isolated, opposes UN intervention in what it says is an internal issue. The island nation’s Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris led a government delegation to Geneva to lobby diplomats to vote against the U.S. motion.

“The government’s major fear is that an investigation is going to open the door for an international war crimes trial,” said Jehan Perera, the executive director of the National Peace Council in Colombo. “The government should be concerned because terrible things happened at the end of the war.”

‘Deeply Flawed’

Sri Lanka’s military and Tamil Tiger fighters probably committed serious violations of international law in the final stages of a conflict and caused as many as 40,000 civilian deaths, an earlier UN report released in April said. The government’s efforts at bringing accountability for alleged crimes were “deeply flawed” and “not in accordance with international standards,” according to the report.

Today’s vote is the culmination of more than two years of efforts by the U.S. to forge an international consensus and pressure Sri Lanka to investigate reported abuses. The war finished with a bloody offensive by the Sri Lankan army that ended the rebels’ fight for a separate homeland in the north and east of the island, 30 miles off India’s south coast.

“We are pleased the international community will continue to be able to apply pressure on the Sri Lanka government to investigate the allegations of abuse,” said Zachary Abugov, a program officer at the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative in New Delhi. “We regret that the resolution has been repeatedly watered down since first being announced.”

Enough Time

Sri Lanka should probe alleged abuses during the closing stages of the war and will be offered international support and technical assistance to do so, according to the text of the resolution passed in Geneva.

“Sri Lanka has had the time and space to develop its own road-map for lasting national reconciliation and accountability” since 2009, Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, the U.S. ambassador to the council, said before the vote. She described the resolution as “moderate and balanced” and said it aims to “help the people of Sri Lanka achieve a lasting and equitable peace.”

While sanctions are unlikely should Sri Lanka fail to carry out a new probe, the resolution “generates considerable reputational risk” for the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa as it bids to boost the tourism industry and stem depreciation of the rupee, Shamila Chaudhary, an analyst at New York-based Eurasia Group, said in a March 19 analysis.

Sri Lanka has benefited from a pickup in tourism since the war ended. Peace has spurred record investment and government spending, helping lift expansion in the $50 billion economy, making it the second-fastest growing of 17 Asia-Pacific economies tracked by Bloomberg.

‘Misconceived, Unwarranted’

As it attempted to ward off today’s vote, the Sri Lankan government said another inquiry would harm efforts to build reconciliation between majority Sinhalese and Tamils.

Mahinda Samarasinghe, Sri Lanka’s minister for disaster management and human rights, called the resolution “misconceived, unwarranted and ill-timed” and told the council it “would undermine the principle of non-interference in matters with the domestic jurisdiction of a country.”

Sri Lanka’s government has so far failed to implement proposals for reconciliation that were suggested by a commission it set up, Perera said in a March 19 analysis e-mailed to reporters.

In the latest allegation of human-rights abuses to surface, a U.K. documentary aired on March 14 alleged that the Sri Lankan army in 2009 executed a 12-year-old son of the Tamil Tiger guerrilla leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, who was killed in some of the war’s last battles.

Channel 4 showed the bullet-riddled body of a boy stripped to his waist, which it said was Balachandran Prabhakaran. The video was shot in May 2009 and was taken by the Sri Lankan army as a trophy video, according to the documentary.

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