Canberra, India ‘water down’ UN resolution on Sri Lankan human rights

Amanda Hodge, in The Weekend Australian, 23/24 March 2013

THE UN Human Rights Council has for the second year running condemned ongoing human rights abuses in Sri Lanka and called for an independent investigation into allegations of war crimes by both sides in the 26-year civil conflict. But international rights campaigners yesterday blamed Australia and India for the final watering down of the resolution, thus easing the pressure on the Sri Lankan government, by putting domestic political concerns ahead of human rights. Both countries eventually voted in favour of the US-sponsored resolution, which expresses concern at reports in Sri Lanka of continuing enforced disappearances, extra-judicial killings, torture, threats to the rule of law, religious discrimination and intimidation of activists and journalists.

After pushing for more conciliatory language, India tried unsuccessfully at the eleventh hour to toughen the resolution under pressure from allied Tamil parties that walked away from the ruling government alliance over its failure to take a hard stand against Sri Lanka. The resolution passed late Thursday with 25 votes in favour and 13 against. Sri Lanka rejected the motion and questioned the “inordinate and disproportional level of interest in a country that successfully ended a 30-year conflict against terrorism”.

US sponsors and human rights organisations have been pushing for several years for an independent, international war crimes and human rights investigation and expressed their disappointment yesterday at the failure of the Human Rights Council’s second resolution to demand such a probe. Instead the resolution asks the Sri Lankan government to conduct its own “independent and credible investigation into allegations of violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law” and to implement the recommendations of its Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission.

New York-based Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth said the original UN resolution had been watered down at the insistence of India, which had been seeking a consensus vote that would garner Sri Lanka’s co-operation. And he claimed Australia’s “belated” support for the resolution – which he attributed to fear that overt criticism would prompt a fresh flood of Sri Lankan asylum-seekers – meant an opportunity was lost to persuade regional fence-sitters to support the vote. “We know Australia fears any criticism of Sri Lanka that could turn the spigot on boatpeople, but we would hope Australia would press for an end to this impunity for mass murder,” Mr Roth told The Weekend Australian yesterday. “Frankly, Australia should not allow itself to be blackmailed by Colombo in this way.In the end the Australian government did the right thing by supporting the resolution, but it would have been more helpful if that support had been articulated earlier. It might have helped us to more easily overcome some of the reluctance elsewhere in the region.”

A 2011 UN panel found credible evidence that both the Sri Lankan military and Tamil Tiger rebels committed human rights abuses in the final months of the war in 2009, when thousands of civilians were trapped in a thin strip of land in northern Sri Lanka as fighting raged around them. It found as many as 40,000 may have been killed in the final five months alone, though the Sri Lankan government estimated the death toll at 9000.

Its Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission cleared the military of allegations it deliberately attacked civilians, though it did find some individual troops were guilty of violations.

Human Rights Watch yesterday claimed Sri Lanka’s “campaign of rampant denial, distortion and intimidation should be sufficient evidence that the Sri Lankan government will never hold its forces accountable and that an independent, international investigation is needed . . . Rather than take the Council’s concerns seriously, the Council has failed victims again this year.” Amnesty International also criticised the watered-down resolution, but commended the highlighting of ongoing human rights violations.

The resolution encourages the Sri Lankan government to co-operate with UN special mandate holders, but does not name envoys such as the special rapporteur on torture who has been blocked from visiting the country. Sri Lanka’s UN representative, Mahinda Samarasinghe, said the resolution failed to acknowledge progress made by the government in ensuring justice.

ALSO SEE Shamindra Ferdinando, “Geneva vote: GTF appreciates US role, not entirely satisfied with resolution,” in The Island 25 March 2013,

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