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Rights groups back UN move on Sri Lanka war crimes

Mandate to collect and preserve evidence piles added pressure on Colombo to adddress atrocities during civil war

UCA News reporter, Colombo

UCA News reporter, Colombo

Published: March 25, 2021 05:33 AM GMT

Updated: March 25, 2021 05:35 AM GMT

Rights groups back UN move on Sri Lanka war crimes

Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena at a press conference in Colombo on March 23. He said it is not the responsibility of the Human Rights Council to vote on the internal affairs of a country. (Photo: AFP)

Christian leaders have joined rights groups in welcoming a United Nations resolution giving its human rights chief Michelle Bachelet a mandate to collect and preserve evidence of alleged war crimes, committed during Sri Lanka's civil war. 

The U.N. Human Rights Council (U.N.H.R.C.) on March 23 adopted the resolution on “promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka.”

The resolution, which added pressure on Sri Lanka to conduct an independent and credible investigation into alleged war crimes, also criticized the erosion of judicial independence, marginalization of minorities, and impunity. 

It comes after damning reports by international rights groups including the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (O.H.C.H.R.) condemning Sri Lanka’s ongoing refusal to address historic crimes, said rights group Amnesty International in a statement.

Thousands of people, including Catholic priests, were killed or disappeared during the 26-year war that ended in 2009. The U.N. estimates 80,000 to 100,000 people were killed when the army fought and suppressed ethnic Tamil demands for a separate homeland in the northern part of the island.

"It has been 12 years since we started demanding justice and we are still struggling," said I. Arokayam, a Catholic and Tamil human rights activist, who lost a brother and several other relatives during the war.

Ahead of the resolution, minority Tamils demonstrated in different parts of Sri Lanka, demanding justice and called on the U.N.H.R.C. to investigate rights abuses committed during the conflict, said Arokayam.

Hundreds of relatives of the dead and disappeared joined the demonstrations, he said.

A Catholic priest from Jaffna, a Tamil-majority area in northern Sri Lanka, said government-appointed domestic commissions following earlier U.N.H.R.C. sessions have yielded nothing.

"A series of domestic commissions of inquiry under successive governments have produced long reports but nothing happened and the victims experienced disappointment and bitterness," the priest said on condition of anonymity.
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"The council should pay serious attention to the victims and their families who trust them and they should demand accountability from the Sri Lankan government," he added.

In 2020, the government withdrew from the U.N. Council's landmark resolution, which the previous government had co-sponsored, to promote reconciliation, accountability, and human rights in the country.

The new U.N. resolution is a “significant move … which signals a shift in approach by the international community,” said Hilary Power, Amnesty’s representative to the U.N. in Geneva, said in a statement.

“This resolution should send a clear message to perpetrators of past and current crimes that they cannot continue to act with impunity,” she said.

Power said years of support and encouragement to Sri Lanka to pursue justice at the national level achieved nothing.

Power called on Sri Lankan authorities to engage with the U.N. human rights office to implement the recommendations of the resolution “and to allow full and unfettered access to the country.”

“Failing this, the Human Rights Council may take more robust action, including the establishment of an independent accountability mechanism," she added.

However, the Sri Lankan government dismissed the resolution as “biased and overtly critical.”

Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena said it was not the responsibility of the U.N. Human Rights Council to blame or vote on the internal affairs of a country.

He said the government was acting on its promises.

"A presidential commission was set up to investigate human rights abuse allegations” and money has also been allocated to the Office on Missing Persons, a government department aiming to help people by determining the status of missing persons, he said.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has expressed his desire to meet with the families of missing persons.

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