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UN votes in favor of Sri Lanka war crimes inquiry

Rights groups and government supporters both claim moral victory

ucanews.com reporters, Colombo

ucanews.com reporters, Colombo

Updated: March 27, 2014 09:28 PM GMT
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UN votes in favor of Sri Lanka war crimes inquiry

Pro-government supporters hold a demonstration earlier this week against a UN resolution to investigate alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka.

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The United Nations Human Rights Council has voted in favor of conducting an international investigation into alleged war crimes committed by both the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) during the final stages of the country’s decades long civil war.

The US-backed resolution passed on Thursday with 23 votes in favor and 12 against. Neighboring India was among the 12 countries who abstained from voting.

The Sri Lankan government remains strongly opposed to an international investigation, while local and international rights groups welcomed the announcement that the resolution had passed.

"The UNHRC resolution offers hope to hundreds of victims who continuously demand truth and justice," said Father Emmanuel Sebamalai, a prominent Tamil Catholic activist who advocates for families of people who were forcibly disappeared during the war.

"Victims want to know what happened to their relatives, whether they are alive or not,” said Father Sebamalai. “Domestic probes failed to carry out credible investigations.”

The UN and US have also called on the Council to investigate more recent attacks on journalists, human rights defenders and religious minorities.

Earlier this month rights activist Balendran Jeyakumari and her 13-year-old daughter Balendran Vibooshika were arrested in Kilinochchi. Three days later, Ruki Fernando of the Inform Human Rights Documentation Center and Oblate Father Praveen Mahesan, director of the Center for Peace and Reconciliation, were also arrested in Kilinochchi when they visited to look into Jeyakumari’s case. After a wave of condemnation from foreign governments and rights groups, Fernando and Fr Mahesan were later released.

"In the last two weeks we have seen a severe crackdown on all forms of dissent,” Edward Mortimer, chair of the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice, said in a statement. “Balendran Jeyakumari, and at least 10 others, remain in detention without access to their lawyers, and no evidence has been produced against them. Meanwhile Ruki Fernando and Fr Praveen Mahesan, the activists who were released last week, are still subjected to a gagging order and other forms of judicial harassment.

"It has been obvious for at least three years that only an independent international investigation can establish the truth about what happened in Sri Lanka in the last months of the civil war,” said Mortimer. "It is terrifying to think how much further the Sri Lankan authorities will go if the international community's attention moves on. They need to be told firmly that there will be real consequences if the crackdown continues."

The Sri Lankan government has repeatedly rejected calls for an independent, international investigation. Both the government and LTTE stand accused of a range of human rights violations committed during the war, which claimed the lives of at least 40,000 civilians in its final days alone, according to the United Nations.

Sri Lanka’s own probe – the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission – has cleared the military of all violations against civilians, saying that abuses by soldiers only occurred on an individual basis.

In Colombo, thousands of pro-government supporters, including Cabinet ministers and lawmakers, staged marches this week to protest against a possible UN resolution. Their argument appears to be that the resolution could somehow allow the now-defunct LTTE to reorganize their movement, despite the fact that their leadership was wiped out during the last days of the conflict.

"We were in darkness during the last three decades and we are now living a peaceful life and there are no sounds of bomb blasts in the cities," said Sujith Manawadu, a Sinhala businessman who helped organize the march.

"If the UN had allowed the LTTE to reorganize, there would have been another war soon," he said.

Sri Lanka External Affairs Minister GL Peiris said that in his interpretation, the outcome of the UN vote showed that many countries were against the resolution.

"The US has not gained the support of the Asian region, so the result doesn’t reflect the opinion of the entire world," he said in a press conference.

"We oppose [the] UN Human Rights Commissioner being given powers to conduct an investigation since she has no mandate," he said, referring to Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

"The adoption of the resolution against Sri Lanka could have far reaching effects,” said Chandrapala Kumarage, Human Rights Committee Chairman of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka.

Thematic working groups and special rapporteurs will need to visit the country to carry out “fact finding work” regarding enforced disappearances, extra judicial killing, independence of the judiciary, torture and more, said Kumarage.

"If the government does not cooperate in holding an international inquiry on matters contained in the resolution the Council will hold such an inquiry outside Sri Lanka," said Kumarage.

Keith Best director of UK-based human rights organization Freedom from Torture said the resolution “marks a crucial first step in holding the Sri Lankan authorities to account for the horrendous abuses that occurred in the final stages of the civil war.”

“It is imperative that the Sri Lankan government’s lack of political will to end impunity for both past and ongoing human rights violations is challenged by this investigation, and that they fully cooperate with it.”

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