/ 26 May 2009

UN rights council divided over Sri Lanka

Asian and Western members of the United Nations Human Rights Council failed to find a common voice on the situation in Sri Lanka before they were due to hold a special session on the issue on Tuesday.

Switzerland, with the support of about 30 mainly Western states, has tabled a draft resolution calling on Colombo to ”investigate all allegations” of human rights abuses during Asia’s longest-running civil war between the Sri Lanka army and the rebel Tamil Tigers.

It also called on the Sri Lankan government to ensure the freedom of displaced people and access to drinking water and sanitation.

However, another draft text tabled by countries including China, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka ”commends” Colombo’s actions in dealing with internally displaced people, and encouraged UN agencies to continue cooperating with the Sri Lankan government.

Sri Lanka’s allies did not mention any possible probe.

The 47-state Human Rights Council, which was formed in 2006 to react more quickly to emergency situations, is meeting more than two months after UN human rights chief Navi Pillay spoke about possible ”war crimes and crimes against humanity” committed by both sides.

On Saturday, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon asked Sri Lanka to probe violations allegedly committed during the government’s defeat of the rebel group and pressed for ”unhindered access” to 300 000 displaced people in government-run camps.

Although the European-led text targeted violations during the conflict and backed investigations, the watchdog group UN Watch dismissed it as ”a joke”.

”Despite the call by UN rights officials for an international inquiry into possible war crimes, the proposal instead asks Sri Lanka to investigate itself — it’s a joke,” said UN Watch’s executive director Hillel Neuer.

”The text deliberately omits any condemnation of the government for its actions, and actually praises its ‘cooperation’,” he added.

Advocacy group Human Rights Watch said that the council needed to examine the creation of an impartial commission of inquiry to investigate allegations of human rights violations committed by both parties as a matter of urgency.

”Human Rights Watch received many credible reports of violations of the laws of war by both the LTTE [Tamil Tigers] and Sri Lankan government forces during the recent fighting.

”This includes the LTTE’s use of civilians as human shields and child soldiers, and the Sri Lankan government’s indiscriminate shelling of densely populated areas, including hospitals. These allegations demand an impartial investigation,” it said in a statement.

Diplomats were meanwhile scrambling to find a consensus on the two texts.

If a compromise is not found, Sri Lanka’s draft resolution would be submitted for adoption by the Council since it was tabled before the Swiss version.

About 80 000 to 100 000 people were killed in nearly three decades of civil war in Sri Lanka, according to a UN estimate. — Sapa-AFP