Member States Ignore Need for Inquiry Into Wartime Violations
May 27, 2009
The Human Rights Council did not even express its concern for the hundreds of thousands of people facing indefinite detention in government camps. The council ignored urgent needs and wasted an important chance to promote human rights.
Juliette de Rivero, Geneva advocacy director

(Geneva) - The United Nations Human Rights Council on May 27 passed a deeply flawed resolution on Sri Lanka that ignores calls for an international investigation into alleged abuses during recent fighting and other pressing human rights concerns, Human Rights Watch said today. The council held a special session on May 26 and 27, 2009, on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, a week after the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) by government forces.

"The Human Rights Council did not even express its concern for the hundreds of thousands of people facing indefinite detention in government camps," said Juliette de Rivero, Geneva advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "The council ignored urgent needs and wasted an important chance to promote human rights."

The resolution passed with 29 votes in favor, 12 against, and 6 abstentions. It largely commends the Sri Lankan government for its current policies and fails to address serious allegations of violations of human rights and humanitarian law by government forces, focusing only on the abuses committed by the LTTE.

"It is deeply disappointing that a majority of the Human Rights Council decided to focus on praising a government whose forces have been responsible for the repeated indiscriminate shelling of civilians," said de Rivero. "These states blocked a message to the government that it needs to hear, to ensure access to displaced civilians and uphold human rights standards. They undermined the very purpose of the council."

A majority of council members - including China, South Africa, and Uruguay - ignored the call for accountability and justice for victims by the UN high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay. Instead, the resolution adopted reaffirms the principle of non-interference in the domestic jurisdiction of states, a step backward for the Human Rights Council, Human Rights Watch said.

During the special session, Pillay called for an independent international investigation into violations of international human rights and humanitarian law during the recent fighting, including those specifically responsible. UN estimates say that more than 7,000 civilians have been killed in the fighting in Sri Lanka since late January 2009.

"The images of terrified and emaciated women, men, and children fleeing the battle zone ought to be etched in our collective memory," Pillay said. "They must spur us into action."

The rejected resolution deplored abuses by both government forces and the LTTE, urged the government to cooperate fully with humanitarian organizations and to provide protection to civilians and displaced persons, and made an appeal to the Sri Lankan government to respect media freedom and investigate attacks against journalists and human rights defenders. It also called on the UN high commissioner for human rights to keep the council informed about the situation on the ground.

Human Rights Watch said that Brazil, Cuba, India, and Pakistan led efforts to prevent the passage of a stronger resolution that was put forward by the 17 members of the council that convened the Special Session: Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Canada, Chile, France, Germany, Italy, Mauritius, Mexico, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Slovakia, South Korea, Switzerland, Ukraine, Uruguay, and the United Kingdom.

Human Rights Watch in particular commended Argentina, Chile, the Czech Republic, Mauritius, Mexico, and Switzerland for their efforts on behalf of a stronger resolution.

"These nations negotiated hard to uphold the council's mandate to respond effectively to human rights emergencies," de Rivero said. "It is regrettable that they were not supported by the majority."

Human Rights Watch said that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had regrettably undercut efforts to produce a strong resolution with his recent comments in Sri Lanka. Ban publicly praised the government for "doing its utmost" and for its "tremendous efforts," while accepting government assurances, repeatedly broken in the past, that it would ensure humanitarian access to civilians in need.

Ban also distanced himself from strong language used in April by the UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, John Holmes, who warned that the fighting in Sri Lanka could result in a "bloodbath." Unlike Pillay, Ban also failed to press for an international inquiry.

"Secretary-General Ban shares the blame for the Human Rights Council's poor showing on Sri Lanka," de Rivero said. "This adds to a crisis in confidence in UN bodies to speak out clearly on pressing human rights issues."

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