Wednesday, 27 May 2009

UN faces fierce clash over call for Sri Lanka war crimes inquiry

From The Times
May 26, 2009
UN faces fierce clash over call for Sri Lanka war crimes inquiry

Sri Lanka is to clash with Western powers at the United Nations Human Rights Council today in an effort to ward off any investigation into alleged war crimes committed during its military offensive against the Tamil Tigers. The country has marshalled a team of powerful allies led by China, Russia and India to fight off a European-backed resolution at today’s special session on Sri Lanka calling for an inquiry into abuses on both sides of the conflict.

Observers at yesterday’s preliminary meeting in Geneva, which was described as acrimonious, said that the 47-member Council was divided over the European resolution, with 18 countries for and 18 against. The other nine are undecided. The division sets the stage for a session today that will test the very purpose of the Human Rights Council. Israel, which had an investigation into its Gaza offensive forced on to it by the Council, is furious at the prospect of Sri Lanka escaping the same fate.

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The European resolution that Sri Lanka is aiming to defeat has already drawn the ire of human rights groups for failing to push for an international war crimes inquiry. It calls on the Sri Lanka Government to conduct its own investigation into breaches of international law and allow unfettered access to camps where more than 200,000 displaced Tamil civilians are detained.

Sri Lanka has submitted a counter-resolution, sponsored by at least 14 allies, in which it praises its own Government for liberating civilians and urges the international community to offer it more financial assistance. The two competing agendas clashed in the preliminary meeting when an Asian bloc led by India, Pakistan and Malaysia argued for today’s special session to be abandoned altogether. India, China and Egypt walked out of the meeting after this was refused.

Sri Lanka goes into today’s meeting backed by powerful new allies such as China, which provided much of the military hardware for the final offensive that defeated the Tamil Tigers last week after a 25-year war. The Tigers formally acknowledged yesterday that their leader, Vellupillai Prabhakaran, was among the dead.

Several undecided countries, including Chile and Mexico, are pressing for a compromise resolution incorporating elements of both drafts. Whichever resolution makes it to a vote must be passed by a simple majority. Unlike on the UN Security Council, no country can veto a resolution. Observers said that the outcome was “still in play”, due in part, to the lack of independent assessments about the situation in Sri Lanka.

The Government’s decision to ban all journalists, aid workers and other independent observers from the conflict zone and restrict access to the camps where displaced Tamil civilians have been detained has meant that information about what happened has been slow to emerge. The Times was among the first small group of journalists to see the “no-fire zone” on Saturday while accompanying Ban Ki Moon, the UN Secretary-General, on a helicopter flight. Afterwards Mr Ban said that the sight was the most appalling scene he had come across in his long international career.

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