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U.N. considers probe into alleged Sri Lanka war crimes

Human rights body debates report on alleged war crimes, with resolution calling for international investigation

Sri Lanka faces renewed condemnation from the United Nations' top human rights body, as officials in Geneva debate a resolution for an international criminal investigation into war crimes allegedly perpetrated by government soldiers during the country’s 26-year civil war.

On Wednesday, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay presented a report on the issue to the Human Rights Council (UNHRC) before the debate started. The U.S.-led resolution demands accountability for the killing of as many as 40,000 civilians during the final months of the government's fight against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), an armed separatist group known as the Tamil Tigers.

"Almost five years since the end of the conflict, it is important for the Human Rights Council to recall the magnitude and gravity of the violations alleged to have been committed at that time by the government and the LTTE," said Pillay.

She said that even though the government established various mechanisms with the task of investigating past violations, "none have had the independence to be effective or inspire confidence among victims and witnesses."

Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council, a nongovernmental organization, told Al Jazeera that he doubted the Sri Lankan government would permit an international inquiry or personnel to enter the country, as it feared a biased outcome. He said the government would regard such moves as an infringement of the country's sovereignty.

"The government has been able to convince the majority population, the Sinhalese people, that a biased report will be the outcome of an international investigation. On the other hand, the Tamil people feel that a government investigation will itself be biased and will suppress the facts," Perera said.

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa has already denounced an international probe as foreign interference and said Western nations were unfairly targeting him.

A group of protesters gathered in the capital, Colombo, on Tuesday to demonstrate against the resolution, calling the allegations baseless.

Accountability in question

A copy of the third draft of the resolution, obtained by Al Jazeera after it was presented on Monday, states that the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights will undertake "a comprehensive independent investigation" into crimes committed by both sides, and is to report to the council at the 27th session in September.

The resolution is to be taken up by the 47-member U.N. rights body on Thursday and followed by a possible vote.

Rajavarothiam Sampanthan, the leader of the Tamil National Alliance, told Al Jazeera that the bloc welcomed an independent international investigation into the war crimes allegations and was satisfied with the outcome of the resolution negotiations so far.

"The drafting process has been open and consultative, and we are pleased that many of our suggestions have been given positive consideration by the co-sponsors," Sampanthan said.

"This resolution, when passed, will provide all communities in Sri Lanka a genuine opportunity to introspectively come to terms with the wrongs of the past and move forward in the spirit of reconciliation," he said.

However, Sri Lanka claims that the U.N. rights body is divided on the issue and that the U.S. is applying pressure on all countries to vote for the resolution. 

"We can clearly see a division among members," the president's human rights envoy, Mahinda Samarasinghe, was quoted as saying in the Hindu newspaper.

"This itself I view as a triumph for us. This was because we could convince some of them with our progress achieved since the war ended," Samarasinghe said.

Diplomats say Colombo has been dodging the issue of accountability, and its repeated promises to improve human rights no longer cut any ice because of a perceived lack of progress, the AFP news agency reported.

Sri Lanka regards China and Russia as allies that will block any Security Council resolution, but the two permanent members have no veto at the UNHRC, where a simple majority is sufficient to approve a censure motion.

International watchdogs say Sri Lanka's rights record has actually deteriorated since the end of the conflict in 2009.

Last week's arrest of two prominent rights activists under strict antiterrorism laws triggered international condemnation, including from the U.S., which says it is pursuing the resolution "due to our support for the Sri Lankan people and strong concerns about the deteriorating human rights situation in Sri Lanka."

The U.S. Embassy in Colombo said the arrests strengthened the need for continued scrutiny by the UNHRC.

Last year’s resolution on Sri Lanka called for the government to establish an independent inquiry, which the U.N. high commissioner and the U.S. believe the government has not properly adhered to.

Rahul Radhakrishnan contributed to this report, with wire services.

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