AP Photo / Richard Drew

UN Human Rights Council calls for Sri Lanka civil war accountability

Resolution proposed by US supports domestic war crimes panel, a key provision sought by Sri Lanka

The United Nations Human Rights Council on Thursday approved by consensus a resolution aimed to increase accountability and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. The resolution largely supports the Sri Lankan government’s desire to prosecute alleged abuses from its 26-year-long civil war using a domestic rather than an international mechanism.

Sri Lanka's civil war ended in 2009 when government forces defeated Tamil Tiger rebels, who had been fighting to create a separate state for ethnic minority Tamils. At least 80,000 people were killed, and possibly many more, including up to 40,000 civilians in the last month of the war, according to U.N. estimates.

This issue of international involvement in any future war crimes panel had led the Sri Lankan government to vehemently object to previous U.N. efforts to push for accountability as foreign interference. A comprehensive U.N. investigation report, released last month, called for a “hybrid special court” including judges, prosecutors and investigators from outside Sri Lanka. The government of Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena, who took office in January, has been more open to pursuing accountability than that of his predecessor, but he has remained insistent on avoiding direct international involvement in war crimes prosecutions.

The United States, which has welcomed Sirisena’s efforts at constitutional reform and reconciliation, supported that position. Thursday’s resolution — which was proposed by the U.S. and co-sponsored by Sri Lanka — affirms “the importance of participation in a Sri Lankan judicial mechanism, including the Special Counsel’s office, of Commonwealth and other foreign judges, defense lawyers, and authorized prosecutors and investigators.” It does not require foreign participation or call for a hybrid court.

With this compromise language, the measure has been praised by foreign governments and human rights groups, many of whom have been extremely critical of Sri Lanka’s human rights record in the past. Ambassador Julian Braithwaite of Britain hailed the resolution as a "historic" achievement.

Human Rights Watch gave its qualified support to the resolution, a draft of which was circulated earlier this week. “While the proposed resolution does not specifically call for a hybrid national-international justice mechanism, if fully implemented it offers a greater hope for justice than past failed promises by the Sri Lankan government on justice for human rights abuses,” the group said in a statement.

In order to fully implement the resolution, Sirisena will need to maintain domestic political support as well, both from those who have been critical of international involvement and those who have been critical of the government’s alleged abuses.

On Thursday, posters appeared in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, praising Sirisena for “defeating imperialist forces” — a concern long raised by nationalists from the country’s ethnic Sinhalese majority.

Representatives of Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority also expressed their support for the resolution. The Tamil National Alliance issued a statement earlier this week saying that, while the resolution “will not satisfy all the victims of the conflict,” the group believes that it “provides a constructive starting point for what will inevitably be a long road to reconciliation.”

Al Jazeera and wire services

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