GENEVA – In response to a decades-long push for accountability in Sri Lanka’s civil war, the United Nations will establish a team of investigators to collect evidence of atrocities and abuses, amid growing concern over the government’s backlash in human rights matter.
The Geneva Human Rights Council voted decisively in favor of a resolution led by Britain and Canada that provides funding for a team to collect and analyze evidence of abuse and also “develop possible strategies” to pursue prosecution of the perpetrators.
The resolution is the latest effort to push accountability for atrocities committed by a guerrilla group, the Tamil Tigers, and by security forces during the 30-year civil war. In January, a report published by the UN human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, called for “international action to guarantee justice for international crimes” committed in the country.
Sri Lanka remains deeply marked by the brutal civil war that its largely Sinhalese government waged for 30 years against the ruthless Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam guerrillas who sought to create a separate, mostly Tamil-majority state in the north of the island. .
Tuesday’s vote was a diplomatic setback for Sri Lanka’s President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
His government had lobbied foreign governments in recent months to try to block support for the initiative. He also resorted to heavy-handed intimidation of human rights groups in the country and even surveillance of diplomats trying to interact with them.
Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena condemned the resolution as an effort by Western countries to “dominate the global south.”
The previous Sri Lankan government had committed to investigating the atrocities and establishing an internationally supported tribunal to prosecute the perpetrators. It was part of a movement towards accountability and reconciliation aimed at easing ethnic tensions and reducing the risk of further violence.
But that process quickly came to a halt after the 2019 election of Rajapaksa, who had been defense minister in the bloody final stages of the civil war, when the UN has estimated that thousands of civilians were killed in indiscriminate bombardment by the military.
The Human Rights Council resolution passed on Tuesday also drew attention to a deterioration over the past year in Sri Lanka, citing harassment and intimidation of human rights groups, increased militarization of the government, weakening of the independence of the judiciary, restrictions on the media and reports of torture. by the security forces.
“The world has sent a message to the rulers of Sri Lanka, that they cannot escape responsibility for international crimes,” John Fisher, director of Human Rights Watch in Geneva, said in a statement, “and they should step back now. of the ongoing escalation of abuse. “
The 47-member council’s vote to establish the investigation was 22-11 with 14 abstentions.
The initiative follows, albeit on a more modest scale, previous ones that are gathering evidence of crimes against humanity in Syria and Myanmar that could support prosecution by an international court or on the basis of universal jurisdiction.