Australia criticised over Sri Lanka war crimes vote
By Gillian Bennett, wires
Updated Sat Mar 23, 2013 4:36pm AEDT
PHOTO: Resolution passed: The UN says it has “credible allegations” that both government forces and the Tamil Tigers carried out war crimes during Sri Lanka’s civil war. (AFP: Sri Lanka Defence Ministry, file photo)
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Human Rights Watch has criticised the Federal Government for waiting until the last minute to endorse a UN Human Rights Council resolution calling for a war crimes investigation in Sri Lanka.
The US-sponsored resolution, which passed on Thursday night, says the Sri Lankan government should conduct independent investigations into violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law during the country’s 30-year civil war.
Of the 47-member UN forum, 25 countries voted in favour, 13 against, eight countries abstained and one was absent.
Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth said Australia endorsed the resolution reluctantly, and at the last minute, because of concerns it would offend the ruling Rajapaksa brothers.
“It is pretty clear Australia’s policy toward Sri Lanka is the asylum seeker tail wagging the bilateral dog,” he said.
“And it’s pretty clear that Australia’s policy is entirely set by its determination to stem the flow of boat people, mostly Tamils, from Sri Lanka.”
According to the UN, tens of thousands of civilians were killed in the final months of the decades-long civil war as government troops advanced on Tamil Tiger rebels fighting for an independent homeland.
The UN says it has “credible allegations” that both government forces and the Tamil Tigers carried out war crimes, but it singled out the government for most of the responsibility for the deaths.
The Sri Lankan government rejects that.
While not binding, scrutiny by the UN Human Rights Council maintains pressure on the government to prosecute crimes committed in the conflict against Tamil Tiger rebels.
In a statement, US secretary of state John Kerry said Sri Lanka must take meaningful action on reconciliation and accountability, and while some important progress had been made, there was much work still to be done.
While human rights groups welcomed the continuing spotlight on Sri Lanka, some regretted that the council failed to establish an international investigation into wartime crimes.
In a statement, Amnesty International said an international probe was the only way to obtain the truth and justice necessary for genuine reconciliation.
Ben Saul, a professor of International Law at Sydney University, said the resolution was a “preliminary step”.
“With distance from the end of the civil war, [there is less] pressure to resolve these problems,” he said.
Canada’s prime minister Stephen Harper has threatened to boycott the next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting – due to be held in Sri Lanka later this year – over the country’s human rights record.
Professor Saul has called on the Federal Government to join Canada’s boycott, saying it would send a “powerful signal” that Australia disapproves of Sri Lanka’s human rights record.
Australia does not hold a seat on the Human Rights Council, but Mr Roth says Australia’s two-year seat on the UN security Council offers the country an opportunity to work towards resolutions on these issues.