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A disgraceful vote which discredits the UN Human Rights Council

[Times Online UK, Thursday, 28 May 2009 20:33 No Comment]

by Michael Binyon

page29_385x185_562349a The vote by the United Nations Human Rights Council to congratulate the Sri Lanka Government on its victory over the Tamil Tigers and to ignore calls for an inquiry into possible war crimes is a disgrace.

It marks a victory for all those countries facing domestic insurgencies who fear any serious investigation into their behaviour. It gives carte blanche to armies to use whatever means available to achieve victory. And it is a terrible betrayed of the thousands of Tamil civilians who have been killed in the crossfire as the Sri Lankan army pounded the remnant of the Tamil Tigers.

The vote came after two days of heated debate in Geneva on the widespread charges that both sides committed atrocities in the final weeks of the long-running civil war on the island. The European members of the 47-strong council had asked for an emergency meeting to look into what they feared were very serious abuses.

But the council chose instead to debate a resolution submitted by Sri Lanka itself, which welcomed the “liberation” of tens of thousands of the island’s citizens, condemned the defeated Tigers, made no mention of the shelling of civilians and kept silent on the desperate need to allow the Red Cross and other humanitarian groups into the camps where some 200,000 Tamil civilians have been forcibly interned.

To many Western critics, the Council has failed one of its first and most important tests. For it was set up only three years ago, after a UN resolution, to replace the much criticised UN Commission for Human Rights. This body was widely regarded as toothless and ineffectual. It was always subject to the majority votes of members who had no interest in any outside investigation into their human rights records.

The new council set up a new “universal periodic review” mechanism, intended to assess the human rights situations in all 192 UN member states. The aim was to deflect accusations that the West never allowed scrutiny of its own record while picking on the behaviour of governments in the developing world.

This provision angered the Bush Administration, which feared that the United States would be subject to endless complaints from anti-American members wishing to hide their own poor records of human rights compliance. The US also said the council did not have adequate provision to keep states with poor records of their own from being members of the council.

Under the new structure, the General Assembly elects the members who will occupy the 47 seats, with each seat held for three years. No member can occupy a seat for more than two consecutive terms, and the seats are distributed among the UN’s regional groups — Africa and Asia each hold 13, Eastern Europe has 6, Latin America and the Caribbean have and Western Europe and others have the remaining 7.

The Bush Administration has been a frequent critic of the new council, and did not seek a seat on it for the first two years. It claimed that the body had lost its credibility with repeated attacks on Israel. But the Obama Administration has reversed that position and announced that America will join the council.

The vote on Sri Lanka, however, will reinforce the council’s critics in the West. It was not simply that the usual suspects — China, Russia, India and Pakistan — who supported the Sri Lankan resolution, on the grounds that the conflict there was an internal matter and that the council should not intervene on the conduct of the war. A clutch of Asian and Muslim countries, also wary of outside inspection of their record, also voted not to launch an inquiry into the events in Sri Lanka.

This fails the most elementary test of what the council is supposed to do. Human rights violations occur largely as a result of conflict. The civil war that has lasted 28 years in Sri Lanka has seen numerous examples of such violations, yet there has been no serious outside investigation.

As a result, Sri Lanka will set a precedent for the future workings of the council. Essentially, it declares that victory in civil war is paramount, and that any incidental abuses are no one else’s business. This is disastrous. Sri Lanka has pointed a way that many countries faced with insurgencies are likely to follow: barring journalists and photographers in order to maintain a news blackout, keeping out aid agencies so that no one can criticise the treatment of civilians and using the latest heavy weapons, without discrimination, in civilian areas in order to rout their enemies.

It is a bad precedent, and one that has just been endorsed in Geneva. At least, however, Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights, was not accepting defeat. There was still a very real need, she said on Thursday, for an inquiry into “very serious abuses”. It does not seem as though that inquiry will now be held by the council, however.

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