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Sri Lanka avoids war crimes probe

[AFP, Thursday, 28 May 2009 06:30 No Comment]

Sri Lanka was Thursday celebrating a major diplomatic victory over Western nations determined to investigate alleged war crimes committed during its offensive against the Tamil Tigers.

A little more than a week after government troops defeated the separatist rebels, the island’s diplomats managed to lobby Asian support and commandeer a special session of the UN’s Human Rights Council in Geneva.

The Council session, called because of alarm over the high number of civilian casualties as well as the island’s treatment of displaced Tamil civilians, ended late Wednesday with a resolution praising the outcome of the war.

"This is a strong endorsement of our president’s efforts to rout terrorism, and the successful handling of the world’s biggest hostage crisis," Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe said.

"This is a clear message that the international community is behind Sri Lanka," he added.

Although the Tamil Tigers were accused of holding tens of thousands of Tamil civilians as human shields, government troops were alleged to have subjected rebel-held areas packed with civilians to intense, indiscriminate shelling.

The UN estimates that more than 7,000 civilians were killed in the first four months of this year alone.

UN human rights chief Navi Pillay had told the Council that there was credible evidence both Sri Lankan forces and the defeated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) grossly violated international humanitarian laws.

But Sri Lanka, backed by Asian countries including China, India and Pakistan, managed to torpedo any criticism.

The text condemns only the Tamil Tigers, and "welcomes… the liberation by the government of Sri Lanka of tens of thousands of its citizens that were kept by the LTTE against their will as hostages."

It was adopted with 29 countries voting for, 12 rejecting and six abstaining from the vote — effectively handing the island’s hawkish government a diplomatic seal of approval for its offensive.

Rights groups and Western diplomats were furious.

"The Human Rights Council missed the opportunity to send a message" to human rights violators, said a Canadian diplomat in Geneva.

Switzerland also criticised the "worrying absence" and "significant gaps" in the text, including a failure to make explicit reference to granting humanitarian groups full access to up to 300,000 displaced Tamils.

Ethnic Tamils displaced by the fighting are now being held in camps ringed by barbed wire and security forces, who say they need to weed out former rebel fighter disguised as civilians.

"The Human Rights Council did not even express its concern for the hundreds of thousands of people facing indefinite detention in government camps," said Juliette de Rivero, Geneva advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.

[Full Coverage]

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