The United Nations Human Rights Council passed an American-backed resolution Thursday pressing the Sri Lankan government to investigate the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians in the final stages of the civil war with the Tamil Tigers.
The vote, 24 to 15 with eight abstentions, followed an exhaustive campaign by Sri Lanka to kill the resolution, including bringing along a high-powered delegation of more than 70 people for the deliberations.
A United Nations panel reported last year that tens of thousands of people died near the end of the 26-year war with the Tamil separatists, many as a result of government shelling of a sliver of the country where the rebels were cornered but which was also crowded with civilians. The panel said it found credible evidence that both sides in the conflict committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in the fighting, which ended in 2009.
The Tigers pioneered brutal tactics during the war, like using female suicide bombers and conscripting children as soldiers.
The resolution passed Thursday requires the United Nations high commissioner for human rights to report back next year on whether the government followed the council’s recommendation, which many see as crucial to healing the divide between Sri Lanka and its minority Tamils.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a statement released hours after the vote that the United States and the international community “had sent a strong signal that Sri Lanka will only achieve lasting peace through real reconciliation and accountability.”
Mrs. Clinton is due to meet with the Sri Lankan foreign minister, G. I. Peiris, for talks in Washington next month.
The resolution specifically called on the Sri Lankan government to implement the recommendations of the country’s own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, or L.L.R.C.
The resolution noted that the commission had called for credible investigations into widespread accusations of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances. Diplomats and human rights groups said that the government had a long track record of failing to carry out its own commitments to investigate and account for human rights abuses and that they feared it would do the same with the commission’s recommendations.
“Our view is that if there isn’t some form of truth and accounting of these kind of mass scale atrocities and casualties, you can’t have lasting peace,” Eileen Donahoe, the United States ambassador to the Human Rights Council, said after the vote. “You sow the seeds of future conflict.”
Sri Lanka’s special envoy on human rights, Mahinda Samarasinghe, condemned the resolution in a statement as “misconceived, unwarranted and ill-timed,” and potentially harmful. After the vote, he walked out, ignoring journalists’ questions.
Other members of Sri Lanka’s delegation, however, were dismissive of the result. “It won’t change anything; we will just forge ahead as planned,” said Mohan Peiris, chief legal adviser to Sri Lanka’s cabinet and a former attorney general.
Sri Lanka had always engaged with the Human Rights Council, he said, but “we don’t want anything forced down our throat; there must be mutual respect.” The government has argued that it is implementing its reconciliation council’s recommendations, but critics say that it has been slow and that it has put the military in charge of an inquiry into the abuses.
Human rights groups say the outcome of the vote represents a stinging reversal for President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government, which had been able to persuade the Human Rights Council in 2009 not to take strong action against Sri Lanka.
“It’s a clear message that the L.L.R.C. has not addressed accountability and that is what the international community wants from Sri Lanka,” Julie de Rivero, advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said. “For a government that’s been in denial on civilian casualties for three years, that’s an important message.”
Russia and China were among the countries that opposed the resolution, which they criticized as interfering in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs.
Mohan Peiris, the government legal adviser, dismissed as “absolute rubbish” an accusation raised by Belgium in Thursday’s debate that the government had engaged in intimidation and reprisals against Sri Lanka’s civil society groups, both in their own country and in Geneva as the council deliberated action. Ambassador Francois Roux of Belgium, speaking on behalf of the European Union, urged Sri Lanka to ensure that the activists could return home safely.