Top UN rights body approves greater scrutiny of Sri Lanka

GENEVA (AP) — The Human Rights Council on Tuesday adopted resolutions calling on the office of the U.N. human rights chief to step up its monitoring of the situation in Sri Lanka and urging Israel’s government to ensure that Palestinian areas have “non-discriminatory” access to COVID-19 vaccines.

Through a 22-11 vote with 14 abstentions, the U.N.’s top human rights body called on Sri Lanka’s government to ensure “prompt, thorough and impartial investigation and, if warranted, prosecution” of all alleged crimes linked to rights violations or “serious” violations of international law.

Western countries led the way in sponsoring and voting in favor of the measure on Sri Lanka, while other countries such as China, Russia, Eritrea and the Philippines opposed it. Neighboring India was among the countries that abstained.

The move aims to strengthen the ability of the office of the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, to “collect, consolidate, analyze and preserve evidence” on rights violations in Sri Lanka that could be made available for future prosecutions.

In January, Bachelet’s office issued a report — rejected by Sri Lanka’s government — calling for “international action to ensure justice for international crimes” allegedly committed during the country’s 26-year civil war, which left tens of thousands of people dead and ended more than a decade ago.

Concerns about backsliding on human rights have arisen following the election of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in 2019 on a platform of national security and protecting the interests of the country’s majority Buddhist Sinhalese. In May, Rajapaksa vowed Sri Lanka would pull out of any international organization that continuously “targets” the military with allegations of human rights violations during its civil war.

After Tuesday’s vote, Sri Lanka’s foreign minister, Dinesh Gunawardena, accused Western countries of “wanting to dominate the global south” — and noted the result fell short of a majority in the 47-member Geneva body.

“Twenty-five votes were not on their side of the resolution,” he told reporters. “This is the important message that the countries in Geneva have given amidst great pressure by the European countries.”

Alluding to the rights council’s rules, Gunawardena said measures in the resolution cannot be implemented without the consent of Sri Lankan authorities.

But Human Rights Watch hailed a “landmark resolution” that it said would boost scrutiny of rights violations, improve international justice and advance accountability for victims and their families.

“The world has sent a message to Sri Lanka’s rulers, that they cannot escape accountability for international crimes, and they should step back now from escalating ongoing abuses,” said John Fisher, the advocacy group’s Geneva director.

The voting came on the next-to-last day of a four-week council session, the first of three held every year.

In other action, the council voted 32-6 with eight abstentions to approve a resolution that, among other things, called on Israel’s government to “ensure non-discriminatory access to vaccines for immunization against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.”

The resolution, which was backed by Western countries like France, Germany, Japan and South Korea as well as others including China and Russia, urged the Israeli government to coordinate with the Palestinian government to ensure the access.

Resolutions on Belarus and Myanmar were to be considered in the council’s closing day on Wednesday.

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Krishan Francis contributed to this report from Colombo, Sri Lanka.

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