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Sri Lanka; United Nations: Human Rights Council to Investigate Alleged War Crimes Committed During Civil War

(Apr. 4, 2014) On March 27, 2014, the United Nations Human Rights Council voted to start an investigation into war crimes that may have occurred during Sri Lanka’s 25-year civil war, which ended in 2009. (UN Rights Council Approves Inquiry into Alleged Abuses in Sri Lanka War, UN NEWS CENTRE (Mar. 27, 2014).) The inquiry was requested by Navanetham Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, in February. (Constance A. Johnson,Sri Lanka: Call for War Crimes Investigation, GLOBAL LEGAL MONITOR (Feb. 24,2014).)

Approved in the Council by a 23-to-12 vote, with 12 abstentions,the inquiry will be undertaken by Pillay’s office and will focus on allegations of abuses in the last few months of the conflict, committed by both sides, the Sri Lankan government and the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The goal of the investigation is to “establish the facts and circumstances of such alleged violations ‘with a view to avoiding impunity and ensuring accountability.'” (UN Rights Council Approves Inquiry into Alleged Abuses in Sri Lanka War, supra.)

The Council restated its previous request that the Sri Lankan government implement recommendations from the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission and release the outcome of its own inquiry into allegations of human rights violations that occurred onseveral occasions, including an attack on unarmed civilians in August2013. (Id.; Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission Report, Sri Lankan Ministry of Defence and Urban Development website (Nov. 2011).) The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission was appointed by Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa in accordance with a Presidential Warrant issued on May 15, 2010, with the mandate of looking back at the conflict as well as looking forward to an era of healing and peace-building in the country. (Preamble, Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission Report, supra at 1.)

Some nations, including the United Kingdom and the United States,have advocated the launching of an independent investigation like the one approved by the Council. U.S. State Department Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues Stephen Rapp spoke with eyewitnesses concerning “serious human rights abuses” in Sri Lanka and inJanuary called for such an investigation. (Ann Schober, UN Rights Body Votes to Investigate Sri Lanka War Crimes, PAPER CHASE (Mar. 28, 2014).)

The Sri Lankan government has denounced the Council’s decision. In response to Pillay’s suggestion that an investigation be held, Ravinatha Pandukabhaya Aryasinha, Sri Lanka’s envoy to the United Nations, called the proposal needless interference and said that the Council “fails to acknowledge let alone appreciate the consolidation of peace and the very tangible progress Sri Lanka has made in reconciliation.” (John Heilprin, Sri Lanka Fights Against UN Civil War Inquiry, ABC NEWS (Mar.26, 2014).)