UN human rights chief urges Sri Lanka war probe

“The images of terrified and emaciated women, men and children fleeing the battle zone ought to be etched in our collective memory. They must spur us into action,” Navi Pillay said in a message to the Human Rights Council’s special session on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka.

“An independent and credible international investigation into recent events should be dispatched to ascertain the occurrence, nature and scale of violations of international human rights and international humanitarian law, as well as specific responsibilities,” she said.

Investigating human rights abuses allegedly committed against civilians by both the government of Sri Lanka and Tamil rebels will help the country transition into a new future, the United Nations human rights chief stated.

“There are strong reasons to believe that both sides have grossly disregarded the fundamental principle of the inviolability of civilians,” Pillay said.

Voice of America reports that

The U.N. Human Rights Council has begun a special session on the human-rights situation in Sri Lanka. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights opened the session by calling for an international investigation into alleged war crimes by the government and vanquished Tamil Tiger rebels.

The meeting in Geneva takes place one week after the Government announced that its military operation against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had ended, and on the heels of a visit to the South Asian island nation by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and several of his top aides.

Ms. Pillay said an “independent and credible international investigation into recent events should be dispatched to ascertain the occurrence, nature and scale of violations of international human rights and international humanitarian law, as well as specific responsibilities.”

The LTTE has been accused of purposefully preventing civilians from leaving the conflict zone, forcefully conscripting people, and using civilians as human shields. “There were even alleged cases of the LTTE firing on civilians as they sought to flee, or targeting with suicide attacks checkpoints as the [internally displaced persons] IDPs left the area,” Ms. Pillay said.

For its part, the Government reportedly utilized heavy weapons on the small and densely-populated area of conflict in Sri Lanka’s north, she noted, in spite of assurances that it would take precautions to protect civilians. Further, Government forces allegedly shelled a hospital several times in the last weeks of fighting, and accusations that the army may have killed LTTE members as they were trying to surrender would constitute violations of the laws of war.

“Establishing the facts is crucial to set the record straight regarding the conduct of all parties in the conflict,” the High Commissioner for Human Rights stressed, with victims and survivors to the conflict entitled to justice and remedies.

In her message to the 47-member Council, she reiterated the call issued by Mr. Ban to tackle the root causes of the conflict.

“A new future for the country, the prospect of meaningful reconciliation and lasting peace, where respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms can become a reality for all, hinges upon such an in-depth and comprehensive approach,” she said.

During his visit, Mr. Ban urged the Government to undertake certain confidence-building measures to “clearly and unmistakably” signal its good intentions in addressing root causes of Tamil and Muslim grievances, warning that if issues of reconciliation and social inclusion are not dealt with, history could repeat itself.

Mr. Ban also visited IDP camps, an experience he called “very sobering,” and flew over the former conflict zone.

In the camps in Menik Farm, one of the largest IDP sites, the Secretary-General was “able to see from himself that while a lot as been done, there is still long way to go,” Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes, who accompanied Mr. Ban on the trip, told a press briefing today in New York.

Regarding the flight he took over the former area of conflict, the Secretary-General could “imagine just by looking at it what kind of hell it must have been,” Mr. Holmes noted.

In his “useful” discussions with President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Mr. Ban discussed humanitarian issues, including greater Sri Lankan-UN cooperation to improve conditions in the camps. Mr. Ban pressed upon the Sri Lankan leader the need for unimpeded access – for both people and for vehicles – to the camps.

Also accompanying Mr. Ban to Sri Lanka was B. Lynn Pascoe, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, who told reporters that although the military part of the conflict is over, the Sri Lankan Government must lead the humanitarian, reconstruction and political aspects of the recovery process.

The international community must also play a role, he stressed, adding that “we don’t want to see a recurrence of the difficulties and problems that have occurred in the past.”

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