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U.N. rights body backs Sri Lankan resolution on war

GENEVA (Reuters) - The U.N. Human Rights Council passed a resolution on Wednesday celebrating Sri Lanka’s victory over Tamil rebels, ignoring Western-led calls for aid for refugees and political rights for minorities.

Tamil civilians stand next to their huts in a refugee camp located on the outskirts of the town of Vavuniya in northern Sri Lanka May 6, 2009. REUTERS/Stringer

The United States, which does not currently have a vote in the 47-member body, had joined other governments in saying Sri Lanka should ensure nearly 300,000 people who fled their homes in the final throes of its civil war receive the aid they need.

But in an unusual move, Sri Lanka itself submitted a resolution stressing its sovereign right to act without outside interference, which the Human Rights Council approved.

Colombo had balked at the decision to hold an extraordinary meeting about the last phase of its 26-year armed conflict, which it declared over last week when its troops killed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) leaders.

Its resolution welcomed “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,” and appealed for financial support for the country’s post-war reconstruction.

The United Nations estimates that between 80,000 and 100,000 people died in Colombo’s conflict with the Tigers that erupted in 1983.

Regional powers battling internal conflicts of their own -- such as Russia with Chechnya, India with Kashmir, and China with Tibet -- backed the upbeat text along with Iran, Venezuela, Myanmar, Pakistan and other developing states.

The resolution passed by 29 votes to 12 with six abstentions. Those voting against it included Canada, Chile, France, Italy, Mexico, Switzerland and Britain.

Several Western states tried to amend the text to pressure Sri Lanka to improve humanitarian access to its camps, but were blocked by Cuba which requested a move directly to a vote.

The New York-based group Human Rights Watch said it was deeply disappointed that the session ended up praising Sri Lanka rather than giving “a message to the government that it needs to hear, to ensure access to displaced civilians and uphold human rights standards.”

The United States said the two-day special session coincided with “an important moment in the life of the Sri Lankan nation” and along with Norway, Ireland, Australia, Zambia, Uruguay and others called on the government to open its displaced person camps to aid workers, doctors and journalists.

“To secure the peace, we encourage the government of Sri Lanka to make all possible efforts to combat discrimination against persons belonging to ethnic minorities and to ensure equal access for all to education, health, housing, water and food,” U.S. delegate Mark Storella told the talks.

Dozens of countries also called for Colombo to give its minority Tamils and Muslims a political voice to ensure lasting peace in a country where Sinhalese are an ethnic majority.

The International Committee of the Red Cross is among those appealing for full access to Sri Lanka’s military-run camps for the war-displaced, including Manik Farm where about 210,000 people are being held in conditions U.N. rights experts have likened to “arbitrary detention.”


Sri Lanka’s minister for disaster management and rights, Mahinda Samarasinghe, told the forum his government was “sick and tired” of outside meddling and called for a focus instead on shoring up financial aid for the Indian Ocean country.

Human rights groups had hoped the U.N. forum would launch an inquiry into abuses by both sides of the conflict, during which the LTTE reportedly recruited child soldiers and used civilians as human shields. The military has also been accused of killing innocent bystanders in their drive to crush the rebels.

Developing countries, when voting together, can control the proceedings of the three-year Human Rights Council. It has previously held special sessions on conditions in Sudan’s Darfur region, Myanmar and the Palestinian territories, as well as on themes like the global food and financial crises.

Unlike the U.N. Security Council, the Geneva-based body does not impose binding sanctions in its resolutions, which instead are designed to apply moral and political pressure on countries to address their human rights shortcomings.

Editing by Richard Meares