Human Rights Council Faces Big Sri Lanka Test — UPDATED

As Peter notes, the Human Rights Council is meeting to discuss the situation in Sri Lanka.

At the outset of the meeting yesterday, the top UN Human Rights official Navi Pillay called for an independent international investigation into alleged human rights abuses committed by both sides.   For that to happen, however, a simple majority of the 47 member council would have to approve.  Unlike the security council, no country has a veto over this process. 

There is a lot riding on this vote.  Both for the people of Sri Lanka and for the Human Rights Council itself.  

The so-called “special session” of the Human Rights Council was organized by Germany and supported by 17 other countries, including: Argentina, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Canada, Chile, France, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Mauritius, the Netherlands, the Republic of Korea, Slovakia, Slovenia, Switzerland, Ukraine, the United Kingdom and Uruguay. According to this report by the Times’ (UK) Catherine Philp there are an equal number of countries opposed to doing anything on Sri Lanka–with 9 countries apparently “undecided.”  The pros and cons fall under the familiar divide of Western and developed countries on one side and the Africa Group, the Non-Aligned Movement (with the exception of Chile), the Organization of Islamic Conferences  and China and Russia on the other side.  Importantly, the council does not yet include the United States, which will take its seat on June 12.

If there was ever a situation crying out for action by the Human Rights Council it is the situation in Sri Lanka.

At least 7,000 ethnic Tamils have been killed in fighting since January.  Now that the fighting has stopped, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Tamils are trapped in concentration camps run by the Sri Lankan military.  These camps are off limits to the media and most international humanitarian organizations, like the International Committee for the Red Cross.  In a recent trip to the region, Secretary General Ban Ki Moon called the IDP camps, “by far the most appalling scenes I have seen” — this, from a man that has visited Darfur, Gaza, and Eastern Congo, mind you.

So, in all, this meeting is an important test of the Human Rights Council. A few weeks ago it proved able to authorize an investigation of alleged human rights abuses in Gaza committed by Israel and Hamas during Operation Caste Lead.   Should the council vote against action on Sri Lanka it opens itself to familiar accusations that there are double standards when it comes to Israel–which is a  charge that may become more resonant should member states maintain that the situation in Sri Lanka is a wholly internal matter undeserving of the attention of the Human Rights Council. 

For now, though, we will have to wait and see if better heads prevail. A vote should come sometime this week, maybe even today.

UPDATE:  The vote happened.  The western coalition lost.   Via the Jerusalem Post.

China, Cuba, Egypt and 26 others on the 47-member council voted in favor of a resolution that described the conflict as a “domestic” matter that did not warrant outside interference. The council also supported the Sri Lankan government’s decision to provide aid groups only with “access as may be appropriate” to refugee camps.

Twelve mostly European countries opposed the resolution after failing to get support for a resolution that criticized both sides.

Image from flickr user aquaview under a creative commons license.