GENEVA (Reuters) - Sri Lanka should ensure government troops who committed war crimes towards the end of its war against Tamil rebels are brought to justice, the U.N. Human Rights Council said on Thursday.
The Geneva-based forum adopted a resolution brought by the United States urging the Sri Lanka government to implement the recommendations of an official domestic probe. That commission called for the prosecution of soldiers guilty of misconduct.
Twenty-four members of the 47-member forum backed the resolution, including India, but 15 opposed it, including Cuba, Russia and China, who decried it as an attempt to interfere in Sri Lanka's internal affairs. Eight countries abstained.
Sri Lanka, which sent 70 officials to the Swiss city for weeks to lobby to defeat the initiative, dismissed it as a bid by "powerful countries" to meddle in its internal affairs.
"This is a highly selective and arbitrary process not governed by objective norms or criteria of any kind," Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris said in a statement issued in Colombo.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the resolution sent a strong signal to Sri Lanka's government that after a 27-year civil war, lasting peace can only come through true reconciliation and holding perpetrators to account.
"We look to the government of Sri Lanka to implement the constructive recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission and take the necessary measures to address accountability," Clinton said, referring to the domestic inquiry whose report was issued in December.
U.S. human rights ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe told reporters: "Our view is that if there isn't some form of truth and accounting for that scale of atrocities and casualties, you cannot have lasting peace. You will sow the seeds of future violence."
Tens of thousands of civilians were killed in 2009 in the final months of Sri Lanka's 25-year civil war, a United Nations panel said last year, as government troops advanced on the ever-shrinking northern tip of the island controlled by Tamil forces fighting for an independent homeland.
The U.N. panel said it had "credible allegations" that Sri Lankan troops and the Tamil Tigers both carried out atrocities and war crimes, and singled out the government for most of the responsibility for the deaths.
Sri Lanka has acknowledged that some civilians were killed in the last months of the offensive, but says the numbers cited by the U.N. panel are vastly exaggerated. It has also said the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam fighters - a group classified as a terrorist organisation by more than 30 countries - often dressed in civilian garb, making it unclear who was a combatant.
Rights groups and the Tamil diaspora welcomed adoption of the text which calls on Sri Lanka's government to "initiate credible and independent actions" to ensure justice and provide a "comprehensive action plan" detailing steps taken and planned.
Senior Western envoys voiced concern at allegations that the Sri Lankan delegation has intimidated Sri Lankan activists at home and abroad, including taking photos of them in Geneva.
"We've heard reports of human rights defenders here in Geneva who have been intimidated by the Sri Lanka delegation. It is very difficult to understand. From the outset the intention was to support the Sri Lanka government and everything in the resolution is about supporting their own domestic commission," Britain's ambassador Peter Gooderham told Reuters.
Belgium's ambassador Francois Roux, speaking on behalf of the European Union, told the talks: "The EU would like to express strong concern over continued reports of intimidation and reprisals against civil society representatives in Sri Lanka as well as in Geneva.
"Free and unhindered contact and cooperation with individuals and civil society are indispensable for the UN and its mechanisms to fulfill their mandates. If we let such practices of intimidation proceed unnoticed and unaddressed, we risk undermining the current system," he said.
Mohan Peiris, a former attorney-general of Sri Lanka who now serves as senior legal adviser to the cabinet, and was part of the government delegation in Geneva, dismissed the allegations.
"Absolute rubbish," Peiris told reporters.
Mahinda Samarasinghe, Sri Lanka's presidential envoy on human rights who led the delegation, urged the Council to allow his country more time to pursue the domestic process.
"After 30 long years of instability and violence we have achieved stability and peace. We need to be given time to further consolidate the clear progress that has been achieved in a short period of three years," he said.
Minority Tamils have long complained of persecution by successive governments dominated by the Indian Ocean island's Sinhalese majority since independence from Britain in 1948.
"This is a positive step forward for Sri Lankans, and an opportunity to end the longstanding impunity for human rights violations that have marked the country for decades," Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International's director for the Asia-Pacific region, said in a statement.
Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay and Tom Miles in Geneva; additional reporting by C. Bryson Hull, Shihar Aneez and Ranga Sirilal in Colombo; Editing by Ben Harding