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U.N. Ready to Support Sri Lanka War Inquiry-Pillay

by Laura McInnis, Reuters, June 4, 2009

"I believe that accountability is a prerequisite for the attainment of justice and reconciliation for all Sri Lankans and, thus, a foundation for lasting peace," she said.

The United Nations stands ready to support an inquiry into abuses in Sri Lanka's civil war, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said on Thursday.

Addressing the U.N. Human Rights Council, which last week avoided launching an investigation into the Sri Lankan conflict, the former war crimes judge stressed that reconciliation would be impossible without a full reckoning of transgressions.

"I believe that accountability is a prerequisite for the attainment of justice and reconciliation for all Sri Lankans and, thus, a foundation for lasting peace," she said.

Pillay, who is an ethnic Tamil from South Africa, said the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the military both ought to held responsible for killing and mistreating civilians in the last throes of their 25-year conflict.

Her remarks sought to keep up pressure on Sri Lanka in spite of the Human Rights Council's failed attempt to scrutinise the conduct of both sides during and after the 25-year separatist war that Colombo declared over last month.

Sri Lanka's allies including China, India and Russia backed its resolution to the U.N. body's special session stressing its right to act without outside interference, and blocked discussion on a Western text expressing concerns about humanitarian conditions in the country.

Human rights groups including Amnesty International have been calling for an outside inquiry as recommended by Pillay.

In her Thursday remarks, the High Commissioner also urged Colombo to allow free movement in and out of the camps holding hundreds of thousands of war-displaced people in Sri Lanka's northeast, where the LTTE had been fighting for an independent Tamil homeland in the majority Sinhalese country.

"Unfettered humanitarian access to, as well as freedom of movement for, the large number of IDPs held in closed camps are of the utmost importance," she said, using the acronym for "internally-displaced persons" or refugees within the country.

The Sri Lankan ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva responded strongly, calling it unacceptable "to equate the two sides involved in the armed conflict in Sri Lanka" and saying there was "absolutely no problem" with humanitarian access.

"Sri Lanka as a sovereign country will decide on the degree of access that it grants anyone from outside. But that access will be broad and wide as it has always been," Dayan Jayatilleka said.

His country would be happy to accept the offer of assistance as soon as Pillay's office was "regionally a far more representative and transparent body," he said of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

In her speech to the Human Rights Council, Pillay also raised concerns about bystanders to other conflicts, including those in Afghanistan and Pakistan where she said international forces needed to do more to protect civilians and investigate non-combatant casualties.

Civilians also need more protection from fighting in Colombia, Somalia, Sudan, Chad, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, she said, stressing the particular need to shield women and girls from sexual attacks by armed groups.