The resolution received 22 votes in favour and 11 against, including China and Pakistan, and 14 abstentions.
United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet has received a mandate to collect evidence of crimes during Sri Lanka’s long civil war, which ended in 2009 with the defeat of the separatist Tamil Tigers and a surge of civilian deaths.
Rights groups say the decision is a critical step in gaining justice for victims of war crimes and could have significant implications for the current Sri Lankan government.
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The resolution allows the UN “to collect, consolidate, analyse and preserve information and evidence, and to develop possible strategies for future accountability processes for gross violations of human rights or serious violations of international humanitarian law in Sri Lanka, to advocate for victims and survivors, and to support relevant judicial and other proceedings”.
It also provided a budget of $2.8m to hire investigators to work on the collection of evidence.
The resolution is a “huge blow” to the Sri Lankan government, including President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who served as the country’s wartime defence chief, said Yasmin Sooka, a rights lawyer involved in prosecutions against several Sri Lankan wartime figures, including Rajapaksa.
Bachelet’s office is likely to take several months to set up a team, and evidence-gathering will be a long process, Sooka said.
“I don’t expect the Sri Lankan government to cooperate,” said Rajiv Bhatia, a distinguished fellow at Indian foreign policy think-tank, Gateway House.
The length of time that has elapsed since the end of the war will also complicate evidence-gathering, he added.
Sri Lanka has strongly rejected the resolution. Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunewardena said the resolution lacked authority as the nations that had voted in favour were outnumbered by those that had voted against it or had abstained.
“The resolution was brought by countries supported by Western powers that want to dominate the Global South,” he said.
Sri Lanka’s UN envoy, CA Chandraprema, called the text “unhelpful and divisive”, as it was not passed unopposed and strongly objected to by its allies, including China and Russia.
The 47-member Human Rights Council passed the resolution, with 22 countries voting in favour, 11 against and 14 abstaining.
In favour: Argentina, Armenia, Austria, Bahamas, Brazil, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Fiji, France, Germany, Italy, Ivory Coast, Malawi, Marshall Islands, Mexico, Netherlands, Poland, South Korea, Ukraine, United Kingdom and Uruguay.
Against: Bangladesh, Bolivia, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Pakistan, Philippines, Russia, Somalia, Uzbekistan and Venezuela.
India, Indonesia, Japan and Nepal were among the nations who abstained from the vote.
The abstentions, including from neighbours India and Nepal and some friendly countries, were a blow to Colombo and could upset relations.
“They are putting a brave face… (but) there was a very big effort from Colombo to get India to support them,” Bhatia said, adding it could test already an already fraught relationship between the countries.