The United Nations response is shameful

The decision by the United Nations' Human Rights Council to resist setting up an inquiry into the conduct of both the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan military in the recent hostilities is shocking and indefensible. Its rejection too of the advice of the UN's own High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, that such an inquiry was needed, is even more aberrant.

And the resolution that the council did adopt, which implies that no human rights abuses occurred at the hands of the Sri Lankan Government, flies in the face of all the evidence that is emerging, not least from investigations by The Times. Seldom has the dictum that truth is the first casualty of war been demonstrated more clearly.

It is not seriously open to question that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam is a terrorist organisation that has perpetrated many appalling crimes and breaches of human rights during its decades of existence; not least in the final phase of the recent fighting, when it prevented the evacuation of the civilian population. But that does not justify the disproportionate use of force against innocent Tamil civilians trapped in the war zone.

The frequently invoked provisions of the UN Charter protecting state sovereignty against intervention do not override the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which every member state of the UN has subscribed. Nor do the provisions release governments from their obligation to protect all their citizens, irrespective of their ethnic origin, religion or political beliefs. The case for an inquiry was unanswerable. It is shameful that it was not answered.

Unfortunately, the present instance is only the latest in a series of actions and inactions that have led even the most stalwart supporters of the UN to question the Human Rights Council as it is constituted and currently operating. It seems to be becoming even more highly politicised than its much criticised predecessor, the Commission on Human Rights. Facts, evidence and human rights law often seem to be disregarded in what has become a game of diplomatic manoeuvre.

The council's handling of developments in Burma, Zimbabwe and Darfur has been lamentably limp and ineffective. And, while there is plenty of justification for a strong focus on Israel's actions in the West Bank and Gaza, it should not have taken the insistence of the council's investigator, Richard Goldstone, to ensure that the present Gaza inquiry looked at the behaviour of Hamas as well as that of Israel.

Should we simply wash our hands of the council and look elsewhere for remedies? I do not believe so. The mere fact that governments that come under the council's spotlight struggle so desperately to avoid an inquiry being set up demonstrates its potential for influence.

No one would be happier if the West walked away from the council than those states that perpetrate human rights abuses. Now that the United States is coming back on to the council, we need to think about how best to move away from the polarised debates of recent times. We must also convince the silent majority of developing countries that the council can be evenhanded in its treatment of abusers, and that the worldwide strengthening of respect for human rights is every bit as much in their interests as it is in ours. And we need to look forward to the five-year review of the working of the council in 2011, identifying the reforms we would like to see introduced and reaching out to other countries to gain support.

In Sri Lanka, where the chance to hold a proper inquiry has now been frustrated, the top human rights priority must surely be to provide assistance to the many thousands of Tamils sheltering in makeshift camps and resettle them as soon as possible. Past experience, for example in the camps in the Congo after the Rwandan genocide, shows that it will be important to protect innocent civilians in the camps from former fighters who may have infiltrated their ranks, as well as from human rights abuses by the authorities, who have a duty to protect them.

So far the UN humanitarian agencies' access to the camps has been grossly inadequate; but now that the excuse for denying access - the fighting - has ended, they should be given every opportunity to provide relief and help. And our Government and others that bitterly regret what has happened at the Human Rights Council should not be stinting in their help for those displaced, who must not again become the victims of power politics.

It is sad that relations between Britain and Sri Lanka have suffered in recent months. They will certainly not be improved by the outcome of the debate at the Human Rights Council, which I believe many in this country will find quite deplorable. But Sri Lanka is a democratic member of the Commonwealth with which we have many ties. What will count most now is the way its Government handles the aftermath of the fighting and treats the multitude of displaced people. It would be a pity if, having won the war, the Government of Sri Lanka now sets about losing the peace.

David Hannay. Lord Hannay of Chiswick is a former British Ambassador to the UN.