Sri Lanka Denounces Push to Open War Inquiry

by Gardiner Harris & Dharisha Bastians, 'The New York Times, February 25, 2014

NEW DELHI — Sri Lanka’s government on Tuesday forcefully rejected a call for an international war crimes investigation into the country’s bloody civil war, adding to tensions with the United Nations’ human rights body.

In its official response to a highly critical report released on Monday by the United Nations’ high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, the government said Ms. Pillay’s call for an independent international investigation “reflects the preconceived, politicized and prejudicial agenda which she has relentlessly pursued with regard to Sri Lanka.”

The government dismissed accusations that its vast military presence in the northern part of the country was responsible for a surge in sexual violence against women; that the authorities had failed to return huge swaths of land to Tamil civilians, who are an ethnic minority; and that the government had undermined the independence of Sri Lanka’s judiciary. It also said the reason it had not prosecuted anyone for massacres in which security forces are known to have taken part was that proof had been difficult to obtain.

Officials also rejected claims that the government had curtailed press freedoms, pointing to the “spread of social media networks and online news outlets.” Sri Lanka has hired a Chinese company to block access to many online news outlets.

The government warned in its response that the “international network of the L.T.T.E. still remains active,” referring to a defeated rebel group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

Nearly five years have passed since the Sri Lankan government ended a 30-year civil war in which an estimated 40,000 people died in the war’s final phase, many of them civilians. A growing number of videos and photographs that appear to show summary executions have been leaked, and witnesses have described brutal rights violations.

When Ms. Pillay visited Sri Lanka in August and criticized the country’s “increasingly authoritarian direction,” the government called her biased. In the report released Monday, her office criticized the government’s failure to establish independent mechanisms to investigate credible allegations that, if proved, “would amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

The report listed several unresolved “emblematic cases,” including the killing in 2006 of five students in the town of Trincomalee, the deaths later that year of 17 aid workers and the capture and killing in 2009 of the 12-year-old son of the Tamil Tigers’ leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran.

The United Nations Human Rights Council has already passed two resolutions pressing the Sri Lankan government to investigate war crimes, and it is expected next month to consider a far tougher resolution that would establish an independent international investigation.

Fred Carver of the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice, a global organization, said on Tuesday that the Sri Lankan government was “not interested in constructive engagement at all,” and that its growing hostility toward international human rights organizations was isolating it.

Amnesty International supported Ms. Pillay’s call for an independent investigation. “It’s utterly shameful that five years after Sri Lanka’s armed conflict ended, the victims and family members have yet to see justice,” Polly Truscott, the organization’s deputy Asia-Pacific director, said in an emailed statement.

Sri Lanka’s national languages minister, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, said on Sunday that the United States was using resolutions in the human rights body “to force regime change.”

The dispute may complicate Commonwealth Day celebrations in London early next month, which include a reception hosted by Queen Elizabeth II. President Mahinda Rajapaksa is chairman of the Commonwealth of Nations, but Britain has supported calls for an international war crimes investigation. A spokesman for Mr. Rajapaksa said campaign commitments might prevent him from attending.

Sri Lanka will hold elections in two crucial provinces on March 29, one day after the United Nations council is expected to consider its latest resolution regarding the country. The resolution may help Mr. Rajapaksa consolidate support among Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority, which overwhelmingly supported his government’s efforts to end the civil war and view the international criticism as unfair.


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