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Sri Lanka rejects foreign judges for war probe

March 5, 2017

Sri Lanka's president says he won't allow international judges to investigate civil war-era atrocities. The Colombo government has missed a UN deadline to set up a credible probe into the deaths of thousands of Tamils.

Srilankische Soldaten neben einem Flugabwehrgeschütz der Tamil Tiger
Image: AP

President Maithripala Sirisena on Sunday fired back at United Nations criticism of the country's inability to organize a timely inquiry into alleged war crimes during and in the aftermath of the country's 25-year civil war.

"I am not going to allow non-governmental organizations to dictate how to run my government. I will not listen to their calls to prosecute my troops," the president said in remarks distributed by his office.

A torture survivor speaks out

Following renewed UN calls for hybrid courts to investigate wartime abuses, Sirisena's response marked a sharp shift in his policy towards accountability and reconciliation in the ethnically divided island nation of 21 million.

"A charge sheet is now brought against our forces with a demand to include foreign judges to try them," he said in a speech to troops in the northern peninsula of Jaffna, the Tamil heartland.

The Sri Lankan website "Newsfirst" cited him as saying certain civilians paid by NGOs had spread misinformation about the actions of the country's security forces in the last months of the war.

Years of bloodshed

From 1983 to 2009, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) fought a fierce conflict with the Sri Lankan military, in a bid to create an independent Tamil state in the north and east of the country. More than 100,000 people were killed.

At one point, the Tamil Tigers, as they were nicknamed, controlled more than two-thirds of the northeast region and had the Sri Lankan military on the back foot with a bloody campaign that included suicide bomb attacks and assassinations.

But the army eventually overran eastern areas held by the Tigers before retaking the north of the country and declaring a military victory in 2009.

While the Tamil Tigers are known to have carried out many wartime atrocities, the Sri Lankan military is accused of killing up to 40,000 Tamil civilians in the final months of fighting. Thousands more are reported to have gone missing in the aftermath of the conflict. 

Allegations of torture, rape and murder of thousands of former LTTE members have been reported by human rights groups.

Sri Lanka agreed to a UN Human Rights Council resolution in October 2015 which called for special tribunals and reparations for victims and gave the Colombo government 18 months to establish credible investigations.

But the deadline lapsed without those commitments being met.

Deutschland Angela Merkel empfängt Maithripala Sirisena Präsident Sri Lanka
Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena appears to be backing away from a commitment to investigate civil war abusesImage: Reuters/H. Hanschke

Lack of progress condemned

On Friday, the UN described Sri Lanka's progress in addressing the allegations as "worryingly slow," and again urged the setting-up of special hybrid courts to try war criminals.

In its latest report, it said abuses including torture remained widespread, with "a prevailing culture of impunity" partly to blame.

The UN said coalition politics in the unity government Sirisena formed after ousting former strongman leader Mahinda Rajapakse were likely to blame for the slow pace of progress.

Last week, the main Tamil political party also accused Sirisena of failing to deliver on his promises, and urged the UN to hold his administration to account.

mm/jlw (AFP)