x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

One year on, Sri Lanka still resists rights probe

Government refuses to grant visas to members of panel appointed by UN chief to investigate accusations of war crimes against civilians.

COLOMBO // Sri Lanka is facing growing international pressure after last week refusing entry to members of a UN investigative panel tasked with probing human rights abuses in the country. The UN secretary general Ban Ki- moon on Tuesday appointed a three-member panel headed by the former Indonesian attorney general Marzuki Darusman to look into accusations of war crimes during the last few months of Sri Lanka's 30-year civil war which ended in May last year.

The UN and western powers have persistently raised concerns over the human rights situation during the conflict, particularly during the last three month when thousands of civilians were reportedly killed. Sri Lanka has vociferously denied charges of targeting civilians and claimed the rebel Tamil Tigers, who were defeated by government troops, used them as a human shields. In a bid to stave off international pressure, President Mahinda Rajapaksa last month appointed the Reconciliation and Lessons Learnt Commission to investigate accusations of rights abuses between February 2002 and May 2009.

G L Peiris, Sri Lanka's foreign minister, told reporters on Thursday that the UN move was unwarranted and uncalled for because Sri Lanka had appointed its own commission, and that no visas would be given to the panel members to visit Sri Lanka. Mr Darusman was quoted as saying the move to bar panel members from visiting Sri Lanka was unfortunate. "Everybody loses out if we cannot go to Sri Lanka. It will make it harder for the truth to be unearthed," he told the BBC on Friday.

Dr S I Keethaponcalan, the head of the political science department at Colombo University, said that while the UN panel was unlikely to lead to serious international action against Sri Lanka, the move may force the government to take further measures to show it is acting on the abuse allegations. "The recent appointment of the Reconciliation and Lessons Learnt Commission here is a move to placate the international community," he said.

Colombo refused entry last year to an investigation team from the European Union (EU). Sri Lanka had applied in 2008 to receive a second round of zero-duty concessions for local exporters, but the EU said it was concerned about the civil and political rights situation in the country and appointed a team to investigate before granting the concessions. Although the European investigators were barred from entering Sri Lanka, their report was then presented late last year based on submissions by Sri Lankan human rights groups and trade unions while there was no input by the government.

In February, the EU said it was rejecting Sri Lanka's application for trade concessions but gave Colombo until July to show it was making improvements in the country's human rights. Last Tuesday, the EU issued an ultimatum, asking the government to take steps by July 1, including the creation of independent commissions to appoint members to the judiciary and the police; the release of prisoners detained under emergency rule, which is ongoing; and the abrogation of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, under which suspects can be detained without trial for long periods.

The government, in a statement, swiftly rejected the conditions and said it was not prepared to take any of the measures. Political writers in Colombo said the UN panel was unlikely to change the government's stance as it is largely toothless. "If it was a probe committee, that would have been a serious issue. But this panel is serving as an advisory committee to the secretary general," said Mohamed Ayub, a political columnist for the Colombo-based Daily Mirror newspaper.

Mr Keethaponcalan, the political scientist, said Sri Lanka has many friends in the international arena that could counter any adverse impact over the appointment of the UN panel. On Friday, Russia, a staunch Sri Lankan ally, criticised the UN move, saying Mr Ban had not consulted the Security Council or the General Assembly on the matter. Both the UN panel and the dispute over EU trade concessions have dogged Mr Rajapaksa's government for several months since the May 2009 end of a bitter and bloody war unleashed by Tamil rebels demanding independence.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae