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US calls for 'credible, independent' Sri Lankan rights probe

Pressure on Colombo after visit by war crimes ambassador

US calls for 'credible, independent' Sri Lankan rights probe

Tamil schoolchildren ride bicycles in Jaffna in 2006 (AFP Photo/ Ishara S. Kodikara) reporter, Colombo
Sri Lanka

January 14, 2014

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A United States envoy has urged the Sri Lankan government to seek the truth over alleged human rights abuses through independent and credible investigations to promote greater peace and prosperity.

The US Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Stephen J Rapp visited Sri Lanka from January 6 to 11 to meet with government officials, political leaders and members of civil society.

“Rapp listened to eyewitness accounts about serious human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law, including those that occurred at the end of the war,” said a US embassy statement. “In that context the government of the US encourages the government of Sri Lanka to seek the truth through independent and credible investigations, and where relevant, have prosecutions.

“It is vital that all sides come to an agreement on events, have appropriate redress, and move forward as a unified country that upholds the rule of law and respects the principles of democratic governance.”

Sri Lanka was embroiled in a brutal civil war from 1983 until 2009, when government forces defeated the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Both government forces and the LTTE have been accused of a wide range of abuses committed during the war, and the government has been criticized for alleged ongoing rights abuses committed against Tamils, including torture, rape and enforced disappearances.

It is conservatively estimated that as many as 40,000 civilians - the vast majority of them Tamils - may have been killed during the final stages of the civil war.

At a meeting in Jaffna last Wednesday, Father Emmanuel Sebamalai and other civil society activists welcomed the US statement and explained how they impressed the need for an independent inquiry upon the ambassador.

“We urged about the disappearance issue, abductions, land grabbing, and militarization [in former conflict areas],” said Fr Sebamalai. “Young women who lost their husbands have faced sexual harassment, they have no security for their families and no livelihood or support.

“We have handed over a petition to the president recently," he said, referring to Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa, "but have no faith in a local investigation.” 

Tamil parliamentarians who met with Ambassador Rapp also stressed the importance of an international investigation. “We don’t see any government effort to expedite the implementation of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission [LLRC] recommendations,” said Mathiaparanan Abraham Sumanthiran, a Tamil human rights lawyer, referring to the findings of an internal inquiry carried out in 2011.

Rights groups and Western governments have frequently criticized the Sri Lankan government for failing to implement the recommendations of the LLRC.

However, Minister of Engineering Wimal Weerawansa claimed that the US was working towards pushing for a change in Sri Lanka’s government. He said that if a UN resolution were passed the US government would attempt to use it to impose sanctions on Sri Lanka.

The government has begun a diplomatic push to gather support ahead of the UN rights council meeting and review of Sri Lanka’s rights record scheduled for March in Geneva, he said.

Meanwhile, the the main opposition Buddhist monk organization the United Bhikku Front staged a demonstration last Thursday opposite the US embassy in Colombo to protest against the visit of Ambassador Rapp.

“[The] Sri Lankan government has already implemented the LLRC recommendations to protect human rights,” said Lal Karunanayake, who took part in the protest.

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