Sri Lanka refuses entry to UN war crimes investigators

Amal Jayasinghe
AFP
Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse's party still holds a comfortable simple majority, but loss of the two-thirds support means it can carry out no constitutional changes without opposition support
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Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse's party still holds a comfortable simple majority, but loss of the two-thirds support means it can carry out no constitutional changes without opposition support (AFP Photo/Ishara S.Kodikara)

Colombo (AFP) - Sri Lanka will not grant visas to UN investigators probing war crimes allegedly committed during the island's decades-long separatist conflict, President Mahinda Rajapakse said Tuesday.

Sri Lanka has refused to accept the authority of the UN Human Rights Council, which voted in March to investigate allegations that the military killed 40,000 civilians in the final months of the separatist war in 2009.

But it is the first time that Rajapakse has said UN investigators will not be allowed into the country, effectively barring them from face-to-face access to Sri Lankans wanting to testify.

"We will not allow them into the country," said Rajapakse, who is under international pressure to cooperate with the UN-mandated investigation.

Rajapakse said however that his government was cooperating with all other UN agencies.

"We are saying that we do not accept it (the probe). We are against it," he told Colombo-based foreign correspondents at his official residence.

"But when it comes to other UN agencies, we are always ready to fully cooperate and fully engage with them."

- Leaders urge cooperation -

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and other leaders have urged Colombo to cooperate with the UN Human Rights Council after ending a prolonged separatist war that pitted ethnic minority Tamil rebels against the largely Sinhalese army.

Outgoing UN rights chief Navi Pillay earlier this month suggested that her staff investigating allegations of mass killings may not have to travel to Sri Lanka at all.

She said there was a "wealth of information" outside the country.

The remarks prompted allegations from Sri Lanka's foreign ministry that her investigation was on a "preconceived trajectory" and that her "prejudice and lack of objectivity" were unfortunate.

Foreign Minister Gamini Lakshman Peiris said Colombo-based Western diplomats may have been trying to gather evidence surreptitiously.

He said relatives of missing people had gone to the capital earlier this month for a meeting with diplomats.

"I have mentioned it to ambassadors that this is not correct," Peiris told reporters on Tuesday.

Colombo maintains that its troops did not commit war crimes while crushing the Tamil Tiger rebel movement at the end of a conflict which lasted more than three decades and claimed more than 100,000 lives.

Pillay, who visited Sri Lanka last year, has previously accused Rajapakse's government of becoming authoritarian, and warned that rights defenders and journalists were at risk in the country even after the end of the war.

The government gave some ground last month when it asked a commission already looking into missing persons to expand its work and investigate the actions of both troops and Tamil rebels.

Rajapakse said Tuesday that he was naming two more foreign experts -- an Indian and a Pakistani -- to join three international legal experts already on a panel of advisers helping the presidential Commission of Inquiry.

Indian rights activist Avdhash Kaushal and Pakistani lawyer Ahmer Bilal Soofi join British lawyers Desmond de Silva and Geoffrey Nice and US law professor David Crane. The Britons and the American are former UN war crimes prosecutors.

Rajapakse said he was willing to give "even two more years" to the commission to complete its work. The commission said it was probing 19,471 cases of missing persons as of Tuesday and completed hearings only in respect of 939 cases.

The president denied that naming foreigners to the list merely as advisers amounted to a whitewash, saying the government was serious about investigating rights abuses.

"We appointed these foreign experts because the commission itself asked for it. They (the commission) thought it would be helpful if we had these experts to advise them," Rajapakse said.

In a government decree published last month, Rajapakse said the commission would investigate the military's "adherence to or neglect... of laws of armed conflict and international humanitarian law".

The commission is the latest investigation initiated by Colombo. Experts and activists have said earlier attempts amounted to a whitewash.