U.N. official urges Sri Lanka to take stronger measures to protect minorities

By Shihar Aneez COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka's government must "clearly demonstrate" its political will and commitment to better protect the Indian Ocean island's minorities by taking urgent steps to resolve post-war issues, a United Nations rights expert said on Thursday. Since the end of a 26-year war in May 2009, successive Sri Lankan governments have yet to take strong action to ensure minority rights. Several religious places were attacked during the tenure of former leader Mahinda Rajapaksa, defeated in a January 2015 election by President Maithripala Sirisena. Sirisena's Sri Lanka Freedom Party, once Rajapaksa's power base, now governs in coalition with the United National Party (UNP), led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. A visit by Rita Izsak-Ndiaye, the UN special rapporteur on minority issues, comes amid complaints of rights violations by ethnic minority Tamils and Muslims. They say the situation in former war zones in Sri Lanka's north and east has hardly changed, despite the new government's promises to take action immediately to remedy the problems. "The government must put in place some urgent, important and concrete measures to clearly demonstrate its political will and commitment to better protect the dignity, identity, equality," of minorities, Izsak-Ndiaye told reporters. She called for government efforts to return to its owners land occupied by the military, either charge or release those detained over security matters, and "visible steps" to transfer military powers to civilian authorities, among other measures. "In all my discussions, demilitarization, release of prisoners, and issues of land returns frequently and prominently featured," she said in the capital, Colombo, after wrapping up a 10-day official visit. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in September urged Sri Lanka to do more to redress wrongs committed during the war with Tamil rebels, including restoring the accountability of the judiciary and security services. Although Sri Lanka, under Rajapaksa, crushed the separatist Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009, the United Nations accuses the military of killing thousands of civilians, mostly Tamils, during the final weeks of the war. Through a U.N. resolution, Sri Lanka agreed last year to tackle war crimes and make efforts toward reconciliation. The Tamil Tigers were also accused of violating human rights during the conflict. Sri Lanka's population of 21 million is predominantly Buddhist, but ethnic Tamils, who are mostly Hindu, make up 18 percent, and Muslims account for 7 percent. (Reporting by Shihar Aneez; Additional reporting by Ranga Sirilal; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)