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Sri Lanka to secure delay of UN war crimes report

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Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera said on Thursday he was optimistic about securing a delay in the release of a UN report on alleged war crimes during his country’s civil war until the government has had time to establish a new judicial mechanism to deal with the allegations. Speaking to reporters after a meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry, whose support is crucial to such a delay, Samaraweera stressed the decision was one for UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein and the president of the UN rights council. However, he also said: “I am optimistic.”

Samaraweera said in Washington on Wednesday the new Sri Lankan government was seeking to delay the scheduled March 25 release of the UN Human Rights Council report until “August … or so.” Asked if he was anticipating support from the United States, Britain and Commonwealth countries, he said: “We hope; we anticipate the support of all our friends in the coming months.”

The UN Human Rights Council voted last March to look into reports of abuses during the civil war that ended in 2009, saying the Sri Lankan government had failed to investigate properly. The United Nations estimated in 2011 that about 40,000 ethnic Tamil civilians were killed in the final weeks of the war, most of them by the army. The government of the majority Sinhalese country rejected that assertion. Sri Lanka’s new government, which took power last month, says it is planning a new domestic inquiry that would bring in some foreign experts if necessary. It has also invited Zeid to visit to discuss the issue.

Samaraweera has appealed for patience, saying Sri Lanka was in a period of “fragile transition” that some extremist elements wanted to derail. He said the new administration of President Maithripala Sirisena was “not in a state of denial” about violations and would ensure those responsible were brought to justice. Samaraweera also said Sri Lanka would start discussions next week with South African officials on instituting a “truth-seeking” mechanism, which would work in parallel to the accountability mechanism.

Speaking alongside Kerry before their talks, Samaraweera said Sri Lanka hoped to move ties with the United States, which had become “somewhat strained in the last few years” under former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, back to “an irreversible state of excellence.” “For us… the United States of America is not a threat, but a great opportunity,” he said, adding that “the Sri Lankan-US partnership must take into account the island’s strategic location.”

The United States is eager to woo Asian countries to counterbalance an increasingly powerful and assertive China. It had been concerned by Rajapaksa’s closeness to China and his decision to allow Chinese submarines to dock in Sri Lanka. President Barack Obama called Sirisena’s surprise election a “symbol of hope” for democracy. Kerry said Washington was “excited” by a 100-day plan Sirisena has announced to roll back a decade of increasingly authoritarian rule under Rajapaksa.

The issue of the war crimes report is expected to be discussed at a committee meeting of the UN Human Rights Council on Monday, when a decision could be taken. John Sifton, Asia advocacy director of Human Rights Watch, said his organization did not oppose a delay if the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights felt the time could be used productively to produce a better report and agree on an international role in the accountability process. He said the best-case scenario would be a tribunal mechanism that included international staff with procedural powers, not just as observers. “A purely domestic effort is just not going to work,” he said.

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