Showdown brews over Sri Lankan civil war inquiry

AP

Sri Lanka remained defiant Saturday against calls for an independent inquiry into alleged atrocities committed during its 27-year civil war — setting the stage for an international showdown as Britain’s leader pledged Saturday to press the issue with the United Nations if no progress is made in three months.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said he held a “frank” discussion Friday night with the Indian Ocean island’s leader, Mahinda Rajapaksa. Cameron had skipped the first day of Commonwealth summit meetings to travel to Sri Lanka’s war-torn north on a fact-finding mission.

“Not everything I said was accepted, but I sense they do want to make progress on these issues and it will help frankly by having international pressure in order to make sure that that happens,” Cameron told reporters.

Cameron said he believed an independent investigation was of prime importance, as well as guarantees of press freedom and the resettlement of people displaced by the war.

“Let me be very clear, if that investigation is not completed by March, then I will use our position on the U.N. Human Rights Council to . . . call for a full credible independent international inquiry.”

Sri Lankan government ministers said Cameron’s comments interfered with Sri Lanka’s sovereignty.

“We will resist an international inquiry. That is the policy of the government,” the water minister, Nimal Siripala de Silva, told reporters.

He dismissed the threat of U.N. pressure as “nothing new,” after several years of outcry from international human rights groups, the United Nations and Western governments, including the United States.

“We are confident to go before the U.N. Human Rights Council to contest this issue and impress upon them that Sri Lanka has done enough,” he said.

A U.N. report has suggested Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese-dominated armed forces may have killed up to 40,000 minority Tamils toward the end of the war in 2009. Ethnic Tamil rebels who were fighting for a homeland have been accused of killing civilians, using them as human shields and forcibly recruiting child soldiers. Recent reports of media harassment and rights abuses have also raised alarms.

Cameron said, while he was impressed with Sri Lanka’s “immense potential,” he was moved by his visit north, where he met some of the hundreds of ethnic Tamils still living in camps after their homes and lands were seized during the war.

Rajapaksa says that the army committed no abuses, and that the country’s courts and other institutions can handle any complaints.

His assurances rang hollow with the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute, which called out a lack of judicial independence that prevented any credible Sri Lankan investigation.