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UN rights chief stays open-minded ahead of Sri Lanka trip

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Fri, 23 Aug 2013 09:24 GMT
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Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa (in white) inspects a parade during the War Victory parade, in Colombo, May 18, 2013. Sri Lanka held a military parade and memorial for fallen soldiers to mark the fourth anniversary of the defeat of the Tamil Tigers, which ended a quarter-century civil war in the Indian Ocean nation. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte
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NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The United Nations human rights chief said on Friday she has an “open mind” and will not be “pre-judging anything” ahead of her first trip to Sri Lanka, which is under growing pressure from the international community to address alleged war crimes.

Navi Pillay, who arrives in Sri Lanka on August 25 for a week, is the first senior U.N. official to visit the country since the end of a nearly three-decade-long bloody conflict in 2009, despite Colombo extending an invitation to the body more than two years ago.   

The Sri Lankan government, which defeated separatist Tamil Tiger rebels, has faced criticism for not doing enough to bring to justice those responsible for rights abuses and to foster reconciliation in the polarised nation.

The U.N. Human Rights Council urged the Indian Ocean island in a March resolution to carry out credible investigations into the deaths and disappearances of thousands of people. Many Western nations, including Britain and Canada, have also demanded an independent probe.

"I want to see for myself the reconstruction and rehabilitation effort, but also what progress is being made towards accountability and reconciliation," U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Pillay, a South African national of Indian Tamil origin, told Thomson Reuters Foundation in an email interview.

"I am not pre-judging anything. There are clearly plenty of issues to discuss, including some worrying ones, and some more positive developments. I am going with an open mind and I plan to give a balanced preliminary assessment of my own impressions at the end of my visit," she added.

As many as 40,000 civilians were killed in the last months of the conflict, as government troops advanced on the last stronghold of the rebels fighting for an independent homeland, a U.N. panel said in 2011.

It blamed both Sri Lankan troops and the Tamil Tigers for atrocities, but said the army was mostly responsible.

Colombo has rejected the allegations and resisted pressure to allow an independent commission to investigate its military, saying a wide range of recommendations made by its own body, the Lessons Learnt Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), are being implemented.

AID WORKER AND STUDENT DEATHS

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa has in recent weeks established a commission to investigate disappearances and criminal proceedings have begun against 12 elite police commandos who are suspects in the high-profile killing of five Tamil students during the war.

The government also plans to hold polls in the former war zone next month to help reconciliation efforts and has invited election observers from the Commonwealth and South Asian nations. 

Pillay said she wanted to find out more about the commission and discuss what was being done about the massacre of 17 aid workers from the charity Action Contre La Faim (ACF) seven years ago.

"I will be interested to learn more about the plans for this commission, as well as long overdue investigations into the killings of the ACF staff and of the five students on the beach in Trincomalee which also took place in 2006," she said.

"I would like to see similar investigations into other grave violations of human rights that remain unresolved in Sri Lanka," Pillay added.

Colombo says it has been unfairly vilified by some sections of the international community and suggests that a powerful propaganda lobby of separatist Tamil groups based overseas is responsible for many of the allegations.

Sri Lanka’s foreign minister earlier this week urged that the country be given the "space and opportunity" to move forward with the reconciliation process without "excessive pressure from abroad."

"Nobody must think that there has been any attempt on the part of the government to sweep unpleasant things under the carpet. That has not been the case," G. L. Peiris told journalists at a briefing in New Delhi on Sunday.

"It has taken time to collect the evidence, because it was a difficult task due to the violent conditions that prevailed in the country at that time. It was not a lack of political will."

"FOG OF DELUSION"

Pillay's visit comes ahead of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in November, and observers say Sri Lanka will be hoping her findings help Rajapaksa gain more credibility overseas on human rights issues.

During her visit, Pillay will travel to the war-ravaged Northern and Eastern Provinces, and is expected to meet with government officials, opposition parties, civil society groups as well as survivors of the conflict.

She will also be looking into reports of violent attacks on religious minorities and assessing freedom of expression and assembly, the difficulties faced by the media and human rights defenders, the independence of the judiciary and political participation. 

Pillay will provide a spoken update on Sri Lanka to the Human Rights Council in September, and a full formal report in March 2014, in accordance with the resolution adopted by the Council earlier this year.

Foreign Minister Peiris said the government was looking forward to Pillay's visit.

"We hope that the exposure that she will have for the first time ... will make it possible for her to adopt a realistic and objective approach to the situation in Sri Lanka," said Peiris. 

"We encourage people to come and see for themselves rather than being guided by propaganda. So let us cut through this fog of delusion and deception and get to the truth of the matter and what better way of doing it than to come and see."

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