The United Nations decided Monday to postpone an eagerly-awaited report on a war crimes probe into Sri Lanka’s brutal separatist war to give the country’s new government a chance to cooperate with investigators.
The UN Human Rights Council accepted a recommendation from rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein to delay the presentation of the report by six months, his office said in a statement.
“This has been a difficult decision,” Zeid said.
He guaranteed that the report, which had been scheduled to be presented to the council next month, would be published by September. He said there were strong arguments for deferring the report, pointing to “the changing context in Sri Lanka, and the possibility that important new information may emerge which will strengthen the report.”
Zeid’s comments came after the surprise victory in January’s presidential election of Maithripala Sirisena, whose new government has been welcomed as the possible start of a new era for the Indian Ocean island.
The previous government of long-time strongman Mahinda Rajapakse had flatly refused to cooperate with the UN-mandated investigation into allegations that government forces killed up to 40,000 Tamil civilians while defeating the separatists in 2009.
The UN estimates at least 100,000 people were killed in the conflict against the Tamils between 1972 and 2009.
Zeid said three UN rights experts had agreed that “a one-off temporary deferral (of the report) would be the best option to allow space for the new government to show its willingness to cooperate on human rights issues.”
The UN rights chief said he had already received commitments from the new government of Sri Lanka “indicating it is prepared to cooperate with my office on a whole range of important human rights issues, which the previous government had absolutely refused to do,” adding he wanted to ensure such commitments “translate into reality.”
Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera urged the UN last week to delay the report, stressing that the new government was in the process of setting up an internal domestic probe into the war crimes allegations.
“Once the (UN) report is finalised, we are hoping they can refer it to our domestic mechanism for action,” he said during a trip to Washington, denying that the government was merely trying to buy time.
“Unlike the previous government we are not in a state of denial, saying that such violations have not happened. We believe such violations have happened,” Samaraweera said, adding that the government was “ready to ensure that those who have violated human rights in Sri Lanka will be brought to justice.”
Zeid acknowledged that many victims of rights violations in the country might see the delay as a sign the report would be shelved or diluted.
“I fully understand those fears and deep anxieties,” he said, giving his “personal, absolute and unshakeable commitment that the report will be published by September.”
“I want this report to have the maximum possible impact in ensuring a genuine and credible process of accountability and reconciliation in which the rights of victims to truth, justice and reparations are finally respected,” Zeid said.