UN rights chief visits Sri Lanka over war crimes probe

UN official to examine progress of country’s probe into atrocities amid concerns of lack of push for accountability.

Sri Lanka protest UN report
Hundreds of protesters shouted slogans denouncing any attempt to investigate Sri Lankan troops [Minelle Fernandez/Al Jazeera]

Colombo – The United Nations’ human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein has begun his first visit to Sri Lanka to gauge the island’s progress in investigating atrocities committed by both sides during its prolonged civil war.

“Here to listen to all communities and hold very constructive discussions in the days to come,” Hussein described the agenda at the start of his four-day visit on Saturday.

Hussein’s visit at the invitation of the new government came amid concerns that Colombo is backtracking on promises to set up a credible probe into allegations of war crimes and human rights violations during the final stages of a brutal 26-year-long conflict.

In a brief statement outside his Colombo hotel, Hussein told the media: “I am looking forward to meeting both the highest officials of the state as well as representatives from the all communities. I will be listening to everything they have to say and look forward to very constructive discussions in the days to come.”

During his visit the UN official will review implementation of recommendations Hussain made in his report to the UN Human Rights Council. These include recommendations on justice, the right to know and institutional reform.

He will also look into progress on Resolution 30/1, on “promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka”. The resolution called for the setting up of a domestic judicial mechanism with foreign and commonwealth experts playing a role.

‘No foreign involvement’

Hussein’s visit has been a year in the making, but recent comments by Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena rejecting any foreign involvement in a judicial probe caused concerns.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, after completing a year in office, the president said: “We don’t need foreigners for the judiciary or for investigations.”

Sirisena said the domestic mechanism outlined in the UN resolution would be set up in accordance with the constitution of the country, while protecting its sovereignty.

But protestors who marched to the UN compound in Colombo on Saturday were not buying that story.

Shouting slogans and carrying placards, hundreds of protestors gathered at the compound to denounce the UN’s attempt to investigate Sri Lankan troops.

Led by Wimal Weerawansa, the leader of the National Freedom Front and a close ally of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, they carried placards and banners saying “no war crimes investigation”, and “don’t take revenge on troops who saved the country”.

Weerawansa addressed the crowd with a megaphone standing on a truck outside the heavily guarded UN compound. Whipping up nationalist fervour, he said: “We will fight to our last breath against the treason being committed by allowing this probe.”

The UN human rights chief will make a quick tour of Jaffna and Trincomalee and Kandy before he returns to Colombo for meetings with government representatives.

Sirisena has said in order to free the country, there must be decisive action towards accountability. Hussein is sure to be looking for evidence of that action.

Source: Al Jazeera