Talk to Al Jazeera

Sri Lankan president: No allegations of war crimes

After UN probe into the country’s civil war, Maithripala Sirisena downplays allegations as “human rights violations”.

In a Talk to Al Jazeera interview, the Sri Lankan president Maithripala Sirisena appears to contradict key findings from a UN investigation into the country’s civil war, released in September last year.

The report from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) investigated atrocities committed by both the Tamil separatists and the Sri Lankan Army during the 26-year-long conflict.

In the final stages of the war, attacks carried out by the Sri Lankan Army were so bloody and aggressive that as many as 40,000 Tamil civilians were killed.

In detailing its principal findings, the OHCHR report stated: “If established before a court of law, many of these allegations would amount, depending on the circumstances, to war crimes and/or crimes against humanity.”

The Sri Lankan government forces always acted in adherence to international law and according to the laws of the government of Sri Lanka. While doing so, if a member or officer of the armed forces of the Sri Lankan government has committed offences, these investigations are aimed at finding out such instances. So if offences have been committed by an individual, we will clearly take legal action.

by Maithripala Sirisena, President of Sri Lanka

Speaking to Al Jazeera’s Hoda Abdel-Hamid, Sirisena rejected the allegations.

“I must say very clearly there is no allegations regarding ‘war crimes’, there were war crimes allegations during the early stages. But at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, mainly in the proposals presented in September, there were no ‘war crimes’ allegations against us.

“They contained allegations of human rights violations only. When you consider the facts surrounding the allegations of human rights violations, we are committed as a member of the United Nations, to implementing the main points and proposals,” Sirisena said.

The OHCHR report recommended the creation of a “hybrid special court” comprised of international and domestic judges, persecutors, lawyers and investigators.

“Sri Lanka must now move forward to dismantle the repressive structures and institutional cultures that remain deeply entrenched after decades of erosion of human rights,” said Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, UN high commissioner for human rights, when the report was published last year.

At the time, the high commissioner, who is expected to arrive in Sri Lanka on February 5, also warned against a purely domestic court.

“The levels of mistrust in state authorities and institutions by broad segments of Sri Lankan society should not be underestimated,” he said, adding it is for this reason that the establishment of a hybrid special court is so essential. 

“A purely domestic court procedure will have no chance of overcoming widespread and justifiable suspicions fueled by decades of violations, malpractice and broken promises.”

When Sirisena defeated Mahinda Rajapaksa in elections a little over a year ago, the possibility of a new beginning seemed to be at hand.

Sirisena had run on promises to bring those responsible for crimes to justice, to end government corruption and nepotism, and open up the economy in ways that would finally benefit the common man and woman.

But how far has he come to realising these promises?

He says he has already instituted reforms that limit presidential powers, and will soon start reworking the constitution.

In conversations with the people of Sri Lanka, there is a sense of continued goodwill towards their leader, but also, impatience.

Just over a year after he came to power, in his first in-depth international television interview, Sirisena discusses the UN investigation, fighting corruption, and national reconciliation.

He tells Abdel-Hamid that he is committed to bringing war time perpetrators to trial, but that he is opposed to foreign involvement.

“Within that commitment, we will always act in accordance with the sovereignty of our country and in accordance with our constitution. For this work, we can obtain foreign technology in certain areas. In terms of people we definitely do not need outsiders.”

Sirisena denies providing conflicting messages or backtracking on ensuring justice is served, saying: “There is no way of doing this in an express or super fast manner. So what we are hoping to do through this is to free the country from the allegations that have been made against it. To free the country, we must clearly face the truth, and similarly we must take decisive actions towards accountability.”

He also discusses fighting corruption in Sri Lanka. “We must not be worried or in a hurry. 2016 is the year of showing results,” he said.

“We have restored the independence of the judiciary, made the investigating institutions independent; their officers are allowed to function freely. They will show their results of their efforts in the future.”