Britain's David Cameron threatens UN probe into Sri Lanka war crimes

British prime minister gives Sri Lanka until March to address war crimes allegation or face UN inquiry; Colombo rejects the demand

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 November, 2013, 5:55am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 November, 2013, 5:55am


Britain's David Cameron put Sri Lanka on notice yesterday to address allegations of war crimes within months or else he would lead a push for action at the UN.

Speaking at a troubled Commonwealth summit in Colombo, the British prime minister warned his hosts that pressure over alleged abuses at the end of Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict was not about to go away.

But a Sri Lankan minister said Colombo would "definitely" not allow international investigators to carry out a probe on its soil.

Cameron, who made a historic visit to the former war zone on Friday, also said he had frank exchanges with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa on his return.

"The Sri Lankan government needs to go further and faster on human rights and reconciliation," Cameron said.

"Ultimately all this is about reconciliation and closure and healing to this country, which now has the chance, if it takes it, of a much brighter future, but that will only happen by dealing with these issues and not ignoring them.

"I'm hugely optimistic about the country's future. The message I have is that this issue will not go away and needs to be pursued vigorously."

The UN and rights groups say as many as 40,000 civilians may have been killed in the final stages of the civil war in May 2009 when Tamil Tiger rebels were routed.

Rajapaksa has denied any civilians were killed and has also blocked all calls for an independent probe into claims of war crimes committed by government forces against the Tamil population in the Jaffna region.

Cameron said Rajapaksa wanted more time to address the claims but put him on notice to deliver by March or else he would push for an international investigation through the auspices of the UN Human Rights Council.

"Let me be very clear, if an investigation is not completed by March, then I will use our position on the UN Human Rights Council to work with the UN Human Rights Commission and call for a full, credible and independent international inquiry."

Cameron upstaged the first day of the three-day meeting on Friday by travelling to Jaffna, which bore the main brunt of the 37-year civil war. He met local ethnic Tamils who lost loved ones or were left homeless.

He was the first foreign leader to visit Jaffna since Sri Lanka, a former British colony, gained independence in 1948.

While Sri Lanka had hoped the summit would show its revival since troops from the mainly Sinhalese government crushed the Tamil Tigers in 2009, Cameron's visit and boycotts by several leaders have torpedoed its strategy.

Rajapaksa's brother Basil - who is also the economic development minister - thanked Cameron for at least attending, but rejected any idea of an inquiry by foreign investigators.

"Why should we have an international inquiry?" he said. "Definitely, we are not going to allow it."

Asked about the March deadline for the Sri Lankans to complete their own inquiry, the minister rejected any talk of a timetable being imposed from outside.

"They can't give dates. It is not fair. Even Cameron has said we need time. Even in Northern Ireland it took a lot of time," he said.

Cameron received an emotional reception in Jaffna from locals who were desperate to tell him of their plight during the war and in its aftermath.

The British leader held 45 minutes of talks late on Friday with Rajapaksa after his return to Colombo.

Asked about his meeting with Rajapaksa, Cameron said "very strong views were expressed on both sides".

"Of course not everything I said was accepted," he added.