WASHINGTON Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Sri Lanka Friday to ensure a new panel investigating possible rights abuses be given powers to probe any allegations of war crimes during its long civil conflict.
Clinton said the United States firmly backed Sri Lanka's move to set up the new committee, but that it was crucial that the panel have both the money and the mandate to dig deep into the history of the government's almost three decade-long war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
"We expect that it will be given a broad enough mandate with the resources necessary to be able to follow the trail of any evidence that is presented," Clinton said following a meeting with Sri Lankan External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris.
Civil rights groups have said the Sri Lankan government should be investigated for potential war crimes at the end of the war a year ago against separatist Tamil guerrillas. Colombo has denied the allegations and rejected charges that tens of thousands of civilians died.
Sri Lanka has a long history of inquiries into rights abuses that have largely failed to hold anyone accountable, and analysts say the new committee appointed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa does not have the statutory powers of a commission of inquiry and is acting only as an advisory body.
Clinton said the United States -- which has cited both the government and guerrillas for alleged abuses against civilians in the conflict -- believed the committee should probe and publicize serious allegations of rights violations.
"I think that this commission holds promise and we hope and expect that it will fulfill that promise," Clinton said.
Sri Lanka is under heavy Western pressure over its human rights record, pressure the government blames on members of the Tamil diaspora who have settled in European countries or the United States and are angry the LTTE were beaten.
Peiris said the commission had been given adequate finances to begin its work and repeated that it was too early for the United Nations to set up its own panel as U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has vowed to do.
"If we feel there is a need for support, then we will certainly be happy engage in a dialogue with the United Nations," Peiris said.
"But we think that at the start, the (Sri Lankan) commission must be given every encouragement to set about its work and there must be a presumption that it is going to succeed," he said.
The State Department announced this week that it had canceled a travel warning for the Indian Ocean island state.
(reporting by Andrew Quinn)