GENEVA (Reuters) - Sri Lanka’s new government won a six-month delay on Monday in the publication of a report on alleged war crimes, after the U.N. human rights chief praised its willingness to open the country up to scrutiny.
Sri Lankan government forces have been accused of widespread human rights violations in the final stages of the civil war that ended in May 2009, including most of about 40,000 killings of Tamil civilians in the final weeks of the conflict.
The U.N. Human Rights Council voted last March to investigate war crimes in Sri Lanka, saying then President Mahinda Rajapaksa had failed to do so properly. The U.N. inquiry, advised by three experts led by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, was due to report back next month.
U.N. rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said he had recommended deferral of the team’s report until September, and the president of the Human Rights Council had agreed, given “the changing context in Sri Lanka, and the possibility that important new information may emerge which will strengthen the report.”
The new government had given clear commitments indicating it was prepared to cooperate “on a whole range of important human rights issues – which the previous government had absolutely refused to do – and I need to engage with them to ensure those commitments translate into reality.”
Zeid stressed it had been a difficult decision to allow the delay and he vowed not to let wrongdoers off the hook.
“I am acutely aware that many victims ... might see this is as the first step towards shelving, or diluting, a report they have long feared they would never see,” he said.
A senior official of the U.S. State Department welcomed the move and pledges made by the Sri Lankan government.
The official, who did not want to be identified by name, said the United States was “encouraged that a way forward has been agreed upon that satisfies the concerns of all parties” and the delay would “allow space for the new government to demonstrate their willingness to cooperate on human rights issues”.
A Sri Lanka Foreign Ministry official welcomed the deferral.
“This is timely and coincide with the new government’s move to establish democratic process for accountability issues,” the official said. “This will give space for the domestic investigation process.”
Sri Lanka had said it needed the delay to give it time to establish a new judicial mechanism to deal with the allegations.
In a letter to Zeid seen by Reuters on Monday, Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera set out reforms the government planned to implement within 100 days, including ensuring justice for war crimes.
Samaraweera said he had invited Zeid to Sri Lanka, and all media restrictions and blocks on news websites had been lifted.
Reporting by Tom Miles; additional reporting by Shihar Aneez in Colombo and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Tom Heneghan and Marguerita Choy