Sri Lankan president distances himself from pledges to UN

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lanka’s president distanced himself on Wednesday from the government’s recent co-sponsorship of a resolution at the U.N. Human Rights Council giving the island nation two more years to fulfil its commitment to investigate alleged abuses during its civil war.

Highlighting factionalism within the government, President Maithripala Siriena said in a speech that the country’s U.N. representative gave Sri Lanka’s consent to the resolution without his knowledge or that of the foreign minister.

He said the action resulted from “wrong decisions by sections of the government,” a reference to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, with whom he has had a falling out.

“The president is responsible for the foreign affairs of the country, not anyone else,” Sirisena said.

“I protest and totally reject the document signed behind by back. I see this as a betrayal of the security forces of the country, as a betrayal of the government of Sri Lanka and the people of Sri Lanka.”

Sri Lankan security forces in 2009 defeated Tamil Tiger rebels who had fought to create an independent homeland for the country’s ethnic minority Tamils. The U.N. initially estimated the death toll from 26 years of fighting to be about 100,000 but a U.N. experts’ panel later said some 45,000 ethnic Tamils may have been killed in the last months of the fighting alone.

Government troops and the Tamil Tigers were both accused of grave human rights violations, which prompted local and international calls for investigations.

Sirisena’s predecessor, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who oversaw the military victory, resisted calls for investigations for many years. Sirisena, who was his health minister, defected and allied with Wickremesinghe and successfully contested the presidential election in 2015 promising to investigate the allegations of human rights abuses, take measures to heal the wounds from the conflict and share political power with the Tamil minority.

Months after his election, Sirisena’s government co-sponsored a U.S.-led resolution in which it agreed to investigate abuses and prosecute perpetrators. Among the most contentious issues was the government’s agreement to investigate rights abuses in its own courts with the participation of foreign prosecutors and judges. In 2017 another resolution extended the time by two more years.

However, with Rajapaksa regrouping and rallying majority Buddhist Sinhalese opinion against actions against the security forces, Sirisena took a hard line.

A spat with Wickremesinghe came into open last October, when Sirisena suddenly sacked him and appointed Rajapaksa as prime minister, hoping to form an alliance with him again.

A subsequent seven-week political crisis crippled the country and ended with a Supreme Court ruling that forced Sirisena to reinstate Wickremesinghe.

In a speech in Geneva last week, Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana said the establishment of hybrid courts with local and foreign judges would violate Sri Lanka’s Constitution.