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Protesters Demand End to UN Probe into Sri Lankan War Crimes

Protesters in Sri Lanka led by a Cabinet minister have surrounded the United Nations office to demand the world body end a probe into allegations of human rights abuses during the country's civil war.

The protesters, led by Housing Minister Wimal Weerawansa, first broke through police barricades at the United Nations office in Colombo on Tuesday, then held sit-in demonstrations to block the entrance and exits from the building. They also burnt an effigy of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

The minister demanded that the U.N. scrap a three-member panel established last month to advise whether human rights violations took place during the civil war that ended last year with the defeat of Tamil Tiger rebels.

Minister Weerawansa says that the U.N. panel is intended to take the country's political leaders before international courts. Sri Lanka's government has been fending off growing pressure to allow an independent investigation into alleged war crimes, having already said it will not cooperate with the panel and refusing visas to its members.

The head of the Center for Policy Alternatives in Colombo, Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, says the demonstration to the U.N. office was politically led, but there is a measure of popular support.

"Nationalist sentiment is being whipped up, saying Sri Lanka is being targeted. But there is a certain amount of public sentiment that is very much in tune with the government's argument that there is an international agenda to target Sri Lanka on human rights," said Saravanamuttu.

Over the past year, Sri Lanka has faced growing international demands to allow a credible investigation into alleged war time abuses. But the government has refused to buckle under the pressure, calling this an infringement of its sovereignty.

It ignored a July 1 deadline set by the European Union to deliver written pledges on improving human rights, prompting the EU to withdraw preferential trade concessions to Sri Lanka on Monday.

The government has shrugged off the EU's decision, saying it will take steps to help export businesses which are affected.

Sri Lanka denies widespread accusations by human rights groups that the rebels and the army were responsible for thousands of deaths of civilians in the last phase of the war. It says the military operation ended terrorism in the country, and wiped out the Tamil Tigers, a ruthless guerrilla group which led a three decade war for a homeland for ethnic Tamils.