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Sri Lanka Promises to Address Tamil Grievances

FILE - Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera speaks during a news conference at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Colombo, Sri Lanka, May 2015.

In a dramatic reversal of the hardline policies of Sri Lanka’s previous government, the current administration is promising to work toward peace-building and reconciliation with the country’s Tamil community. Sri Lanka’s foreign affairs minister outlined measures to achieve these goals at the opening of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.

The foreign minister’s speech read like a lengthy mea culpa for past wrongs by the previous government. Mangala Samaraweera said last month’s parliamentary election routed extremists from the seats of power and enabled traditional rivals to form a national unity government. He said this bodes well for reform.

“This includes ensuring that the universal values of equality, justice and freedom are upheld by fostering reconciliation between communities and securing a political settlement,” said Samaraweera.

The minister said the appointment of a Tamil opposition leader and a new chief justice will ensure no one is denied his or her rights because of ethnicity, religion, class or gender.

Sri Lanka's previous government failed to investigate allegations of abuse committed by the army and Tamil Tiger rebels in the waning days of the 26-year long civil war. That prompted the U.N. Council to undertake its own investigation. That report will be issued Wednesday.

Samaraweera acknowledged the reputation of the country’s armed forces has been tarnished by these events. He blamed this on the system and culture that had been created by a few in positions of responsibility.

He said he is confident the credibility of the armed forces will be restored as the current government pursues a political settlement addressing the grievances of the Tamil people.

The Sri Lankan minister said his government plans to establish a South Africa-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He said it also will open an office on missing persons, establish a fair judicial system and set up an office for reparations to compensate war victims.

In addition, Samaraweera said the government plans to adopt a new constitution that would include guarantees of civic and political rights for all.

The U.N. has said an estimated 40,000 people died during the final months of the war in May 2009, and most of those casualties were on the Tamil side.