COLOMBO, SRI LANKA - A former Sri Lankan defense chief who is a front-runner in next month's presidential election said Tuesday that if he wins, he won't recognize an agreement the government made with the U.N. human rights council to investigate alleged war crimes during the nation's civil war.
If Gotabaya Rajapaksa wins the Nov. 16 election and follows through with his comments, it would be a severe setback to Sri Lanka's post-war reconciliation process.
“We will always work with the United Nations, but I can't recognize what they have signed” with past Sri Lankan governments, Rajapaksa said at a news conference.
“We have already rejected that, as a party we have rejected that agreement and in public we have rejected that. On this issue, our policies and the present government policies are far apart,” he said.
Rajapaksa was the top defense official during the last few years of the long civil war, which ended in 2009, serving under his brother, then-President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Under their watch, Sri Lankan forces were accused of targeting hospitals and killing civilians and rebels who surrendered to the military at the end of the war, which saw the military defeat Tamil rebels who were fighting for an independent state for minority ethnic Tamils.
Rajapaksa is accused by opponents of being behind men in mysterious vehicles whisking away rebel suspects, journalists and activists. Many people taken away in the so-called “white van abductions” were never seen again.
Rajapaksa said Tuesday, however, that Sri Lankans should look to the future rather than think about the past.
“We have to move forward, we have to forget about hanging on to old allegations and all that. We have a lot of things that we can do to the betterment of the people of that area,” he said, referring to the island nation's north and east, where Tamils live in the majority.
He said those listed as missing are only war combatants who went missing in action.
“Even in the military, we know that there are more than 4,000 officers and soldiers missing ... because when you go to war, when they are in the battlefield, there are certain instances even we could not recover our own bodies,” he said.
Rajapaksa reiterated that immediately on being elected, he would release members of the armed forces held for allegations of abductions and forced disappearances.
He said the soldiers and sailors accused of killing, abducting and attacking journalists have been framed for political reasons.
The daughter of a slain journalist has filed a case against Rajapaksa in a U.S. court linking him to her father's killing in 2009.
Rajapaksa says he has renounced his U.S citizenship to contest the presidential election.
In 2015, current President Maithripala Sirisena's government agreed with the U.N. rights body to probe human rights in Sri Lanka as well as possible war crimes allegations.
Abraham Sumanthiran, a lawmaker from the Tamil National Alliance, the main political party representing minority Tamils, said Rajapaksa's stand can't be accepted. “It is an undertaking given by the government of Sri Lanka. Whichever party, it is bound by the undertaking,” he said.
“He will have to necessarily implement all of the provisions in that resolution. We will continue to advocate for that,” Sumanthiran said.
According to conservative U.N. estimates, some 100,000 people were killed in the 26-year civil war. But a later U.N. report said that some 40,000 civilians may have been killed in the final months of the fighting alone.