Colombo, Sri Lanka ( Associated Press) – Sri Lanka’s leader on Tuesday promised human rights reforms and “justice” for persons missing from the country’s civil war, after years of resisting calls for such measures.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was speaking ahead of the new session of parliament as the Sri Lankan government seeks international support to tackle the massive financial and debt crisis.
“We reject racism. This government wants to protect the honor and rights of all citizens equally,” Rajapaksa said.
“Therefore I urge those politicians who still incite people against each other for political gains, to refrain from doing so.”
The Sri Lankan leader said he was ready to take suggestions from the international community on human rights issues.
Since being elected president in 2019, Rajapaksa has defied calls for an investigation into persons missing from the civil war. Victims’ families allege that many missing people were taken by the military because of their involvement with separatist rebels at the end of the conflict.
Government forces crushed Tamil Tiger fighters in 2009 to end the movement for an independent state for minority Tamils.
Both sides were accused of serious human rights violations.
In earlier speeches, Rajapaksa introduced himself as the leader of the majority Buddhist Sinhalese and emphasized the fact that he was elected primarily by their votes.
The Sri Lankan government’s refusal to address or investigate allegations of human rights and war crimes from the civil war has been a source of tension in its relations with several Western countries and neighboring India.
Sri Lanka is currently negotiating financial assistance from India, which itself has 80 million ethnic Tamils and has looked to support the rights of minority Tamils in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka’s foreign reserves stood at about $1.6 billion at the beginning of 2022, barely enough to cover a few weeks of imports. With these funds, the government was arranging for the payment of $500 million in mature bonds this week.
Sri Lanka also has an external debt of more than $ 7 billion this year.
Lack of currency has led to severe shortage of imported goods and people standing in long queues for milk powder, cooking gas, kerosene and other essential commodities.
In his speech, Rajapaksa promised to reform a stringent anti-terrorism law that has been in force since 1979 that allows long detentions without trial. He also promised to return military-occupied lands from the Civil War to their civilian owners.
According to preliminary United Nations estimates, about 100,000 people died in the quarter-century civil war. Another UN expert panel said later that around 40,000 ethnic Tamil civilians may have been killed in fighting over the past few months.