Ban Ki-moon welcomes peaceful transition in Sri Lanka, praises Rajapaksa

United Nations: Welcoming the peaceful political transition in Sri Lanka following the presidential election, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon Friday praised an adversary of the world body, Mahinda Rajapaksa, for upholding democracy.

Former Sri Lankan President, Rajapaksa had often clashed with the UN over its criticism of his government’s human rights record and its probe of abuses.

UN deputy spokesman Farhan Haq told reporters that Ban “commends the efforts of the candidates, including in particular, (those of) the outgoing President Mahinda Rajapaksa, law enforcement agencies and (the) civil society for upholding and respecting democratic governance”.

Soon after losing his bid for a third term, Rajapaksa conceded defeat and left his official residence, paving the way for the victor, his former minister, Maithripala Sirisena, to assume the presidency.

Haq added, “The Secretary-General looks forward to working with President Maithripala Sirisena and the people of Sri Lanka. He affirms the continuous support of the United Nations for development, reconciliation, political dialogue and accountability in Sri Lanka.”

Sri Lanka has been been under consistent criticism at UN bodies for its treatment of the Tamil minority and the mass deaths that accompanied the crushing of the Tamil Tiger-led insurgency in 2009.

Rajapaksa, in the latest round of confrontation, vehemently opposed the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC)-mandated probe into alleged human rights violations and abuses by both sides in the Sri Lankan conflict, calling it a “political tool” for “motivated agendas”.

In November, UN Human Rights High Commissioner, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein condemned what he said were the Rajapaksa government’s attempts to block investigations and “creating a wall of fear” to prevent people from providing evidence of human rights abuses.

Amnesty International, on the other hand, called on the new government to cooperate with the UN probe. Its Deputy Asia Pacific Director, David Griffiths, said in a statement, “Sri Lanka has for years resisted all international efforts to investigate the conflict years, and instead relied on domestic investigation bodies that toed the government line. This has to end…the new government should cooperate fully with the UN investigation”.

However, Human Rights Watch’s Asia Executive Director, Brad Adams, told IANS he did not expect the Sirisena administration to cooperate with the UN investigation. Sirisena did not say anything in his campaign speech that indicated he would cooperate and instead, had spoken of a domestic inquiry, Adams said.

Sirisena may also make the Army chief Sarath Fonseka his defence minister, Adams said and pointed out that the record of Fonseka, who led the military campaign against the Tamil Tigers, is itself the subject of UN inquiry.

On the domestic front, though, Adams said that he was more hopeful of positive changes. He said he expected Sirisena to “relax pressure” on the media and non-governmental organisations. He noted that Sirisena has called for reducing the powers of the presidency and returning to a more prime ministerial system.

Adams also said that ending Rajapaksa’s nepotism, which had contributed to the concentration of power around the president, would be a positive step.

Another positive development, Adams said, was Sirisena’s reported refusal to be sworn in by Chief Justice Mohan Peiris, who was appointed by Rajapaksa after removing Shirani Bandaranayake, whom he did not consider pliant. Adams said that this could be a sign that Sirisena would restore the independence of the judiciary.

Amnesty International’s Griffiths said: “The new government now has an opportunity to usher in a new era of genuine respect for human rights. It is one that must not be missed.”

Among the priority issues identified by the Amnesty International was the repeal of the repressive Prevention of Terrorism Act, which granted security forces sweeping powers, and the controversial 18th constitutional amendment “which undermines judicial independence and other human rights safeguards by placing key state institutions into the hands of the President,” Griffiths said.

Griffiths also called upon the Sirisena government to protect journalists and human rights defenders and end attacks on religious minorities.

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