The Sri Lankan government has passed a new witness protection law in a further sign that the country’s new administration is prepared to conduct a credible investigation into alleged human rights abuses during the final days of the Island’s three decade-long Civil War.
Under the new law, passed by parliament on Friday, witnesses providing evidence to an independent commission will be provided accommodation at government safe houses.
The United Nations had repeatedly called for an international inquiry into the allegations of rights abuses by both the government and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam during the final brutal showdown in May 2009.
The UN estimates that up to 40,000 civilians were killed as LTTE rebels were cornered in a tiny strip of land in northern Sri Lanka. Experts say the government paid little regard to the safety of civilians and pushed ahead with the offensive whilst the rebels are accused of using civilians as human shields.
The previous government of President Mahinda Rajapakse had refused to allow for an international inquiry into the killings, maintaining that a local Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission inquiry was sufficient.
However, the new administration of President Maithripala Sirisena has pledged to hold a transparent and independent inquiry.
His pledges last week led to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to announce it would defer the publication of its report into war crimes allegations from March to September, allowing the Sirisena government more time to lay the ground work for a domestic inquiry which will nevertheless be assisted by foreign investigators.
Hugo Swire, Britain’s minister responsible for Sri Lanka, welcomed the UNHRC’s decision.
“We believe that the extra time will create an opportunity for the new Sri Lankan government to deliver on its commitment to engage with the UN investigation and it will allow the Sri Lankan government to establish their own credible accountability processes”, Mr Swire said.
“In the meantime, the new Government of Sri Lanka must use this time to work with the High Commissioner and his Office, and to engage with the broadest possible spectrum of civil society groups within Sri Lanka in order to make progress on reconciliation, accountability and human rights”, he added.