The UN’s top rights official began a fact-finding mission to Sri Lanka yesterday after the government dropped public hostility towards her and promised access to former war zones.
Navi Pillay, who has previously been accused by Colombo of overstepping her mandate, arrived in the capital for a week-long mission that will include talks with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse and visits to the former war zones in the north and east.
The government’s U-turn came as Canada leads calls for a boycott of a Commonwealth summit scheduled to take place in the Sri Lankan capital later this year.
Sri Lanka has resisted pressure from the UN and Western nations for a credible investigation into allegations that up to 40,000 civilians were killed in the final months of its separatist war, ending in 2009.
A no-holds-barred military offensive crushed Tamil Tiger rebels who, at the height of their power, controlled a third of Sri Lanka’s territory. Rajapakse has since been dogged by claims of indiscriminate killing of ethnic Tamils.
During her visit, Pillay is scheduled to hold talks with Sri Lankan rights defenders to discuss the “culture of impunity” that existed over the conflict, local rights activist Nimalka Fernando said.
“We are in the process of finalising our memo to her. We want to talk about the culture of impunity during and after the war,” Fernando said.
“We are also specifically taking up the issue of media freedom in Sri Lanka,” she added.
Fernando said an armed break-in at the Colombo home of a senior journalist at the Sunday Leader newspaper on Saturday could be linked, although police insisted it was only an attempted robbery.
The attack was the latest in a string of violent incidents involving the staff of the privately run newspaper, whose founding editor Lasantha Wickrematunge — a fierce government critic — was shot dead while he drove to work in January 2009.
“The murder of the Sunday Leader editor has still not been solved and this is also something that we will take up,” Fernando said.
Tamil groups are banking on Pillay’s first visit to Sri Lanka to revive calls for a war crimes probe.
“We will take up with her the question of accountability, the issue of thousands of missing people, the militarization of Tamil areas and the lack of political freedoms,” Tamil National Alliance lawmaker Suresh Premachandran said.
Pillay’s visit follows two resolutions by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in as many years demanding Colombo hold an independent investigation into “credible allegations” that troops shelled hospitals and refugee camps, and executed surrendering rebels.
The Sri Lankan government insists that its troops did not kill civilians and has slammed the UNHRC for its “ill-timed and unwarranted” resolutions.
A pro-government group said it will hold a demonstration outside the UN offices in Colombo today to protest Pillay’s visit.
The government’s change of heart in welcoming the rights chief could signal a desire to improve its image ahead of a crucial UNHRC session next month and the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in November.
“She has not accepted what we have done [to improve the rights situation],” Sri Lanka’s human rights envoy to the UN, Mahinda Samarasinghe, said last week.
“So we are showing her what we have done and we are also allowing her to visit anywhere and meet anyone,” Samarasinghe said.