Sri Lanka’s president promises to change “misconceptions” about human rights record

Jan 19, 2022: Sri Lanka’s president has vowed to change “misconceptions” of his country’s human rights record after years of international criticism of wartime atrocities and extrajudicial killings.

Government troops have been accused of systematic abuse during the island’s decades-long separatist war against the Tamil Tigers, including the killing of at least 40,000 civilians at the end of the conflict in 2009.

Sri Lanka has repeatedly denied the allegations. Since being elected president in 2019, Raja Paksa has ignored calls to investigate missing persons from the civil war.

The families of the victims allege that many of the missing were picked up by the military because they joined separatist rebels to end the conflict. Authorities have also been blamed for killing journalists and activists in recent years, and there have been recent reports of criminal suspects being killed in police custody.

But President Gotabaya Raja Paksa, who took office in 2019, said his government’s slate was clean and suggested he had been subjected to undue criticism from abroad.

“We need to correct the misconceptions that have been taken to the international community in the past regarding our human rights,” Rajapaksa said during an address before a new session of parliament on Tuesday.

“During my tenure, the government did not support any form of human rights violations. We will also not leave room for any such act in the future.”

The Sri Lankan leader urged the country’s “politicians who are still inciting people against each other for political gain” to refrain from doing so. “We reject racism. What this government wants is equal protection of the dignity and rights of all citizens.”

In earlier speeches, Raja Paksa has presented himself as the leader of the majority Buddhist Sinhalese and emphasized the fact that he was elected by their votes. Since his election, several underworld figures have been shot dead in police custody, while other suspects have been held without trial for long periods of time.

Rajapaksa was also the island’s top defence official at the end of the war, under the presidency of his elder brother Mahinda.

Sri Lanka is currently in the grip of a slow-burning economic crisis that has led to food shortages and power cuts. The island was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the government has struggled to finance significant imports as a result of declining foreign exchange reserves.

Sri Lanka’s energy ministry warned that the island would run out of fuel by the end of the month, and India on Tuesday offered its neighbor a $500 million loan to pay off its immediate oil imports.

Sri Lanka’s foreign reserves stood at about $1.6 billion at the beginning of 2022, barely enough for a few weeks of imports. It also has foreign debt of more than $7 billion this year. Currency shortages have led to severe shortages of imported goods and long queues for milk powder, cooking gas, kerosene and other essentials.

Raja Paksa told parliament that the country needed to re-attract tourists for the sake of the economy, but did not announce any new measures to address Sri Lanka’s plight.

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