Lefteris Pitarakis / AP

Sri Lanka plans domestic inquiry into war crimes but refuses UN probe

President Sirisena rules out international involvement in inquiry into killing of civilians at end of civil war

Sri Lankan president Maithripala Sirisena plans to set up a domestic inquiry into alleged crimes committed during the country's civil war, including abuses said to have been carried out by the Army in the final stages of the 26-year conflict. But in a rebuke to the United Nations, international observers will not be involved in the process.

"The president said the U.N. would be consulted, but outside investigators would not be necessary," Sirisena told Al Jazeera.

Critics of the Sri Lankan government denounced the lack of international involvement, and said the government was not in a position to conduct an independent inquiry.

For 26 years, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) fought for an independent state in the north and east of Sri Lanka. The group has been accused of attacking civilians, executing prisoners and recruiting child soldiers.

The Sri Lankan government has also been accused of abuses, particularly toward the end of the war, when human rights groups and activists said the Army used heavy weapons to fire shells at civilians in a specially created "safe zone.”

Hundreds of thousands of people tried to flee the violence, but the fighting raged around them while civilians remained trapped inside the safe zone until the army finally defeated the LTTE in May 2009.  Between 80,000 and 100,000 people are estimated to have died in the war, according to U.N. estimates.

Allegations that the Sri Lankan government targeted civilians during the civil war were raised in documentary "No Fire Zone," which was recently released in the local Sinhala language.

When asked to comment on the documentary, Sirisena told the BBC that he "doesn't believe" war crimes allegations.

Callum Macrae, the director of the film, said that because of the president's statement, a domestic inquiry would not be credible. “How does he expect witnesses and survivors of these awful crimes to come forward and testify at a domestic investigation set up by someone who has effectively said in advance that he ‘doesn’t believe’ the events they will describe?” Macrae said in a press release. “How can such a process be described as ‘impartial’?”

The film investigated allegations of civilians killed by the Sri Lankan army at the close of the war in 2009, and allegations of war crimes committed against prisoners.

Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, the executive director of Sri Lanka’s Centre for Policy Alternatives, told Al Jazeera that Sirisena’s push for an inquiry was a departure from the previous administration, which had rejected any engagement with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights. 

"Some will insist that only international investigation will bring justice, but I think the point needs to be made, that in order to go to an international mechanism, all domestic remedies need to be exhausted,” Saravanamuttu said. "I think they will find that abuses happened on both sides.”

Minelle Fernandez contributed reporting from Colombo.

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