Sri Lanka’s Presidential hopeful Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Tuesday said that if elected, he would not honour the country’s commitments to the UN Human Rights Council on post-war accountability and reconciliation.
“We will always work with the United Nations, but I can’t recognise what they [UN] have signed with past governments,” he told a press conference at the plush Shangri-La Hotel here. It was his first media interaction since being declared candidate of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (People’s Party, or SLPP) for the November 16 presidential election.
The 70-year-old contestant, who has drawn wide support from professionals and others seeking a “strong leader”, took questions alongside his brother and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who leads the SLPP. Mr. Gotabaya’s candidacy has caused concern among critics of the Rajapaksa-era — a decade marked by an authoritarian slant.
On the question of war-time accountability, Mr. Gotabaya said Sri Lanka ought to look ahead without hanging on to “old allegations”, as he questioned the credibility of reports by “foreign investigators”. A powerful Defence Secretary during the war, Mr. Gotabaya is accused of violating human rights. He has denied the charges.
“You’re talking about the past all the time, let’s talk about the future. I am trying to become the President of a future Sri Lanka,” he told the media. Asked if it was possible to move ahead without addressing the past, Mr. Gotabaya said: “Sure, we can move on,” emphasising the need for education, jobs and development for war-affected people.
Queried on Tamils who surrendered to the Army during and after the war, whose whereabouts remain unknown to their families till date, the former Defence Secretary said that 13,784 people had been rehabilitated, reintegrated and given employment.
Families of those who surrendered to the military are agitating relentlessly in the north and east, because their relatives are still missing.
Making a distinction between “missing persons” and people who “surrendered”, Mr. Gotabaya said that over 4,000 military men were also missing. Pointing to the “intensity” of the civil war, he said there were instances where the bodies of the dead could not be retrieved and that they had been termed “missing”.
In the decade since the war ended, some families have maintained that many who surrendered to the army never returned. “That’s only an allegation,” he said.
There were no cases of families providing names of the missing persons and the date of their surrendering, he claimed, although a presidential commission headed by a retired High Court judge — set up in 2013 by then president Mahinda Rajapaksa — had received thousands of petitions with those precise details.
Many of them also subsequently petitioned the Office on Missing Persons set up by the current government as part of the United Nations resolution it co-sponsored in 2015.
Speaking of a global shift in focus towards Asia, Mr. Gotabaya pledged to build a knowledge-based economy that would be driven by technology.
Further, on his foreign policy vision, he said if elected his government would remain “neutral” and stay out of “regional power struggles”, alluding the geo-political contest between India and China.