Human rights abuses allegedly perpetrated in the war against Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam haunted Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa on the sidelines of the CHOGM summit with UK Prime Minister David Cameron on Saturday giving the island country an ultimatum to conduct a credible probe into the war crimes by March, failing which he would seek an international investigation.
Rajapaksa promptly rejected Cameron's demand and the Sri Lankan government said it would not conduct any inquiry under "pressure" or allow an independent international probe.
The president, credited with ending the 30-year war against terror but facing criticism over rights violations, made a veiled attack on Cameron.
During a news conference, Rajapaksa rejected the British premier's demand and said, "It is his view. This is a democracy. He can say whatever he wants. People living in glass houses must not throw stone at others."
He referred to the actions of some countries in the name of regime change and the situation thereafter, an apparent reference to Britain's role in removing the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq.
But when he was asked by a British journalist whether he was referring to Cameron, he shot back: "I have not taken any names. Don't take anything as a reference to you or to your PM. Please, that is why I didn't mention any names."
The heads of government and foreign ministers of the 53-member grouping today met at a "retreat" for informal discussions on agenda issues of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting but Rajapaksa's news conference was dominated by questions on Cameron's forthright views on the alleged rights violations.
After a historic visit to war-ravaged Jaffna, the first by a foreign head of government since the island's independence from Britain in 1948, Cameron met Rajapaksa last night. He said they had a "free and frank" discussion on all issues, including an independent credible probe, reconciliation and rehabilitation of Tamils.
"I told President Rajapaksa that there is need for a credible, transparent and independent internal inquiry into the events at the end of the war (against LTTE) by the end of March. If that does not happen, I will use our position in the UN Security Council to move the UN Human Rights Commission and work with the Rights Commissioner for an independent inquiry," Cameron told a media interaction this morning.
"I will back the demand for an international investigation," Cameron said.
When Rajapaksa was asked at his news conference about Cameron's demand, the President said there already was a "Lessons Learnt and Rehabilitation Committee" that had made several recommendations which were implemented.
There was also a commission to examine complaints of missing persons that was doing its job. A parliamentary committee was also going into all these issues, he added.
"It was a 30-year war and there were so many issues. It takes time," he said. If there are any allegations, Sri Lanka was ready to inquire into them, he added.
Responding to a question whether he would agree that Cameron was mounting pressure on Sri Lanka, Rajapaksa said, "Pressure - (we) won't do anything under pressure. It is better to request, rather than demand or dictate."
At one point, he lost his cool and said, "Who are you? They have to trust us. Why can't you trust us? We have eminent people in Sri Lanka who are very independent."
Asked about Cameron's visit to Jaffna, he wryly remarked "Welcome."
Rajapaksa described his meeting with the British premier as "very cordial and friendly".
Cameron said in his media interaction that matters ultimately centred round Sri Lanka's reconciliation with the affected Tamils of the Northern Province and rehabilitation of the people displaced by the war that ended in 2009.
Asked why he would wait till March for an independent probe into the alleged rights abuses, Cameron said Rajapaksa told him that he needed time as Sri Lanka was still recovering from the effects of the war.
He said he accepted the position that Sri Lanka needs time for reconciliation. "I understand it needs time," he added.
Cameron said he cited to Rajapaksa the example of Northern Ireland and how Britain suffered for years from terrorism and took steps to reconcile with the Irish.
To a question recalling his statement that he had some questions to ask of Rajapaksa and whether he put all of them to him, the British premier said the two had frank discussions but admitted that Rajapaksa did not accept all that he had told him.
He impressed on Rajapaksa the need to settle the issues of human rights and journalistic freedom and to ensure that the Tamil people lived a life of dignity and respect. PTI VSC
"For all this there is need for the right track to be taken by Sri Lanka," Cameron said.
Maintaining that it was ultimately a question of reconciliation, he said there was a need for healing and this will happen only if the rehabilitating of the people of Jaffna, Killinochi and Mullaitivu -- where Channel 4 had shown some "chilling events" - were addressed and not ignored.
He said he had discussed with Rajapaksa all issues he had on his agenda. "It is important to come here and make these points," he said in an apparent reference to the boycott by some prime ministers including those of Canada and Mauritius.
Cameron said the objective of his visit to Jaffna with journalists of reputed international organisations was to "shine a light on the chilling events" of the ethnic war.
Referring to his visit to the office of Tamil daily "Uthayan", which has been brought out in trying circumstances, Cameron there was need for journalistic freedom and hoped Sri Lanka would allow it.
Asked whether it was true that Rajapaksa did not agree with one word of what he had told him and would change his ways, Cameron said, "That is not my impression. It was a frank meeting. Both sides expressed strong views. I have told the Sri Lankan government to go faster on the path of reconciliation.
"They suffered for 30 years and it takes time and reconciliation."
He said he had a good meeting with the newly elected Chief
Minister of Northern Province, C S Wigneswaran, and wanted to work with him for the welfare of the people. (More) PTI
Cameron also noted that "nobody wants the return of the Tamil Tigers, who did dreadful and brutal things".
To a question on how he would guarantee that Sri Lankan will not be vindictive towards people he had met in Jaffna, especially after the way they were treated after a trip by UN Rights Commission Navi Pillay, Cameron said the "world would be watching the response (of the Sri Lankan government)".
"I think the authorities respect international opinion. I think the Sri Lankan people would treat them (Tamils) with dignity and respect they deserve," he said.
Shortly after Cameron's media interaction, a battery of three Sri Lankan Ministers -- Himal Siripala de Silva, Keheliya Rambukwella and Douglas Devananda -- addressed the international media to say that the Commonwealth cannot become an "international" policeman.
They declared that "no country can be allowed to impose their views" on Sri Lanka. The country had "eradicated the shadow of imperialism (an apparent reference to Britain) and it cannot be allowed to disturb the country now", they said.
Rejecting the demand for an international probe into the alleged war crimes, the ministers said Sri Lanka "will resist any international inquiry".
"In a short time we had done our best. We have already done an internal inquiry and some indictments have been done," they said.
Referring to Cameron's reference to Northern Ireland, de Silva said he was told in Northern Ireland that they felt cheated by Britain.
On the safety of residents of Jaffna who had met Cameron yesterday, Rambukwella said, "The people will be safe. There will be no persecution of them and that is not our culture."
Image: Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron talks with Tamil people at the Sabapathi Pillay Welfare Centre in Jaffna ' Photograph: Reuters