Sri Lanka's president replaces foreign minister

AP News
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Posted: May 22, 2017 4:35 AM

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lanka's president on Monday removed the country's liberal foreign minister who spearheaded a successful campaign to extricate the country from possible international sanctions over war crime allegations from the country's long civil war.

In the first Cabinet reshuffle of the coalition government since 2015, President Maithripala Sirisena replaced Mangala Samaraweera as foreign minister and gave him the portfolio of finance and mass media minister. Ravi Karunanayake, who headed the finance ministry, was named the new foreign minister.

Samaraweera was instrumental in Sri Lanka's co-sponsoring of a resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Council that called for investigations into the alleged wartime abuses with international assistance. However, he was accused  by nationalists of paving the way for outside interference.

Sirisena had distanced himself from the promise to involve international judges and prosecutors in a 2015 resolution at the Human Rights Council and said that he would not prosecute government soldiers for war crimes.

However, it is unclear if Samaraweera's removal as foreign minister is a sign of a government policy shift toward post-civil war reforms and reconciliation.

Sri Lanka's nearly 26-year civil war ended in 2009 with the government crushing separatist ethnic Tamil rebels who fought to create an independent state for the country's largest minority ethnic group. Sri Lanka's government and military are largely majority ethnic Sinhalese.

The civil war's final months were especially savage, and both the government forces and Tamil Tiger separatists are accused of grave human rights violations and war crimes. According to a U.N. report, some 40,000 Tamil civilians may have been killed in the final months of the fighting alone.

Sri Lanka's former strongman leader Mahinda Rajapaksa, who led the military campaign, had refused to investigate the allegations, resulting in the country being sidelined internationally. The U.N. Human Rights Council had adopted a resolution calling for an independent, international investigation on Sri Lanka.

However, steps taken by Sirisena's government and far-reaching promises since its election in 2015 changed Sri Lanka's international standing.

Also on Monday, the portfolios of seven other ministers were swapped and a new minister for Development Assignments was appointed.