Sri Lanka said on Wednesday it was seeking a delay of several months in the release of a U.N. report on alleged war crimes during the country's civil war until the government has time to establish a new judicial mechanism to deal with the allegations.
Last March, the United Nations Human Rights Council voted to look into reports of abuses during the conflict, saying the Sri Lankan government had failed to investigate properly. The U.N. report is due out on March 25.
Sri Lanka's new government, which took power last month, says it is planning a new local inquiry that would bring in some foreign experts if necessary. It has also invited the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights to visit to discuss the issue.
Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera said during a visit to Washington that the road map for the government's plan should be in place by March 2 and it was hoping to see the U.N. report delayed until after that.
"Once the report is finalized, we are hoping they can refer it to our domestic (judicial) mechanism for action," he told reporters. "We are hoping they could hold on to it until our mechanism is in place - maybe August ... or so."
U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville declined to comment earlier on Wednesday when asked about a possible delay but, when pressed, said the report was still due on March 25.
Samaraweera is scheduled on Thursday to meet with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who has strongly backed the U.N. inquiry, and is expected to meet with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in New York on Friday. Before coming to Washington, he visited Britain.
Asked whether he had sense of U.S. and British attitude to a delay, Samaraweera replied, "not really," although Sri Lanka had exchanged ideas with them about the modalities of the local mechanism and what the international assistance ought to be.
He said he would discuss the call for a delay with Kerry on Thursday, "if we get a chance."
The United States has not made clear where it stands on the possibility of a delay, but it is eager to open a new chapter of relations with Sri Lanka following the surprise election of President Maithripala Sirisena last month.
Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa was seen as close to Beijing and had poor relations with the United States, which is eager to woo Asian countries to counterbalance an increasingly powerful and assertive China.
On Friday, U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice included Sri Lanka alongside Myanmar and Tunisia as a country "in transition," and pledged to assist the new government in creating a more open and democratic society.
The United Nations estimated in 2011 that about 40,000 Tamil civilians were killed in the final weeks of the civil war, which ended in 2009, most of them by the army. The government has rejected this assertion.
On Tuesday, a U.S. State Department official praised "initial steps taken by the new Sri Lankan government to bring accountability and reconciliation."
The official did not respond when asked if Washington backed a delay in the release of the U.N. report, but said:
"Issues of reconciliation, accountability, and justice are difficult and complex issues. We are consulting broadly and considering a number of different options to help resolve these issues."
Nisha Biswal, the U.S. State Department's senior official for South Asia, told reporters last week that Sri Lanka still faced "big challenges" in dealing with reconciliation.
Asked about the U.N. report, she said there was a review under way, but said that, whatever was decided on the timetable, it was important for Sri Lanka to show it had the intent, capability and will to address the issues.