'US human rights concerns complicate efforts to attract more American investment in Sri Lanka'
by Matthew Pennington
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON - Rights legislation and pressure from U.S. lawmakers for a war crimes probe complicate efforts to bring more American investment to Sri Lanka after its civil war, the country's ambassador said Wednesday.
The United States is already the top foreign investor and destination for Sri Lankan exports, but Ambassador Jaliya Wickramasuriya said that Chinese companies with state-backed financing are now leading in major infrastructure projects in the island's economy, which is booming after the quarter-century war with the Tamil Tigers ended in 2009.
"I'm pushing hard to get more U.S. companies into Sri Lanka," the ambassador told The Associated Press.
Wickramasuriya will travel to Sri Lanka this week with executives from companies including Boeing, Caterpillar and hotelier Starwood. They will meet with top officials and potential business partners.
He said the Leahy Amendment — a U.S. law barring support to foreign military units believed to have committed gross rights violations — was an obstacle to more American investment. The amendment is named for Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont.
Wickramasuriya said that law had prevented supply last year of spare parts from U.S. firm Bell for transport helicopters operated by the military, forcing Sri Lanka to seek choppers from other countries.
"Those are blocking points for U.S. businesses," he said.
Also, this month the U.S. Senate passed a resolution urging an international probe into allegations of war crimes. Government forces, dominated by the island's majority ethnic Sinhalese, are suspected of shelling that killed thousands of minority Tamil civilians, and the Tamil rebels of using civilians as human shields.
Amnesty International says between 7,000 and 40,000 are estimated to have died in the final five months of the conflict. No independent group can say with certainty how many perished as all but a few humanitarian workers were barred from the battle zone.
Wickramasuriya played down the impact of the resolution, which he saw driven by ethnic Tamil propagandists based overseas and rights groups. But he said it could make some Sri Lankan businesses hesitant to match up with American partners.
The Obama administration has said that international pressure for a war crimes probe is likely to grow if the Sri Lankan commission does not investigate properly. International rights groups say the commission is pro-government.
Wickramasuriya rejected the accusation of bias and said the commission should be allowed to complete its work. He said if there is "credible evidence" of rights violations, there could be criminal proceedings.