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24 September, 2010 - Published 08:37 GMT

By Charles Haviland
BBC News, Colombo

Conflict rules 'need to change'

President Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka has said there are “serious problems” with the current rules governing the conduct of war and implied that it might be advisable to change them.

He made the remarks addressing the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

Mr Rajapaksa was speaking 16 months after the Sri Lankan military comprehensively defeated the Tamil Tiger separatist rebels, a group he described as one of the world’s most brutal.

President Rajapaksa reminded those present that Sri Lankans had faced what he called the atrocities of terrorism for nearly 30 years and that the country lost nearly 100,000 lives.

He called the Tamil Tigers brutal, highly organised and effective, and said that they had rejected attempts at dialogue with “contempt”.

Geneva Convention

In the most controversial passage of his speech, he said it was therefore worth examining the capacity of international humanitarian law to meet today’s needs.

This law is embodied in the Geneva Conventions which among other things govern how prisoners of war should be treated and how civilians should be protected in war.

President Rajapaksa said these laws had evolved for conflicts between states.

He said that these days, what he called terrorist groups were initating asymmetrical conflicts, giving rise to “serious problems” which the international community should consider.

The Sri Lankan president stopped short of explicitly calling for the Conventions to be changed.

But last week his Attorney-General went further, saying the rules of war were “inadequate” and suggesting a new protocol on combating non-state actors.

Other governments which have critcised existing humanitarian law in recent years include the United States under President Bush.

But last year the International Committee of the Red Cross said the vital task was to ensure compliance with the rules as they stand, including through political pressure on both insurgents and governments.

As Mr Rajapaksa arrived in New York, a pro-separatist Tamil diaspora group said a tribunal should be set up to prosecute what it said were war crimes committed by Sri Lankan forces.

Colombo strongly denies committing war crimes.