Sri Lanka under fire over PR firm Bell Pottinger speech

President Rajapaksa addressing the UN General Assembly in New York in September 2010 President Rajapaksa's UN speech was allegedly ghost-written by Bell Pottinger

Sri Lanka has strongly denounced a report in a UK newspaper which said a leading lobbying company wrote a speech on behalf of the president.

In a report on Tuesday, the Independent quoted a Bell Pottinger company spokesman as saying it wrote a speech the president gave to the UN in 2010.

The spokesman is quoted as saying the speech was "very well received".

Bell Pottinger has so far not commented on the contents of the Independent's report.

The speech in question was made at the UN's General Assembly last year when President Mahinda Rajapaksa said there were "serious problems" governing the conduct of war, implying it was advisable to re-examine international humanitarian law, which is embodied in the Geneva Conventions.

He argued such laws had evolved for conflicts between states, and not between states and what he called terrorist groups within them. But he stopped short of explicitly calling for the conventions to be changed.

Mr Rajapaksa was speaking 18 months after Sri Lanka defeated Tamil Tiger rebels fighting for a separate homeland.

Sri Lanka's armed forces have been accused of being responsible for tens of thousands of civilian deaths during the closing phase of that war - a charge denied by the government.

Bell Pottinger chairman David Wilson was secretly recorded as saying that Mr Rajapaksa had chosen the company's version of the speech in preference to one drafted by his own foreign ministry.

"He chose to use our version of the speech despite several attempts by the [Sri Lankan] foreign office to change the tune," Mr Wilson is quoted as saying.

"And it went a long way to taking the country where it needed to go."

'Scurrilous article'

The report in the Independent comes as part of a wider investigation in the UK by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism into the work of the public affairs company, to highlight some of the issues around regulation of PR companies and lobbyists.

Bell Pottinger representative Tim Ryan (right) meets Vickramabahu Karunaratne, general secretary of the NSS Party at a north London meeting in November 2010 Bell Pottinger staff attended a meetings of expatriate Tamils in London last year

Bell Pottinger describe themselves as "reputation management" specialists.

Correspondents say that their client list includes several countries with dubious human rights records including Uzbekistan, Belarus and Bahrain.

Last year the Sri Lankan government conceded that it paid Bell Pottinger about £3m ($4.7m) a year to try to enhance the country's post-war image. It said that the company was hired to lobby UK, UN and EU officials.

Mr Rajapaksa's media chief, Bandula Jayasekera, would not comment on the Independent report, dismissing it as a "scurrilous article" by the British media intended to "create trouble".

The government has been angered by coverage of the end of the war in 2009 by the UK's Channel Four and the Times over the conduct of the army, which has been accused of committing human rights abuses.

The BBC's Sinhala service's Chandana Keerthi Bandara says that Bell Pottinger has made no secret of the fact that it has represented the Sri Lankan government.

In December 2010 two representatives of the company attended a north London meeting held by mainly expatriate Sri Lankan Tamils on alleged war crimes by the Sri Lankan military.

Our correspondent says that one of the Bell Pottinger representatives told the gathering that it was important to record what the Tamils had to say and report it back to Sri Lanka's leadership so that a response could be formulated.

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