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President Maithripala Sirisena on Monday [August 18, 2019] named a General accused of war crimes as Commander of the Sri Lankan Army, sparking concern over the appointment that the UN later termed “deeply troubling”.

What the United Nations is saying? 

“I am deeply troubled by the appointment of Lieutenant-General Shavendra Silva as Commander of the Sri Lankan Army, despite the serious allegations of gross violations of international human rights and humanitarian law against him and his troops during the war,” the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Michelle Bachelet said in a statement on Monday.

Bachelet added that the promotion “undermines reconciliation efforts, particularly in the eyes of victims and survivors who suffered greatly in the war. It also sets back security sector reform, and is likely to impact on Sri Lanka’s ability to continue contributing to UN peacekeeping efforts.”

One of his brigades was accused of attacking civilians, hospitals and restricting humanitarian supplies to trapped Tamil civilians.

Silva’s appointment as the Army chief may strain Sri Lanka’s cooperation in UN Peacekeeping operations and the defence cooperation between the United States and Sri Lanka.

This is not the first time that Ms. Bachelet has expressed concerns about Lieutenant-General Silva and his role in the Sri Lankan army: in March this year, she described his previous appointment, as Army Chief of Staff, as a “worrying development” in a report to the Human Rights Council.

In March, Ms. Bachelet also warned that there has been “minimal progress” on setting up mechanisms to deal with the worst crimes committed during the conflict during 2009, and called for the establishment of an independent Truth and Reconciliation Commission and a vetting process to remove officers with questionable human rights records.

Silva’s own website describes himself as a “hero” for his role in the defeat of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Tamil Tigers). But in 2012, while he was Sri Lanka’s deputy ambassador to the U.N., he was removed from the U.N. Special Advisory Group on Peace Keeping Operations due to the allegations against him.

Silva has also been accused of human rights violations during security operations in southern Sri Lanka against the Sinhalese nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna [JVP] armed group in the late 1980s.

The U.N. human rights investigation recommended that Sri Lanka engage in vetting to remove “alleged perpetrators” from the military. But instead of investigating Silva, the government has rewarded him with promotions.

What the International Truth and Justice Project [Jasmin Sooka –Executive Director] says

The International Truth and Justice Project, a group seeking accountability for wartime abuses, said Silva’s appointment was “immensely damaging to the country”.

“After so much bloodshed Sri Lankans need to hold their leaders accountable in order to stop the repeated cycles of violence,” Yasmin Sooka, the organisation’s executive director, said. “Silva’s promotion, however, sends a message of total impunity.”

“This is a man who has shown his willingness to violate international law,” said ITJP Executive Director Yasmin Sooka, “his promotion will spark fear throughout the country but especially among the hundreds of thousands of Tamils who suffered immense loss in 2009 when Silva allegedly oversaw attacks on civilian sites”.

“I imagine there has been intense diplomatic lobbying to stop Sri Lanka taking this step – with all the consequences explained. It’s striking an own goal for any country to take this step and frankly disheartening particularly for the Rule of Law,” added Sooka. “I very much hope Sri Lanka’s allies will now take a principled step and ensure Major General Shavendra Silva is not granted a visa to travel abroad even on official duty.”

She also said also said that the appointment might put US assistance to the Sri Lankan Army in question. The island nation’s army is subject to Leahy Laws which prohibit the US from providing military assistance to foreign security force units that violate human rights with impunity.
She said they had compiled a 137-page dossier on Silva showing there was “more than enough evidence” to charge him with war crimes and crimes against humanity.

What the American Embassy in Colombo says
The US expressed deep concern by Silva’s appointment, said the American Embassy in Colombo in a statement.
‘The allegations of gross human rights violations against him, documented by the United Nations and other organizations, are serious and credible.
‘This appointment undermines Sri Lanka’s international reputation and its commitments to promote justice and accountability, especially at a time when the need for reconciliation and social unity is paramount,’ the embassy said.

What the Main Tamil Political party says
Sri Lanka’s main Tamil political party too slammed the appointment of Silva as the country’s new Army chief, calling it a ‘serious affront’.”An individual who stands accused of grave crimes (appointed) as Army Commander is a serious affront to the Tamil people,” Tamil National Alliance spokesman M A Sumanthiran said.
“We are deeply disappointed by this appointment,” he said.

What the Amnesty International says:
SRI LANKA: ALLEGATIONS AGAINST NEW ARMY CHIEF OF STAFF HIGHLIGHT THE URGENT NEED TO ADDRESS IMPUNITY
The serious allegations against Major General Shavendra Silva, who has been appointed as Chief of Staff of the Sri Lankan Army, highlight the urgent need for thorough, impartial, independent and effective criminal investigations into war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the armed conflict.

“President Sirisena’s appointment of Lieutenant General Shavendra Silva as Sri Lanka’s Army Commander makes a mockery of accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity during the armed conflict,” Thyagi Ruwanpathirana, Amnesty International’s Sri Lanka regional researcher, said.

International Crisis Group reports
On May 2010 the International Crisis Group published a detailed report on war crimes during the final months of the civil war. The report collated vast amounts of evidence including numerous reliable eyewitness statements, hundreds of photographs, video, satellite images, electronic communications and documents from multiple credible sources. The report concluded that war crimes were committed by the Sri Lankan armed forces and the Tamil Tigers. The report found credible evidence of intentional shelling of civilians by the Sri Lankan armed forces; intentional shelling of hospitals by the Sri Lankan armed forces; intentional shelling of humanitarian operations by the Sri Lankan armed forces; deliberate obstruction of food and medical treatment for the civilian population by the Sri Lankan armed forces; intentional shooting of civilians by the Tamil Tigers; and intentional infliction of suffering on civilians by the Tamil Tigers. The report found evidence that suggested that during 2009 tens of thousands of Tamil civilians were killed, countless wounded and hundreds of thousands deprived of basic food and medical care which resulted in further, unnecessary deaths. The report suggested that the actions of some members of the international community produced conditions which allowed war crimes to be committed. The report made a number of recommendations, particularly that there should be an international investigation into alleged war crimes. The report stated that it was impossible for any domestic (Sri Lankan) investigation into the government/security forces to be impartial “given the entrenched culture of impunity”
Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal
Between 14 and 16 January 2010 the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal held a Tribunal on Sri Lanka in DublinIreland to investigate allegations that the Sri Lankan armed forces committed war crimes and crimes against humanity during its final phase of the war, and to examine violations of human rights in the aftermath of the war.
The tribunal concluded that the human rights violations during the war (2006–2009) “clearly constitute war crimes committed by the Sri Lankan Government, its security forces and aligned paramilitary forces, as defined under the Geneva Conventions and in the Rome Statute (Article 8).” Sri Lanka is a signatory of the Geneva Convention but not the Rome Statute. The tribunal found that war crimes were committed irrespective of whether the civil war was considered to be an international conflict or as an internal armed conflict. The tribunal also found that human rights violations committed in the IDP camps and the forced disappearances during the ceasefire (2002–2006) “clearly constitute crimes against humanity” as defined under Article 7 of the Rome Statute.[  The tribunal could not find enough evidence to justify the charge of genocide but it requested that a thorough investigation be held as some of the evidence it had received indicated “possible acts of genocide”

The Sri Lankan state has been accused of state terrorism against the Tamil minority as well as the Sinhalese majority. The Sri Lankan government and the Sri Lankan Armed Forces have been charged with massacres, indiscriminate shelling and bombing, extrajudicial killingsrapetorturedisappearancearbitrary detention, forced displacement and economic blockade. According to Amnesty International state terror was institutionalized into Sri Lanka’s laws, government and society. The promotion of Major General Shavendra Silva to the post of Commander of the Armed Forces is an affront to the families of the disappeared who surrendered to the Sri Lankan armed forces at the end of the war and have not been heard from since.  Silva was one of the most important field commanders at the end of the war and the International Truth and Justice Project Sri Lanka has stated, “Given his presence in and command over the area, there are reasonable grounds to believe that Major General Silva knew of or consciously disregarded information which clearly indicated that the troops under his responsibility were responsible for the enforced disappearance of those who surrendered, summarily executing some of them.”  Issuing the list of those who surrendered to the armed forces at the end of the war is one of the first actions for any credible government effort to provide truth, resolution and justice for enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka.

According to Amnesty International, Sri Lanka has a backlog of 60,000 to 100,000 cases of enforced disappearance from all communities since the late 1980s, approximately 40 – 80,000 of whom are Tamils.  Following a visit to Sri Lanka in 2015, the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearance noted that Sri Lanka has the second highest number of unresolved cases under its consideration.

The Office on Missing Persons (OMP) had recently recommended that state officials, including members of the armed forces and police who are named as suspects or accused in criminal actions relating to abductions and enforced disappearances, be suspended pending the final determination of such cases

The plain stark truth is Sri Lanka has an entrenched culture of impunity for the Security Forces and Government Officials to enable the continuing commission or genocidal acts against the Tamils with “Intent to destroy in whole or part of a national, ethnical, social or religious group”. As defined in the UN Convention on Genocide 1948.

Kumarathasan Rasingam – Secretary, The Tamil Canadian Elders for Human Rights


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