UN rights chief seeks sanctions against Sri Lanka generals

GENEVA • The United Nations human rights chief has called for an International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation into Sri Lanka’s Tamil separatist conflict and sanctions on military officials accused of war crimes, said a report obtained by Agence France-Presse.

Ms Michelle Bachelet accused Sri Lanka of reneging on promises to ensure justice for thousands of civilians killed in the final stages of the 37-year separatist war that ended a decade ago.

“Domestic initiatives for accountability and reconciliation have repeatedly failed to produce results, more deeply entrenching impunity, and exacerbating victims’ distrust in the system,” she said in the report obtained ahead of its official release.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government has reversed some advances made under previous administrations in protecting human rights, the report said. Surveillance of rights activists and dissidents has increased and a climate of self-censorship has emerged, it added.

Mr Rajapaksa won a 2019 presidential election on a nationalist agenda which included a promise that troops who crushed Tamil rebels would not be prosecuted.

UN reports have accused Sri Lankan troops of shelling hospitals and of indiscriminate aerial bombardments, executing surrendering rebels and causing the disappearance of thousands of minority Tamils. At least 100,000 people were killed in the war, and 40,000 Tamil civilians were allegedly killed in the final onslaught.

In her latest assessment, Ms Bachelet recommended for the first time that the ICC look into Sri Lanka’s case, and said action should be taken against war criminals, including Tamil rebels.

The 17-page report also calls for possible targeted sanctions “such as asset freezes and travel bans against credibly alleged perpetrators” of rights violations. Ms Bachelet expressed concern at General Shavendra Silva’s elevation to army chief and General Kamal Gunaratne’s appointment as defence secretary.

UN reports have implicated them in alleged war crimes. Gen Silva, who was a field commander at the height of the separatist war, already faces a United States travel ban.

Sri Lanka has resisted repeated calls for an independent investigation, and President Rajapaksa and his brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, had previously denied that war crimes were committed. However, last week, ahead of next month’s UN Human Rights Council sessions in Geneva, President Rajapaksa did a U-turn.

He gave a commission of inquiry six months to look into previous inquiries into allegations of “human rights violations, serious violations of international humanitarian law”.

The UN rights body said that, since returning to power, the President had undermined previous police investigations and may have contributed to the destruction of evidence.

Ms Bachelet called on member states to preserve evidence from key cases such as the killing of 17 aid workers from a French charity in August 2006, and the assassination of newspaper editor Lasantha Wickrematunge in 2009.

Ms Bachelet said several top police officers involved in high-profile cases had been penalised or arrested to stifle investigations. She also criticised President Rajapaksa for granting a pardon last year to an army officer convicted and jailed for killing eight Tamil civilians, including four children, in April 2000.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

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