United Nations accuses Sri Lanka of war crimes
by Arundathie Abeysinghe

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet calls for sanctions against Sri Lanka for its failure to identify those responsible of killing 40,000 civilians during the 1983-2009 civil war. The Sri Lankan government fears that the arrest of a suspect near London could lead to the detention of current military officers and government officials.

Colombo (AsiaNews) – For United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, sanctions and international prosecutions for war criminals are needed in Sri Lanka as Sri Lankan authorities have repeatedly failed to ensure accountability for wartime atrocities committed during the country’s 25-year civil war, which ended in 2009.

According to Bachelet, the island nation has drifted towards “militarisation” after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a former lieutenant colonel, took office as president in 2019.

She expressed her displeasure with regard to militarisation of civilian government functions, including in law enforcement, as military officers facing allegations are placed in high positions in government administration.

The high commissioner also noted that many military checkpoints remain in place in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province, which is predominantly inhabited by Tamils, pointing out that there are “complaints of discriminatory treatment or harassment… particularly of women.”

For this reason, she has urged the UN Human Rights Council to invoke universal jurisdiction in order to prosecute Sri Lankan officials facing credible allegations of war crimes.

Bachelet requested member states to “explore the possibility of targeted sanctions against credibly alleged perpetrators of grave human rights violations and abuses” in Sri Lanka.

“In the last two years, the independence of the judiciary… and other key institutions have been eroded, and democratic space, including for human rights advocacy, constricted,” the UN Human Rights chief said.

The failure to promote reconciliation, accountability and human rights in the country by the current Sri Lankan government, including its policies and actions aimed at reversing the limited progress made, cause serious concerns about the probability of obtaining justice for the victims of human rights violations.

Based on the information in a report to be unveiled reviewing Sri Lanka’s record, Bachelet noted that Sri Lankan authorities had dropped investigations into “emblematic cases”, refusing to put in place a UN mechanism to preserve evidence, following allegations that Sri Lankan troops killed approximately 40,000 civilians during the last stages of the war.

The request came a day after a 48-year-old suspect was arrested in Northamptonshire (United Kingdom) in connection with the murder in 2000 of Tamil reporter Mylvaganam Nimalrajan, a high-profile journalist in Jaffna, the main city in Sri Lanka’s northern Tamil heartland.

Sri Lankan authorities dread that the arrest of the unnamed suspect may set a precedent for the detention of military officers or government officials from the current government.

Jayanath Colombage, permanent secretary of Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told Sri Lankan media (before the release of an advance draft of Bachelet’s report) that the British action could have repercussions for current office holders.

For him, “invoking universal jurisdiction is another very debatable topic” and “any country can use this as an excuse to target people of another country,” calling it a “very big danger”.

Several Western countries have imposed travel bans on Sri Lankan military officials, including current Army Commander Shavendra Silva.

According to the report by the UN High Commissioner on Sri Lanka issued on 25 February, 2022, the human rights situation in Sri Lanka is dreadful, despite government claims that there is improvement.

It includes charges against the government for discriminating against religious and ethnic minorities as well as targeting civil society groups by security forces.

Bachelet points out that in addition to Tamils and Muslims, Christians also face abuses and discrimination, including in connection with the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings, when a militant Islamist group targeted churches and hotels, killing over 260 people.