U.N. rights boss calls for sanctions on Sri Lankan ex-commanders

Stephanie Nebehay and Waruna Karunatilake
·2-min read
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Bachelet attends a news conference in Geneva

By Stephanie Nebehay and Waruna Karunatilake

GENEVA/COLOMBO (Reuters) - The U.N. human rights chief urged states on Wednesday to impose "targeted sanctions" on former Sri Lankan military commanders, including the current army chief, linked to alleged atrocities during the last years of a 26-year civil war that ended in 2009.

Michelle Bachelet said that last year President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had put at least 28 serving or retired military and intelligence figures in key administrative posts, including some "implicated in United Nations reports on alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity during the final years of the conflict".

"States can consider targeted sanctions, such as asset freezes and travel bans against credibly alleged perpetrators of grave human rights violations and abuses," she said in a report to the U.N. Human Rights Council ahead of a February session.

States could also prosecute suspects in their national courts under universal jurisdiction, Bachelet said.

Her report, whose findings were quickly rejected as baseless by Sri Lankan authorities, named current army chief Shavendra Silva and defence secretary Kamal Gunaratne, whom it said commanded forces that battled Tamil Tigers separatist rebels.

"They respectively commanded the 58th and 53rd Divisions, which were credibly alleged to have committed grave violations of international human rights and humanitarian law during the armed conflict," it said.

When Silva was appointed in August 2019, a Foreign Ministry statement said that raising allegations against him was "regrettable" and that the decision was a sovereign one.

In Colombo, a senior Sri Lankan official swiftly rejected the report. "Unsubstantiated accusations against government officers are wrong. If they have something they have to follow an internationally accepted procedure," retired Admiral Jayanath Colombage, a Foreign Ministry state secretary, told Reuters.

John Fisher of Human Rights Watch said the report "lays bare Sri Lanka’s record of complete impunity for appalling crimes under international law, and the very alarming developments under the current government".

Gotabaya, as he is popularly known, is the younger brother of current Prime Minister and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa; together they led the government side to victory over the Tamil guerrillas after a protracted, devastating conflict.

Bachelet said: “Sri Lanka remains in a state of denial about the past, with truth-seeking efforts aborted and the highest state officials refusing to make any acknowledgement of past crimes."

(Reporting and writing by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; additional reporting by Waruna Cudah Nimal Karunatilake in Colombo; Editing by Mark Heinrich)