The Sri Lankan government’s appointment to parliament of the former army chief whose forces were implicated in widespread abuses contradicts pledges to investigate alleged war crimes, Human Rights Watch said today. On February 9, 2016, the United National Party of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe appointed Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka to parliament as a national list member for a seat vacated by the death of an incumbent.
Fonseka was the commander of the Sri Lankan Army from December 2005 until the defeat of the secessionist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009. During the final months of the fighting, Sri Lankan forces under Fonseka’s command were implicated in numerous instances of unlawful shelling of civilians and hospitals, rape and other sexual violence, and the summary execution of prisoners. The government’s failure to prosecute those responsible for serious crimes led to an October 2015 United Nations Human Rights Council resolution calling for justice and accountability, which the Sri Lanka government co-sponsored.
“Fonseka’s appointment signals that the government may protect senior military leaders suspected of widespread abuses,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The government should meaningfully demonstrate to the Sri Lankan people and the UN that it’s serious about accountability and not on the road to a whitewash.”
After the end of the war, Fonseka challenged then-President Mahinda Rajapaksa in the 2010 presidential elections. Following his defeat he was briefly jailed by Rajapaksa on spurious charges. In March 2015 President Maithripala Sirisena gave Fonseka a full pardon for his criminal conviction and then promoted him to the rank of field marshal, making him the first Sri Lankan army officer to hold that title.
The Sirisena government has previously sought to protect and promote military commanders implicated in wartime atrocities. In May 2015 Maj. Gen. Jagath Dias, who led the army’s 57th Division during the last two years of the war, was promoted to chief of army staff, one of the armed services’ highest posts. The 57th Division took part in the abusive fighting against the remaining LTTE forces on a small stretch of beach in Mullaitivu district during the final days of the war. Human Rights Watch documented the indiscriminate shelling of civilians and hospitals by government forces in the region where the 57th Division was deployed.
“Fonseka’s appointment is a breach of trust for victims and families who believed in this government’s commitment to deliver justice for war crimes,” Adams said.
Fonseka’s appointment was announced the day that President Sirisena met with the UN high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, and renewed his commitment to justice and accountability for wartime abuses. Under UN Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1, adopted on October 1, 2015, Sri Lanka agreed to establish various mechanisms with the assistance of the international community to deliver justice, reconciliation, and respect for human rights. Sirisena has recently elicited concerns about his commitment to justice by saying that it would not be possible to include foreign judges and prosecutors in a justice mechanism, a key component of the resolution.
“President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe are sending worrying signals on accountability at a time when they should be presenting themselves as leaders determined to achieve justice for all Sri Lankans,” Adams said. “By giving Fonseka a seat in parliament and the highest military rank, they threaten the goodwill their government has generated since coming to power.”