Sri Lanka’s promotion of a senior officer whose division was implicated in serious human rights abuses casts doubt on government pledges to credibly investigate alleged war crimes, Human Rights Watch said yesterday.
Maj. Gen. Jagath Dias, who led the Army’s 57th Division during the last two years of the civil war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), was appointed army chief of staff, one of the armed forces’ highest post. Although effective May 7, 2015, the appointment was only made public on May 15.
“Sri Lanka’s new government has promised genuine accountability for wartime abuses, but naming the general of an abusive unit the army chief of staff is a slap in the face for victims,” said Brad Adams, Asia director.
“Members of the UN Human Rights Council expecting genuine accountability in Sri Lanka need to closely scrutinize the government’s actions.”
The last months of Sri Lanka’s 26-year-long civil war, which ended on May 19, 2009, with the defeat of the LTTE, were marked by widespread violations of the laws of war by both sides. An independent report commissioned by the United Nations secretary-general found that up to 40,000 civilians, mostly ethnic Tamils, died during the war’s final months.
The 57th Division took part in the last battles of the war, including the extremely bloody and abusive fighting on a small stretch of beach in Mullaitivu district. Human Rights Watch documented the indiscriminate shelling of civilians and hospitals by government forces in the region where the 57th Division was deployed.
The previous government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa denied any laws-of-war violations by the military and placed all blame for civilian losses on the LTTE. He rewarded top commanders for their role in the war. Gen. Dias served as the deputy head of Sri Lanka’s mission to Germany from 2009 to 2011. In 2013, Gen. Dias was denied entry visas to Australia and the United States for his possible involvement in war crimes.
In light of the Sri Lankan government’s resistance to accountability, the UN Human Rights Council in March 2014 adopted a resolution calling on the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to open an independent international investigation into allegations of abuses by both sides. The Rajapaksa government refused to cooperate with the investigation.
The present government of President Maithripala Sirisena, elected in January 2015, has stated publicly that it intends to reverse Rajapaksa’s policies and deliver justice and accountability for war crimes. While positive steps have been taken to end the Rajapaksa government’s repressive governance style, the new administration has yet to make meaningful moves toward addressing wartime abuses.
The government should put into place an effective accountability mechanism with a significant international component. Previous government accountability mechanisms have been impaired by harassment, threats, and violence against witnesses and commissioners. The best way to address this problem would be to create a combined international and domestic court similar to the successful hybrid courts in Sierra Leone and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
“The government’s appointment of General Dias is further proof that Sri Lanka needs an independent justice process with a strong international component that can undertake impartial investigations and prosecutions,” Adams said. “Six years since the end of the brutal conflict, the victims of the war still await justice.”