The United Nations took a stand against impunity for war crimes this week by announcing it will no longer accept non-essential Sri Lankan troops in peacekeeping missions. The reason for this unusual move is that Sri Lanka’s newly appointed army chief, Gen. Shavendra Silva, faces credible allegations of war crimes.
The Sri Lankan government appointed Silva in August, despite a 2015 UN investigation that found the army division he commanded at the end of his country’s brutal 26-year civil war executed prisoners and attacked civilians. Despite commitments to investigate and prosecute alleged war crimes, the government has failed to do so.
In 2012, while serving as Sri Lanka's deputy ambassador to the UN, Silva was removed from the UN Special Advisory Group on Peacekeeping Operations due to the allegations against him. Silva has also been accused of rights violations during security operations in southern Sri Lanka against the Sinhalese nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) armed group in the late 1980s.
A UN investigation estimated that up to 40,000 civilians were killed in the final stages of the war between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in 2009. Those horrors led the UN to adopt a new global policy called Human Rights up Front, which places human rights at the center of the UN’s work. Although this initiative has been sidelined in recent years, particularly as it applies to peacekeepers and country missions, hopefully the UN’s principled position on Sri Lanka signals its renewed commitment.
Troop-contributing countries have the primary responsibility for vetting and verifying their peacekeepers are not human rights violators. Earlier this year, it emerged that 49 Sri Lankan peacekeepers deployed to Lebanon had not been vetted. In 2007, 100 Sri Lankan peacekeepers were sent home for sexually abusing children in Haiti, but, despite promises by the Sri Lankan government, they never faced prosecution.
Silva’s appointment has exposed the Sri Lankan army as one institutionally committed to impunity for grave abuses. The decision by Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and the UN Department of Peace Operations sends a strong signal to governments that sweeping suspected war crimes under the carpet will not go unnoticed by the world body.