(This text has been updated to include a UN response.)
The United Nations Country Team in Sri Lanka recently held a special virtual event to commemorate the world body’s 75th birthday. Sadly, it was a slap in the face for many of the country’s victims of human rights abuses and war crimes. Instead of focusing on them, the UN chose to honor one of the people implicated in their suffering, the country’s prime minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Rajapaksa, billed as the UN event’s “Chief Guest,” was president during much of the country’s civil war. In the final months of that bloody conflict, the armed forces, as well as the secessionist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, were responsible for numerous war crimes for which there has never been any accountability. Even after the war ended, Rajapaksa’s administration committed countless human rights violations against journalists, activists and those seeking justice.
The current government, led by his brother, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, is now undermining post-war reconciliation efforts guided by a UN Human Rights Council resolution, raising concerns of future oppression. In the past year, Sri Lankan rights groups have recorded an increase in threats and intimidation against minority Tamil and Muslim communities, victims’ representatives, journalists, and activists.
To add insult to injury, the government has openly opposed victims’ demands for justice – something the UN strongly supports. The government has rapidly expanded the military’s control over numerous aspects of civilian life, including policing, the Covid-19 response, and the supervision of nongovernmental organizations.
Military officers credibly accused of war crimes and other abuses occupy powerful civilian and military roles – including Gen. Shavendra Silva, commander of the Sri Lankan army. His appointment prompted the UN to ban Sri Lankan army troops from non-essential roles in peacekeeping missions. But the ban has so many loopholes that it’s become almost meaningless.
In a statement to Human Rights Watch, the UN Resident Coordinator in Sri Lanka Hanaa Singer said the UN has a clear “principled stance on human rights and justice in Sri Lanka.” She also defended the event, saying it “included the participation of civil society and youth from all communities, and highlighted messages on human rights.”
Honoring Rajapaksa at the UN Day event makes a mockery of two important UN human rights initiatives – Human Rights up Front and the secretary-general’s Call to Action on Human Rights.
The UN shouldn’t be in the business of helping those suspected of war crimes launder their public image. Unfortunately, that’s what the UN Country Team did last week in Sri Lanka.