The Canadian government has taken a major step by imposing sanctions against two former Sri Lankan presidents, the brothers Mahinda Rajapaksa and Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and two former soldiers. All are implicated in “gross and systematic violations of human rights” committed during the civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) from 1983 to 2009.
The Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mélanie Joly, said Canada had “taken decisive action … to end international impunity against violators of international law.” The measures include travel bans and asset freezes.
Mahinda Rajapaksa was president from 2005-2015, including during the final months of the civil war, when Sri Lankan military forces committed numerous war crimes. The military bombarded hospitals and self-declared “no fire zones,” killing and wounding thousands of Tamil civilians. Many captured combatants and civilians were forcibly disappeared and remain missing. The United Nations, the media, and Human Rights Watch and other groups documented extensive war crimes and human rights abuses by government forces and the LTTE.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa was defence secretary at the war’s end. Besides war crimes, he is implicated in the abduction and killing of journalists and activists. He was elected president in 2019; mass protests triggered by his mishandling of the economy forced him to resign in July 2022.
The other two men sanctioned are former staff sergeant Sunil Ratnayake, who was convicted in 2015 of the 2000 Mirusuvil massacre of eight Tamil civilians, including a 5-year-old, but pardoned in 2020 by Gotabaya Rajapaksa; and a former naval officer, Chandana Prasad Hettiarachchi, who was allegedly involved in the kidnapping and murder of 10 men and a teenage boy by navy intelligence.
Calls by the United Nations Human Rights Council for accountability for rights abuses in Sri Lanka have long gone unheeded. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has repeatedly urged governments to “explore further targeted sanctions against credibly alleged perpetrators of gross human rights violations and abuses.” While the United States has sanctioned some Sri Lankan miliary figures, other governments have not done so.
Canada’s sanctions are important because – for the first time – they target those who were in overall command when the crimes were committed. Other governments should follow suit. Primary responsibility remains with the Sri Lankan government to ensure justice by holding those responsible for grave crimes to account, whatever their leadership role.