The Sri Lankan government’s controversial decision to appoint, as its deputy high commissioner to South Africa, an army general accused of war crimes serves – if nothing else – to highlight that country’s inadequate efforts to consign its recent dismal civil war to history.
Sri Lankan high commissioner Winithkumar Shehan Rantavale confirmed speculation in the Sri Lankan media that General Shavendra Silva’s appointment to Pretoria was “in the pipeline”.
Silva commanded the Sri Lankan army’s 58th division, which was one of the key divisions fighting during the final stages of the civil war against the LTTE “Tamil Tigers” in 2009.
The UN Panel of Experts – which investigated alleged alleged atrocities by both sides – had linked the 58th division to several potential war crimes.
These crimes included shelling a hospital and killing many civilian patients in February 2009, and the shelling and execution of senior LTTE political leaders Balasingham Nadesan and Seevaratnam Pulidevan in May, as they walked towards the area controlled by the 58th division, carrying white flags and trying to surrender.
The Panel of Experts said these atrocities should be investigated seriously and, if proved, senior army commanders, among others, “would bear criminal liability for international crimes”.
Silva’s current job is as deputy ambassador to the UN in New York. Earlier this year he was barred from taking part in the UN Advisory Panel on Peacekeeping Operations after objections from, among others, UN human rights commissioner Navi Pillay – a South African – who said his participation would undermine “the credibility of UN peacekeeping”, as there was, at the very least, “the appearance of a case of international crimes to answer by Mr Silva”.
Human Rights Watch expert on security issues Ole Solvang said Silva had also been charged in a US court, while he was based in that country, at the UN.
But a US court had thrown out the case on the grounds that Silva enjoyed diplomatic immunity from prosecution.
He added that, although the Sri Lankan government had conducted an inquiry into the war against the Tigers, it had failed to hold Silva and other military and political leaders accountable. During the closing stages of the war, government troops corralled LTTE forces in the north of the island, and then indiscriminately shelled civilian areas and executed LTTE leaders to eradicate the organisation, according to many accounts.
Human rights advocates have also accused LTTE leaders of executing civilians or preventing them from fleeing from the areas targeted by government artillery. In August this year, South African Deputy Minister of International Relations and Co-operation Ebrahim Ebrahim – who has been working on the Sri Lankan issue since well before his current job – visited Sri Lanka with a civil-society delegation.
His department said afterwards there had been “a heightened demand and urgency in the international community” for the Sri Lankan government to implement the outcomes of its inquiry into the war, that of the Panel of Experts, and other decisions of the UN Human Rights Council, “with specific emphasis on the need to address the accountability issues following the events of May 2009”.
Sri Lanka’s response has been to appoint one of the accused to Pretoria. How will Pretoria respond in turn? Solvang said Human Rights Watch would like the government to accept him and then arrest him.
That seems very unlikely.
Human Rights Watch’s second choice is for South Africa to reject him. Though officials point out that it is very rare for a government to reject another country’s diplomat, some sort of behind-the-scenes discouragement can’t be ruled out.
So a failure to achieve legal and ethical closure is one reason why Sri Lanka is not progressing towards closing this dark chapter of its recent history.
Another reason is the government’s reluctance to tackle the Tamil minority issue politically, as the South African government also pointed out after Ebrahim’s visit, saying “that a durable and lasting peace would come about in Sri Lanka when the reconciliation process is underscored by a broad and truly inclusive dialogue process that addresses the rights and freedoms of the Tamil community”.
As the International Crisis Group points out in a report this week, this durable peace has to be based on some sort of federal system, which delegates significant power to the Tamils.
“The Sri Lankan government’s refusal to negotiate seriously with Tamil political leaders, or consider reasonable forms of power sharing, is heightening ethnic tensions and damaging prospects for sustainable peace,” the report says.
It blames the Colombo government for failing to honour agreements with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), breaking promises to world leaders and refusing to implement constitutional provisions for minimal devolution of power to the island’s Tamil north and east.
“Three and a half years after the end of the civil war, President Mahinda Rajapaksa has delayed long-promised elections to the northern provincial council – elections the TNA would be nearly certain to win,” says the Crisis Group’s Sri Lanka project director, Alan Keenan.
“Rather than address Tamils’ legitimate demands for a fair share of power in areas where they have traditionally been the majority, the Rajapaksa administration has begun discussing a new amendment to reduce provincial powers even further.”
After Ebrahim’s visit, Pretoria once again offered its help to Sri Lanka in trying to resolve “the Tamil question”.
It gave no hint of how the Sri Lankan government had received this offer. But sending Silva as No 2 in Pretoria seems at best an enigmatic response.
Independent Foreign Service