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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 Lanka’s 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 during the final stages of the civil war against the LTTE Tamil Tigers in 2009.
The UN Panel of Experts (POE) that probed alleged atrocities by both sides had linked the 58th division to several potential war crimes, including shelling a hospital and killing civilian patients and executing senior LTTE political leaders Balasingham Nadesan and Seevaratnam Pulidevan as they walked towards the area controlled by the 58th division carrying white flags and trying to surrender.
Silva’s current job is as deputy ambassador to the UN in New York. Earlier this year he was barred from participating in the UN Advisory Panel on Peacekeeping Operations after objections from, among others, UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay, 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”.
Ole Solvang, an expert on security issues at Human Rights Watch, said Silva had also been charged in a US court while based in that country at the UN, but the case was thrown out as Silva enjoyed diplomatic immunity.
Near the end 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 Deputy Minister of International Relations and Co-operation Ebrahim Ebrahim visited Sri Lanka. His department said afterwards that there had been “a heightened demand and urgency in the international community” for the Sri Lankan government to implement the outcomes of its its own inquiry into the war, that of the POE and other decisions of the UN Human Rights Council.
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. HRW’s second choice is for South Africa to reject him. Though officials point out that it is 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 pointed out.
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 General Silva as No 2 in Pretoria seems at best an enigmatic response.