Sri Lanka new army chief Lt. Gen. Shavendra Silva speaks at a press conference in Colombo on Aug. 26 when he brushed aside international outrage over his appointment, saying 'anyone can make allegations' that he committed war crimes. (AFP photo)
The United Nations has banned Sri Lankan troops from its international peacekeeping missions over the appointment of an army chief accused of serious human rights violations.
President Maithripala Sirisena appointed Lt. Gen. Shavendra Silva, 55, as army commander in August in a move that brought widespread international condemnation.
More than 650 Sri Lankan soldiers are deployed as members of three U.N. contingents in Lebanon, Mali and South Sudan, while 35 officers serve as staff officers and military observers, including at the U.N. headquarters in New York.
Farhan Haq, deputy spokesman for U.N. secretary-general Antonio Guterres, said that in light of Silva’s appointment, the U.N. Department of Peace Operations is suspending future Sri Lankan army deployments except where suspension would expose U.N. operations to serious operational risk.
"We have expressed our concern to the government of Sri Lanka over the appointment of Lt. Gen. Shavendra Silva to the position of commander of the Sri Lanka army despite well-documented, credible allegations of his involvement in serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law," Haq said on Sept. 25.
An Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights investigation documented war violations committed by the Silva-led 58th Division in the 26-year civil war that ended in 2009.
Michelle Bachelet, U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said last month that she was “deeply troubled” by Silva's appointment. She said his promotion undermines reconciliation efforts, particularly in the eyes of victims and survivors who suffered greatly in the war.
"The promotion severely compromises Sri Lanka's commitment to promote justice and accountability in the context of Human Rights Council resolution 30/1," said Bachelet.
Extensive civilian casualties
In 2012, the U.N. Human Rights Council heard that “there is at the very least the appearance of a case of international crimes to answer by Silva.”
Again in 2012, Silva was removed from the U.N. special advisory group on peacekeeping operations due to allegations leveled against him during the final phase of the civil war.
In 2015, the U.N. documented war crimes linked to Silva including intentional and indiscriminate attacks against civilian populations in Killinochchi, Puthukkudiyiruppu, Putumattalan, Mullivaikkal and other areas that resulted in extensive casualties and damage to property.
Evidence showed attacks on hospitals, no-fire zones, U.N. bases and other areas housing women, children and the elderly.
According to the U.N., about 45,000 ethnic Tamil civilians might have been killed in the last months of the war, while other estimates put the number much higher.
Amnesty International has claimed that 60,000 to 100,000 people were victims of a policy of enforced disappearance.
The Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), a think tank, said allegations about Silva have not been properly investigated by either the previous or current Sri Lankan governments.
"The appointment of Silva to the most senior position whilst facing serious allegations is unlikely to instill public confidence in the genuineness of the government’s commitment to initiating the necessary reforms and to addressing impunity," the CPA said in a statement on Aug. 19.
The European Union said Silva’s promotion called into question Sri Lanka's commitments to the Human Rights Council to ensure justice and accountability. "It undermines Sri Lanka's efforts towards national reconciliation and sends a worrying message to victims and survivors of the war," it said.
Sri Lanka’s government said it will hold discussions with the U.N. on the decision to ban Sri Lankan soldiers from peacekeeping missions.