Photo courtesy of Sri Lanka Brief

While Sri Lanka grapples with an inevitable economic meltdown, the international community has not forgotten the country’s obligations to move towards a reconciled society through the process of transitional justice. One of the requirements for sustainable peace is accountability.

Almost 13 years after the end of the war, successive governments have proved themselves incapable of delivering all except token measures to bring about truth, justice, reparations and guarantees of non-recurrence. As a result the country is in limbo where there may be no violence but there is no stable peace either. People who have lost relatives demand to know what happened to them, security personnel tried for war crimes are pardoned or cases are dropped and the president keeps reiterating that he will defend the Sinhala-Buddhist nation, making minorities feel like outsiders. Many analysts warn of possible communal violence as the government tries to halt its plummeting popularity by stoking tensions between the Muslim and Sinhala communities.

“Transitional justice mechanisms if properly implemented have the potential to promote societal and national reconciliation, and deal with denial about the past. The construction of a national narrative of the conflict is considered an important step towards dealing with denial and achieving reconciliation. In the case of Sri Lanka, the government’s narrative is about denial of war crimes and crimes against humanity and continues to embed impunity,” said Yasmin Sooka, head of the International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP), an organisation working since 2013 to protect and promote justice and accountability in Sri Lanka.

In March the country will have to answer to the UN Human Rights Council about what concrete measures have been taken on the path to reconciliation while the Council continues to gather and store evidence of alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated by the security forces.

Countries have taken action to apply the Global Magnitsky Act to military officers accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Army Commander Shavendra Silva and his family cannot travel to the US while last month Major General Udaya Perera was not allowed to board a flight there. The US also added Chandana Hettiarachchi, a naval intelligence officer, and Sunil Ratnayake, a former Army Sergeant, to the prohibited list.

In the US, the Leahy Laws may also be applied to Sri Lanka that prohibit the Department of State and Department of Defense from providing military assistance to foreign security force units that violate human rights with impunity.

In a landmark case, Germany last week jailed a former colonel in the Syrian army for murder, sexual violence and torturing prisoners, showing that there is no safe haven in Europe for those accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Australia, which has many contacts with Sri Lanka, has also adopted its own Magnitsky laws.

In the UK, the ITJP has launched a campaign called Time to Sanction and is calling for former Army Commander General Jagath Jayasuriya to be arrested if he comes to the UK to attend the Commonwealth Games later this year in his capacity as chairman of the National Boxing Selection Committee.

Yasmin Sooka answered questions from Groundviews on the need for sanctions and their effectiveness.

Why did ITJP decided to launch the sanctions campaign at this time?

The ITJP has been calling for the use of sanctions as far back as 2019 as another form of accountability for serious international crimes. Our initial dossier on Shavendra Silva in 2019 contributed in part to his US designation under the Appropriations Act section 7031c. Sanctions were an important tool that the High Commissioner for Human Rights raised in her seminal report on Sri Lanka to the Human Rights Council in February 2021, calling upon member states to utilise sanctions to hold those responsible for war crimes in Sri Lanka accountable. The UK’s Global Human Rights Sanctions (GHR) regime is relatively new and we thought Jagath Jayasuriya was an obvious candidate given his role as Shavendra’s superior officer in 2009, his command role during the final phase of the war and his role as the commander of Joseph Camp, which is a notorious torture site.

Besides not being able to travel, how can these sanctions affect perpetrators?

The full impact of sanctions varies from country to country; in the US, the designation is extended to Shavendra Silva’s wife and children who are also barred from obtaining a visa. In the UK it would be the individual alone. Jagath Jayasuriya holds many important posts that would require that he travel abroad including to the UK at some point. In addition, the naming and shaming of individuals by a fellow government has an impact not just on the person but on the institutions to which they belong; the naming and shaming impact on the army and, as with Shavendra Silva, some younger professional officers will be frustrated that their reputations are damaged by having alleged war criminals at the helm. Those officers who have not committed human rights violations and want to belong to a respected military will be strengthened. These sanctions tend to work in tandem and while one country may initially sanction, in practice other countries will think twice about issuing visas or engaging. For victims, sanctions are an important step in the accountability process which includes truth recovery and is a logical follow on action after UN investigations such as the OISL report. 

Do you think sanctions can work against people who have the backing of their governments?

Why not? Almost everyone being sanctioned these days has a close relationship to the state they come from. It is precisely because those governments don’t hold these individuals accountable that the international community has to act.

How many military personnel have been targeted for sanctions?

Apart from the publicly announced sanctions in the US against Shavendra Silva, Sunil Ratnayake and Chandana Hettiarachchi, we do not know how many others have been designated in private or are under consideration though there are quite a few in the running. Suffice it to say that there are a lot more potential targets if one is looking at Sri Lanka.

This government shows no inclination to prosecute any alleged war criminals. Why should it care about the sanctions?

The reason that the international community is now considering individual sanctions against Sri Lankan alleged war criminals is because it has failed to comply with its own obligations to investigate and hold the perpetrators of serious international crimes accountable. The government should care that many of its senior military personnel including the army commander cannot travel to the US. It is also possible that as a result of his designation, the Leahy Law has kicked in, impacting the whole army, resulting in no US State Department or Department of Defence funding to the army. That would be an enormous price for the army to pay for continuing to promote and honour this man. As Magnitsky sanctions start to kick in around the world – and remember these are new mechanisms so it takes time – the world will shrink dramatically for these men. And sanctions aren’t just about human rights, they’re also about corruption and asset freezing. Around the world we see the links between economic crimes and human rights violations. So, it’s not just the generals who should be worried. Officials who are corrupt and use stolen resources to send their children to expensive universities abroad need to worry about unexplained wealth. Sri Lankans have a lot of connections with Australia, which has just passed its own Magnitsky sanctions laws.

What other measures can the international community can take to pressure the Sri Lankan government into bringing about justice for victims?

The international community must use its leverage to ensure that the government deals with impunity, which has become structural in Sri Lanka. It is highly unlikely that the government will deliver criminal accountability for victims. Even the last “good governance” government failed to deliver on the transitional justice agenda it had committed to and for which it received extensive technical assistance from the UN. The “good governance” government ruled out the hybrid court before the ink was dry on the agreement. There needs to be systematic reform before any southern political party will deliver justice to Tamils or Muslims or for that matter victims of the state from the JVP period. Sri Lanka has witnessed more than three waves of mass atrocity killings for which very few have been held accountable. The same army and police officers who killed and disappeared people in 1971 and 1989 remained in power and if you track their career paths have risen to the top of their institutions. This kind of impunity will take a long time to address. It is why the UN High Commissioner in her 2021 report was unequivocal in raising the range of accountability measures that member states should use against Sri Lanka, from vetting and screening to sanctions and then supporting universal jurisdiction cases where possible. The recent conviction of Anwar Raslan, a senior Syrian official, who headed the investigation unit at the notorious Damascus detention centre known for torture, murder and sexual assault, has given hope to Syrian victims in Germany.

What are some of the successes achieved by sanctions under the act?

Designations for human rights violations under sanctions regimes in the United Kingdom and the European Union have targeted perpetrators from Iran, Russia, Myanmar, China, the Gambia, Saudi Arabia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo for right to life violations as well as torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, making it extremely difficult for those individuals sanctioned to travel or for any institution to do business with them. It also sends a signal that the international community is monitoring the conduct not only of individuals but also the institutions they come from and the state in question.