The United Nations human rights chief has called for an International Criminal Court investigation into Sri Lanka’s Tamil separatist conflict and sanctions on military officials accused of war crimes, according to a report obtained by the AFP news agency.
Michelle Bachelet accused Sri Lanka of reneging on promises to ensure justice for thousands of civilians killed in the final stages of the 37-year separatist war that ended 10 years ago.
“Domestic initiatives for accountability and reconciliation have repeatedly failed to produce results, more deeply entrenching impunity, and exacerbating victims’ distrust in the system,” she said in the report obtained before its official release.
The government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has reversed some advances made under previous administrations in protecting human rights, the report said.
Surveillance of rights activists and dissidents has increased and a climate of self-censorship has emerged, it added.
Rajapaksa won the 2019 presidential election on a nationalist agenda which included a promise that troops who crushed Tamil rebels would not be prosecuted.
Rajapaksa was the top defence official when government forces crushed the rebel fighters in a military campaign that ended in May 2009. His brother Mahinda was president then and is currently the prime minister.
UN reports have accused Sri Lankan troops of shelling hospitals and indiscriminate aerial bombardments, executing surrendering rebels and causing the disappearance of thousands of minority Tamils.
At least 100,000 people were killed in the war and allegations were made that 40,000 Tamil civilians were killed in the final onslaught.
The president, a retired army lieutenant colonel, threatened last year to withdraw from the UN rights council if it pursued allegations against his troops.
Sri Lanka has not signed up to the ICC, and so it is outside its jurisdiction. But while another state cannot refer a non-signatory to the ICC, the UN can.
In her latest assessment, Bachelet recommended for the first time that the ICC look into Sri Lanka’s case, and said action should be taken against war criminals, including Tamil rebels.
“Member states can actively pursue investigation and prosecution of international crimes committed by all parties in Sri Lanka before their own national courts,” she said.
The 17-page report also calls for possible targeted sanctions “such as asset freezes and travel bans against credibly alleged perpetrators” of rights violations.
Bachelet expressed concern at General Shavendra Silva’s elevation as army chief and General Kamal Gunaratne’s appointment as defence secretary.
UN reports have implicated them in alleged war crimes.
Silva, who was a field commander at the height of the separatist war, already faces a US travel ban.
Sri Lanka has resisted repeated calls for an independent investigation and the Rajapaksa brothers had previously denied any war crimes were committed.
However, in advance of next month’s UN Human Rights Council sessions in Geneva, President Rajapaksa last week did a U-turn and said Sri Lanka would investigate some allegations.
He gave a commission of inquiry six months to look into previous inquiries into the allegations of “human rights violations, serious violations of international humanitarian law”.
The UN rights body said, since returning to power, the president had undermined previous police investigations and may have contributed to the destruction of evidence.
Bachelet called on member states to take action to preserve evidence from key cases such as the killing of 17 aid workers from a French charity in August 2006 and the 2009 assassination of newspaper editor Lasantha Wickrematunge.
The UN rights chief said several top police officers involved in high-profile cases had been penalised or arrested to stifle investigations.
She also criticised President Rajapaksa for granting a pardon in 2020 to an army officer convicted and jailed for killing eight Tamil civilians, including four children, in April 2000.