Explained: Why US has shut out top Sri Lanka general — and where India stands

Shubhajit Roy
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Chief of staff of Sri Lankan army Shavendra Silva attends a news conference in Colombo, Sri Lanka May 16, 2019. (Reuters Photo: Dinuka Liyanawatte)

The United States has put travel restrictions on Sri Lanka’s Chief of the Army Staff, Lt Gen Shavendra Silva, for alleged war crimes committed during the last days of the war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009.

Secretary of State Michael R Pompeo posted on Twitter on February 14: “I am designating Shavendra Silva making him ineligible for entry into the U.S. due to his involvement in extrajudicial killings during #SriLanka’s Civil War. The U.S. will not waver in its pursuit of accountability for those who commit war crimes and violate #humanrights”. Read this story in Tamil

Sri Lanka General and the US accusations

Lt Gen Silva commanded the 58th Division of the Sri Lankan army during the final stages of the war. Investigations by the United Nations have implicated the division in alleged serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law.

The appointment of Lt Gen Silva as army chief by the government of former President Maithripala Sirisena in August 2019 was criticised by the US, the UN, and the European Union.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet had said that the elevation of Gen Silva “severely compromises Sri Lanka’s commitment to promote justice and accountability in the context of Human Rights Council resolution 30/1”, which aims to promote “reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka”.

Explained: Why has the US imposed a travel ban on Sri Lanka Army Chief Shavendra Silva?

Sri Lanka's Lt. Gen. Shavendra Silva at a military facility in Kilinochchi, Sri Lanka in 2009. (AP Photo: Chamila Karunarathne, File)

The appointment, the UN rights chief said, “undermines reconciliation efforts, particularly in the eyes of victims and survivors who suffered greatly in the war”, “sets back security sector reform, and is likely to impact on Sri Lanka’s ability to continue contributing to UN peacekeeping efforts”.

The designation of the general by the US State Department holds him accountable, through command responsibility, for “gross violations of human rights, namely extrajudicial killings, by the 58th division...”.

Sri Lanka has ignored the UN Human Rights Council resolutions that it signed agreeing to establish a system to hold to account the perpetrators of mass killings.

After the end of the war, Lt Gen Silva was appointed Sri Lanka’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the UNHQ with the rank of Ambassador. He served in that position from 2010 to 2015, and was at the time the only serving army officer to hold such a diplomatic post.

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International punishment

After Lt Gen Silva’s elevation in August last year, the UN banned Sri Lankan troops from its international peacekeeping missions. More than 650 Sri Lankan soldiers were at the time deployed with UN contingents in Lebanon, Mali, and South Sudan, and 35 officers were serving as staff officers and military observers, including at the UN headquarters in New York.

Farhan Haq, deputy spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had said that in light of Silva’s appointment, the UN Department of Peace Operations was suspending future Sri Lankan army deployments in all situations barring those in which a suspension would expose UN 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 September 25.

In 2012, the UN Human Rights Council heard that “there is at the very least the appearance of a case of international crimes to answer by Silva”. That same year, Silva was removed from the UN Special Advisory Group on peacekeeping operations.

In 2015, the UN documented war crimes linked to Silva, including intentional and indiscriminate attacks against civilian populations in Killinochchi, Puthukkudiyiruppu, Putumattalan, Mullivaikkal and other areas. Evidence showed attacks on hospitals, no-fire zones, UN bases, and areas housing women, children, and the elderly.

According to the UN, about 45,000 ethnic Tamil civilians may have been killed in the last months of the war; other estimates mention a much bigger number. Amnesty International has said 60,000-100,000 people were victims of forced disappearance.

The EU had said that Lt Gen Silva’s promotion called into question Sri Lanka’s commitment to the UN Human Rights Council to ensure justice and accountability, and that it shared the concerns expressed by Human Rights Commissioner Bachelet, due to the “allegations of grave human rights and humanitarian law violations against him (Silva)”.

India’s calibrated position

The Sri Lankan foreign ministry has said that the concerns raised by foreign entities are “unwarranted and unacceptable”. Since the General’s elevation last year, India has hosted Sri Lanka’s top political leadership — President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in November, and Prime Minister and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa this month.

In their meetings with the Indian political leadership, including with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Sri Lankan leadership has focussed on counter-terrorism cooperation.

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Lt Gen Silva served under Gotabaya as Defence Secretary and Mahinda as President, and New Delhi is aware of the allegations against him. Even as it has pressed the Sri Lankan leadership to move forward on the reconciliation process with the ethnic Tamil minorities, India has not taken an adversarial position on the allegations of human rights violations. Rather, it has chosen the more pragmatic approach of engaging with the Sri Lankans, keeping in mind its own strategic and national interests.