Speaking at a high-level meeting of the UN General Assembly, marking the 75th anniversary of the UN, Sri Lankan President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, claimed to reaffirm commitments to the organisation whilst simultaneously insisting on need importance of “the sovereign equality of States, respect for territorial integrity and non-interference in their domestic affairs”.
Rajapaksa further stated that the UN works best “when no country is held hostage to the interests of a few”.
This statement follows a damning report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence. In this report, the UN expert noted a regression of human rights in Sri Lanka as well as a “dismal record” on accountability. In his report, he noted;
“Nothing has hindered the transitional justice programme in Sri Lanka more than lack of commitment on the part of the Government, which was not only slow in terms of design and implementation, but which wavered in its messaging and ultimately has failed up to this point to take full ownership of the process. Sri Lanka has a long history of partial compliance with its human rights obligations, which is not actually a form of compliance but, ultimately, one of non-compliance”.
Responding to COVID-19
During this meeting, Rajapaksa also discussed Sri Lanka’s “proactive” response to the COVID-19 pandemic which he claims, “synchronized the military, health as well as civilian authorities”. Sri Lanka’s response to the coronavirus has come under criticism for its military-led response from human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
Shavendra Silva, the head of the Sri Lankan army, who is currently subject to US travel sanctions due to his role in overseeing war crimes, led Colombo’s response to the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak on the island. Silva was the head of Sri Lanka’s notorious 58 Division, an army unit that committed grave violations of international law. They engaged in the repeated bombing of hospitals, widespread sexual violence, torture, and the execution of surrendering Tamils.
Sri Lanka and UN peacekeeping operations
Rajapaksa also claimed that Sri Lanka has significantly contributed to the UN and noted the country’s contribution to peacekeeping operations. During these operations, Sri Lanka military officials have come under criticism for human rights abuses.
In April 2017, the UN-appointed peacekeepers from the Sri Lankan Army to manage an operation in Haiti. The Sri Lankan forces deployed were implicated in a child sex ring as officers were accused of exchanging money and food for sex with girls and boys as young as 12. An internal UN report obtained by the Associated Press showed that from 2004-2007 at least 134 Sri Lankan peacekeepers exploited and sexually abused children. Out of these 134, none were imprisoned or faced charges.
9 months ago, the UN suspended Sri Lankan troops from peacekeeping due to the appointment of war veteran Shavendra Silva due to concerns over his human rights record. Silva was the Commanding Officer of the 58th Division of the SLA during the last stages of the war and UN reports have implicated him and his troops in alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity.
However, since then the UN has awarded Sri Lanka’s peacekeeping force, Sri Lanka Army Medical Corps (SLMAC), for their service in South Sudan despite increasing attacks on human rights from the current administration. In May of this year, Sri Lanka’s president Gotabaya Rajapaksa warned that he would withdraw his government from global bodies if attempts to prosecute Sri Lankan soldiers for war crimes are pursued.
Read the President's full statement here.