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Sri Lanka looks to block universal jurisdiction prosecutions for war crimes

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Sri Lanka's Media Secretary to the Minister of Education has claimed the government will introduce new laws to protect their armed forces from potential war crime trials and possible prosecution from “entities outside of the country”, reports The Morning. The announcement comes as pressure grows on governments around the world to hold Sri Lanka officials accountable for mass atrocities.

Buddhika Wickramadara echoing remarks made by Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) Chairman G.L. Peiris earlier this month, was quoted as stating that the "current laws of the country are insufficient to protect military officials from being prosecuted internationally".

“Laws would be introduced to ensure military officials cannot be prosecuted by entities outside the country,” he added.

Read more at The Morning.

The call for countries around the world to prosecute Sri Lankan officials for war crimes has been made for years by Tamil activists. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights recently called on member states to apply the principle of universal jurisdiction and prosecute officials accused of crimes in national courts.

Following the adoption of resolution 46/1 on Sri Lanka at the United Nations Human Rights Council, which was described as weak by Tamil Parliamentarians and recently slammed by The Tamil Civil Society Forum (TCSF) as a “half-hearted attempt at dealing with accountability”, human rights organisations have also called for more substantiative action. Human Rights Watch called for UN member states to apply “targeted sanctions” on those allegedly responsible for grave violations, a call which was echoed by Amnesty International and CIVICUS that stressed member states should look for prosecution under universal jurisdiction.

Officials accused of mass atrocities

Several high-ranking members of Sri Lanka's government stand credibly accused of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity towards the end of the armed conflict which saw tens of thousands of Tamil civilians killed by state forces. Last year, the US state department imposed a travel ban on the head of the Sri Lankan Army, Shavendra Silva, who was the head of the notorious 58th division which stands accused of egregious crimes. Silva alongside his family were barred entry to the US due to “credible information of his involvement, through command responsibility, in gross violations of human rights”. 

The appointment of former Air force commander and accused war criminal Sumangala Dias as Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to Canada was reportedly stalled by the Canadian government following strong complaints lodged by Tamil Canadian groups and Parliamentarians. Dias stands accused of committing war crimes, in his role as the acting Commander of the Air force base Hinguarakgoda in 2005 from which many of the indiscriminate bombing missions against civilians targets originated from. He was appointed as senior air coordinator in 2008 and oversaw the final stages of the conflict coordinating Sri Lankan Air Force Operations with ground operations of the 57, 58 and 59 Divisions of the Sri Lankan Army, which have been credibly accused of committing war crimes.

In 2017, former military general, Jagath Jayasuriya, who was appointed as Sri Lanka's ambassador to Brazil, fled the country after human rights groups filed lawsuits accusing him of overseeing war crimes. Jayasuriya stands accused of overseeing Sri Lankan units that bombed hospitals, as well as the execution and torture of surrendees and disappeared civilians amongst a litany of human rights abuses against Tamil civilians and militants during the final phase of the island's armed conflict in May 2009.

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