Amidst a whirlwind week in Sri Lankan politics, Gotabaya Rajapaksa has resigned as the country’s president. Following an aborted attempt to flee the island earlier this week, he is currently sheltering in Singapore, with rumours he may travel onwards to the Middle East. Whilst firecrackers were let off in Colombo to celebrate Rajapaksa’s resignation, he must not, however, be allowed to leave office without facing any consequences. The former defence secretary should be taken and tried at The Hague over his command responsibility for war crimes and genocide.
Rajapaksa has suffered a remarkable turnaround in popularity in recent months, less than 3 years after he won a commanding Sinhala majority at the ballot boxes. The South have only very recently grown frustrated with their once beloved leader for his role in Sri Lanka’s worst economic crisis in recent history. Protests erupted across his former Sinhala heartland earlier this year after an already struggling economy plagued by bloated military spending suffered from his ill-advised economic policies. Though the “Go Gota Gama” protesters’ calls for his resignation are welcome, demands have focused almost solely on Rajapaksa’s financial crimes, and overlooked his most grave - overseeing a genocide.
His crimes are well documented, not least by the United Nations, various human rights organisations and in other reports, news articles and documentaries. Gotabaya Rajapaksa himself spotlighted his military conquests as part of his 2019 presidential election campaign.
As Sri Lanka’s Defence Secretary from 2005 onwards, Rajapaksa oversaw the bloodiest and most brutal part of the government’s military offensive. Under his command the Sri Lankan armed forces displaced hundreds of thousands of Tamils into tiny scraps of land and subjected them to intense shelling. So-called ‘No Fire Zones’, where the army encouraged Tamils to gather, where bombed relentlessly. Rajapaksa himself went on British television and defending the bombing of hospitals – contrary to well established international law. A litany of abuses were carried out under his command including torture, enforced disappearances and sexual violence. Sri Lankan soldiers have even spoken out on how he directly gave orders to execute surrendering Tamils. These are all events he said he watched with a “sense of quiet joy”.
Rajapaksa’s crimes before and after the genocide at Mullivaikkal are also well documented. His notorious ‘white van squads’ were used to forcibly disappear anyone the regime considered a dissident spread fear across the island. His muzzling of free press and murders of journalists, from Lasantha Wickremetunge to Taraki Sivaram, can still be felt today. Over a decade has passed since the events of Mullivaikkal and not a single person has been held accountable for the abuses that took place. But now Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s time is up.
This is something that even the man once nicknamed ‘The Terminator’ has come to fear. With Rajapaksa’s resignation, he loses his official immunity, paving the way for prosecution for his various crimes. Commentators state that is precisely why the military man was so eager to leave an island that he once ruled over, fearing trials and prisons sentences may come his way. And they must, for all his crimes.
For too long the island has allowed war criminals to roam free, embedding a culture of impunity for even the most heinous of crimes. Indeed, long before the Rajapaksas rose to power, a long history of massacres and killings never saw justice. Perpetrators of mass atrocities from the pogroms of 1956 onwards, continue to roam free. Decades of impunity have fed into a broader political culture on the island that perpetuates violence at almost all levels of society. The Gota Go Gama protesters themselves have been victims of it as the shocking images of police brutality in recent weeks have shown. If any new government that takes the place of this regime is going to build a sense of stability, then a new political culture of accountability and transparency must be paramount. Any new government must ratify the Rome Statute and refer itself to the International Criminal Court. It must allow international judges and prosecutors to have unfettered access to Tamil victims and evidence. And other perpetrators of rights abuse and those who have command responsibility for war crimes, including Sarath Fonseka and Shavendra Silva, must also face justice. The culture of impunity must be broken.
Sri Lanka’s domestic judicial processes have shamefully failed to hold perpetrators of rights abuses to account. Over the decades, the judicial system has proven that it has neither the will nor the capability to deal with criminals, especially those that have committed crimes as grave and heinous as Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Efforts to achieve accountability through other avenues such as the United Nations Human Rights Council have also stalled. As Tamils on the island and human rights activists around the globe have argued for years, the only way to achieve justice and accountability is through an international mechanism, such as the International Criminal Court.
Governments around the world, including Singapore where Rajapaksa is currently, have a duty to ensure he is brought to justice. It is morally repugnant and politically untenable for them to play host to a war criminal like Rajapaksa. As Rajapaksa looks to jump from state to state in search of refuge, each and every member of the international community must make it absolutely clear - his next stop will be The Hague.