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US Congress members demand State Department use sanctions on Sri Lanka

File photo: Tamil protestors demand accountability for mass atrocities at a protest earlier this year.

A bipartisan letter to the US Secretary of State called on Washington to “use all diplomatic tools available, including sanctions,” to ensure that perpetrators of war crimes in Sri Lanka are held to account.

The letter, headed by Congressmen Raja Krishnamoorthi and Hank Johnson alongside six other colleagues, calls on Antony Blinken “to work with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to support efforts to investigate and hold accountable alleged perpetrators of war crimes during the Sri Lankan Civil War, including former Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his family”.

After Rajapaksa was ousted from office and fled the island earlier this year, there were calls worldwide for states to hold him accountable for war crimes. However, the former president has since returned to Sri Lanka, where to date, no one has been held accountable for the massacres of 2009 in which tens of thousands of Tamil civilians were slaughtered.

“I also urge you to use all diplomatic tools available, including sanctions, for the State Department to hold accountable those who are credibly alleged to have been responsible for gross human rights violations and abuses in Sri Lanka and continue to push for robust investigations into alleged financial crimes committed by the Rajapaksa family,” the letter continued.

“Only by bringing justice and redress to victims of past human rights violations during the decades-long civil war will Sri Lanka be able to fully address its current economic crisis and political situation.”

File photograph: Shavendra Silva

The call for sanctions from the Congress members is not unprecedented. Several Sri Lankan military figures – including the former head of the army Shavendra Silva – are already subjected to travel bans and unable to enter the United States. Last year, two more Sri Lankan military figures were added to the list, with reports that a third official was also banned just weeks later.

"We are determined to put human rights at the center of our foreign policy, and we reaffirm this commitment by using appropriate tools and authorities to draw attention to and promote accountability for human rights violations and abuses, no matter where they occur," said the US State Department at the time.

The move was commended by the Congress members who said “such steps are critical to ensuring justice and deterring future heinous acts”.

“I urge you to continue to explore further targeted sanctions against credibly alleged perpetrators of gross human rights violations and abuses in Sri Lanka as part of a wider range of accountability measures,” the letter continued.

“I urge you to take these actions swiftly as the UN Human Rights Council discusses Sri Lanka this month. I appreciate your continued efforts to support the peaceful democratic and economic aspirations of the Sri Lankan people, and thank you for your attention to this important issue.”

Read the full text of the letter here.

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