US blacklist Sri Lanka army chief over War Crime

WASHINGTON: The United States said Friday (14 Feb) it would refuse entry to Sri Lanka’s army chief over what it called credible evidence of human rights violations in the 2009 finale to the civil war.

Lieutenant General Shavendra Silva, whose appointment last year drew widespread international criticism, will be ineligible to visit the United States, as will his immediate family, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said.


“The allegations of gross human rights violations against Shavendra Silva, documented by the United Nations and other organisations, are serious and credible,” Pompeo said in a statement.

“We urge the Sri Lankan government to promote human rights, hold accountable individuals responsible for war crimes and human rights violations, advance security sector reform, and uphold its other commitments to pursue justice and reconciliation,” he said.


Silva was the commanding officer of a key army division in the final months of the military offensive against Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009.

Rights groups say some 70,000 ethnic Tamils were killed in mass atrocities as government forces seized Sri Lanka’s predominantly Tamil north. A UN report said Silva played a major role in orchestrating the war crimes.


During the 2008-09 conflict, General Silva was the commander of the army’s 58th division, which was accused of shelling “no-fire zones” where ten of thousands of civilians had been told by the government to take shelter as it mounted a final offensive.

Hundreds of Tamil Tiger fighters also disappeared after surrendering to Silva’s troops. His promotion to army chief in January 2019 triggered widespread outrage.

Frances Harrison, the programme coordinator of the International Truth and Justice Project, which advocates for accountability for mass crimes in Sri Lanka, said: “How on earth did the government of Sri Lanka think it would not have consequences when they appointed one of the most notorious commanders to head the army?


“Shavendra Silva’s promotion to army commander and acting chief of defence showed utter disdain for international law and disrespect to victims of the civil war.”

Harrison, the author of Still Counting the Dead: Survivors of Sri Lanka’s Hidden War, said: “Eyewitnesses say he was present at the surrender of hundreds of Tamils on the last day of the war who have subsequently disappeared in army custody – for years those mothers have been sitting in the hot sun in the roadside holding up photos of their children desperate to know what happened.

“This is not justice. It’s humiliation.”


The state department designation holds him accountable, through command responsibility for “in gross violations of human rights, namely extrajudicial killings, by the 58th division of the Sri Lanka army during the final phase of Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2009”.

Sri Lanka has ignored UN human rights council resolutions it signed agreeing to establish a system to hold to account the perpetrators of mass killings.

Since Silva became head of the army and Rajapaksa was elected president, victims’ families and witnesses have been under pressure to withdraw their testimony, according to Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

“After that, families of the disappeared, have been receiving threats from security forces asking them to withdraw their protests, and their complaints,” Ganguly said. “They have been getting calls from the intelligence agencies asking about their meetings and plans.”

The Sri Lankan government said it took “strong objection” to the travel ban on Silva and asked the United States to reconsider.

It reiterated its stance that there were “no substantiated or proven allegations of human rights violations against him”.

“It is disappointing that a foreign government should question the prerogative of the democratically elected president to call upon persons with proven expertise to hold key positions on national security related matters,” the government said in a statement.

Message To other Post-War states

Kate Cronin-Furman, an expert on mass atrocities and human rights at University College London (UCL), said a visa ban would be a “pretty small disincentive” if seeking to stop ongoing atrocities.

“But if instead, we think about this as an effort to get states like Sri Lanka to stop appointing war criminals to leadership positions, then the prospects look much rosier,” she said.

Other nations’ post-war governments, seeing the visa ban on Silva, could conclude it is easiest “to just not promote a war criminal in the first place”.

The Sri Lankan government “will likely get some domestic political mileage out of Shavendra Silva’s visa ban. But there’s no doubt that it’s embarrassing to have your army commander barred from entering the US,” she said.


The Tamil diaspora in the United States has been active in pressing for action by President Donald Trump’s administration, which has often been low-key in addressing human rights with friendly countries.

The action comes despite US efforts to woo Sri Lanka away from China, which has lavished money on the strategically placed island traditionally allied with nearby India and in 2017 assumed control of a port after the Colombo government could not repay loans.

A State Department spokesperson said that the visa sanction against Silva “does not place additional restrictions on security assistance or military engagement in Sri Lanka”.


Shavendra Silva, centre, last year. Silva’s promotion to army chief in January 2019 triggered widespread outrage. Photograph: Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters

In 2017, the United States provided US$39 million to Sri Lanka to boost maritime security. The United States has also looked to step up counter-terrorism cooperation with Sri Lanka after last year’s Easter Sunday bombings carried out by Islamist extremists.

“We deeply value our partnership with the Sri Lankan government and the long-standing democratic tradition we share with the Sri Lankan people,” Pompeo said.


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