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Canada’s responsibility to sanction Sri Lankan war criminals

Accounting for past human rights violations is a key step towards preventing future ones

By: /
28 January, 2024
Tamil-Canadians are either survivors of the war, or the family members of victims who have perished. Image by Karsten Madsen/Pixabay. Tamil-Canadians are either survivors of the war, or the family members of victims who have perished. Image by Karsten Madsen/Pixabay.
Amanda Ghahremani
By: Amanda Ghahremani
International criminal lawyer and a legal advisor to the International Truth and Justice Project

As we celebrate Tamil Heritage Month this January, justice for Tamil victims of Sri Lanka’s brutal civil war is as elusive as ever. Canada, in particular, is home to over 200,000 Tamils, constituting one of the largest Tamil diasporas in the world. As a result, our government has a role to play in encouraging the Sri Lankan government to prioritize truth, accountability, and peace 15 years after the war ended.

Canada did take a courageous step last January when it sanctioned former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, former President and Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Lieutenant Commander Chandana Prasad Hettiarachchi and Staff Sergeant Sunil Ratnayake, for their role in “gross and systematic violations of human rights during armed conflict in Sri Lanka.” These individuals are now banned from traveling to Canada, holding or accumulating assets in Canada, and doing business in Canada.

Unfortunately, the government left one important man off this sanctions list: General Shavendra Silva.

General Silva is the former Commander of the Sri Lankan army and the current Chief of Defence Staff. He was arguably the most important frontline ground commander during the 2008-2009 war in Sri Lanka, in which a 2015 United Nations investigation found evidence indicating that international crimes, such as war crimes and crimes against humanity, were committed. 

Silva commanded the largest unit, the 58th Division, throughout the 2008-2009 offensive on the north of the island. His  troops played a critical role in frontline combat and were instrumental in attacks on multiple towns and villages, resulting in the death of tens of thousands of civilians. Silva was also personally present at the end-of-war surrenders, when hundreds of Tamils disappeared in army custody, and others, including women and children, were subjected to summary execution. As a result, in 2020, the United States Department of State imposed sanctions on Silva in the form of a travel ban on him and his family. In doing so, the United States government confirmed the existence of credible evidence of Silva’s involvement through “command responsibility, for 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.”

Last year, the International Truth and Justice Project submitted a dossier with a detailed body of evidence against Silva to Canadian sanctions authorities. This dossier also revealed that the 58th Division, under the command of Silva, engaged in gross violations of international human rights and serious violations of international humanitarian law. These violations, which targeted ethnic Tamils, including women and children, involved extrajudicial killings, torture, and rape. This is precisely the type of activity that Parliament intended to target in passing the Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act (JVCFOA), which recognises that “all violators of internationally recognized human rights should be treated and sanctioned equally throughout the world.”

One year since Canada’s sanctions designations, there has been no discernible progress in Sri Lanka to address accountability for the atrocities committed during the war. Although the government recently proposed a new truth and reconciliation commission, human rights groups have criticised the government’s lack of meaningful consultation with victims, concluding this initiative is “aimed at deflecting international pressure over continuing impunity, rather than revealing the fate of the disappeared or bringing those responsible to justice.”

As Global Affairs Canada acknowledged last year, the Sri Lankan government’s “limited meaningful and concrete action to uphold its human rights obligations […] jeopardizes progress on justice for affected populations, and prospects for peace and reconciliation.” Sadly, the same conditions that warranted the sanctions designations last year are just as present today.

Canada now has a responsibility to send a strong message to the Sri Lankan government that accountability, peace, and reconciliation are the only acceptable path forward. And that impunity will not be tolerated. General Silva was not punished, but rather rewarded and promoted for his involvement in the final phase of the war and his alleged complicity in serious international crimes. For those who survived the war he waged on them, many now Canadians, this is an affront.

The 58th Division’s abuses are well known and well documented, including by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who acknowledged in 2019 that “over 26 years of war, including during the last phase of the war in Mullivaikal in 2009, tens of thousands of people were killed and hundreds of thousands more displaced and disappeared, leaving lasting wounds in communities across the country.” He also recognised the impact that these events had on Tamil-Canadians, highlighting that “their stories – of incalculable loss, tremendous adversity, and continued resilience – serve as a stark reminder of the long road ahead to peace and reconciliation.” Indeed, the majority of Tamil-Canadians are either survivors of the war, or the family members of victims who have perished.

In the face of a deteriorating human rights situation in Sri Lanka, a new designation under the JVCFOA would be a natural escalation in Canada’s human rights engagement with Sri Lanka, and an effective tool to not only account for past human rights violations, but to possibly prevent future ones. Designating General Silva for his role would send a powerful signal that the Sri Lankan government’s disrespect of the rule of law and failure to hold perpetrators accountable is counterproductive to the promotion of peace, security, and stability in the region.

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