United Nations human rights chief called for an International Criminal Court investigation into the Tamil separatist conflict in Sri Lanka and sanctions against military officials accused of war crimes, according to a report obtained by the news agency AFP.
Michelle Bachelet has accused Sri Lanka of reneging on promises to bring justice to the thousands of civilians killed in the final stages of the 37-year separatist war that ended 10 years ago.
“National accountability and reconciliation initiatives have repeatedly failed to deliver results, further strengthening impunity and exacerbating victims’ mistrust in the system,” she said in the report obtained before its official release.
The government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has reversed some advances made under previous administrations in the protection of human rights, according to the report.
Surveillance of rights activists and dissidents has intensified and a climate of self-censorship has emerged, he added.
Rajapaksa won the 2019 presidential election on a nationalist platform that included a pledge that troops who crushed Tamil rebels would not be prosecuted.
Rajapaksa was primarily responsible for defense when government forces crushed rebel fighters in a military campaign that ended in May 2009. His brother Mahinda was then president and is currently prime minister.
UN reports have accused Sri Lankan troops of bombing hospitals and indiscriminate airstrikes, killing surrendering rebels and causing the disappearance of thousands of minority Tamils.
At least 100,000 people were killed during the war and allegations have been made that 40,000 Tamil civilians were killed in the latest attack.
The president, a retired army lieutenant colonel, threatened last year to withdraw from the UN Rights Council if he continued allegations against his troops.
Sri Lanka has not joined the ICC and therefore is outside its jurisdiction. But while another state cannot refer a non-signatory to the ICC, the UN can.
In his latest assessment, Bachelet recommended for the first time that the ICC examine the Sri Lanka case, and said action should be taken against war criminals, including Tamil rebels.
“Member States can actively investigate and prosecute international crimes committed by all parties in Sri Lanka in their own national courts,” she said.
The 17-page report also calls for possible targeted sanctions “such as an asset freeze and travel ban against credible alleged perpetrators” of rights violations.
Bachelet expressed concern over the appointment of General Shavendra Silva as Chief of the Army and the appointment of General Kamal Gunaratne as Secretary of Defense.
UN reports have implicated them in alleged war crimes.
Silva, who was a field commander at the height of the separatist war, already faces a travel ban to the United States.
Sri Lanka has resisted repeated calls for an independent investigation and the Rajapaksa brothers had previously denied that war crimes had been committed.
However, ahead of the UN Human Rights Council sessions next month in Geneva, President Rajapaksa turned around last week and said Sri Lanka would investigate some allegations.
He gave six months for a commission of inquiry to examine previous inquiries into allegations of “human rights violations, serious violations of international humanitarian law”.
The UN rights body said that since returning to power, the president had undermined previous police investigations and could have contributed to the destruction of evidence.
Bachelet called on member states to take action to preserve evidence of key cases such as the murder of 17 aid workers at a French charity in August 2006 and the 2009 assassination of the editor of the newspaper Lasantha Wickrematunge.
The UN rights chief said several senior police officials involved in high-profile cases have been penalized or arrested for stifling investigations.
She also criticized President Rajapaksa for granting a 2020 pardon to an army officer convicted and imprisoned for killing eight Tamil civilians, including four children, in April 2000.