The Obama administration helped catalyze the United Nations’ ongoing efforts to bring accountability in Sri Lanka for mass war crimes committed in that country’s civil war. In a New York Times Op-Ed, I discuss the historic opportunity presented by this month’s surprising defeat of the autocratic Rajapaska regime in national elections. I write about something that only the United States can do to help the country consolidate its new hope of a democratic future. Now is the time for the U.S. administration to express its interest in pursuing the ousted Defense Secretary, Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa who happens to be an American citizen and who is thus liable under the U.S. War Crimes Act. It is important to add that he is potentially liable as well under a host of other federal laws if he committed tax evasion, obstruction of justice, or immigration fraud.
Key questions for any moment of transitional justice—today’s Sri Lanka included—is whether and when to pursue accountability for past atrocities, especially when doing so could destabilize a new government. Now may not be the best time to push for widespread accountability in Sri Lanka. But that time should come. In the meantime, it is important for the international community to use the forthcoming report of the United Nations war crimes investigation as a basis for keeping the democratic momentum going and helping the country confront and repudiate the worst elements of its past.
That said, the delicate balance between accountability and political stability is not present in the case of Gotabaya Rajapaksa. In the Op-Ed, I explain why going after him now would serve the interests of the new fledgling administration and prevent a return to the past.