(Editor’s Note: This is the latest in a series on the spotlight placed on allegations of war crimes and other abuses in Sri Lanka during the Feb. 22 to March 23, 2021, session of the United Nations Human Rights Council. The series includes voices from former U.N. officials, international NGOs, human rights litigators, and researchers. Find links to the full series, as installments are published, at the end of the first article, Spotlight on Sri Lanka as UN Human Rights Council Prepares Next Session.) 

The United Nations Department of Peace Operations must immediately suspend the deployment of Sri Lankan peacekeepers, as the government of Sri Lanka has failed in its international obligations to investigate and prosecute international crimes and has promoted alleged war criminals to perform high-level state functions.

Sri Lanka has explicitly stated that it will not hold accountable its ‘war heroes’, amongst them Army Commander Shavendra Silva  and Defense Secretary Kamal Gunaratne, who have been named by U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet in her latest report to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva as allegedly responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Bachelet said:

The failure to implement any vetting or comprehensive reforms in the security sector means that the State apparatus and some of its members credibly implicated in the alleged grave crimes and human rights violations remain in place.” 

This challenges the credibility of U.N. Peacekeeping if it continues to allow the deployment of Sri Lankan peacekeepers. Sri Lanka has failed to implement its commitments under Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1, which recommended that Sri Lanka vet and screen public and security officials to ensure accountability. The Bachelet report also noted that the domestic body charged with vetting Sri Lanka’s peacekeepers now lacks credibility and independence.

Without an effective system for vetting and screening, the United Nations cannot continue to deploy peacekeepers from the Sri Lankan Army when credible allegations abound that they have committed – with impunity — both war crimes and crimes against humanity at home and sexual exploitation and abuse abroad.

The U.N.’s Obligations 

Peacekeeping has come a long way from the days when United Nations officials could dismiss allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse by their troops with the words “Boys will be boys,” as Yasushi Akashi did in 1992 while head of the U.N. Transnational Authority in Cambodia. In 2003, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution (A/RES/57/306) requesting the Secretary-General to take measures to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse in humanitarian and peacekeeping operations. The U.N. Secretary-General has acknowledged that the organization faces reputational risk if it sends troops to protect vulnerable populations who then abuse them.

With this background in mind, Sri Lankan soldiers should now be excluded from peacekeeping on two counts — if there is a risk they might be implicated in war crimes and crimes against humanity or in sexual exploitation and abuse.

The Problem with Sri Lanka as a Troop Contributing Country

For Sri Lanka, sending its soldiers abroad as United Nations peacekeepers is a matter of prestige and international recognition, as well as a source of revenue. But this is an army with a history of entrenched impunity for sexual exploitation and abuse by its peacekeepers, as well as for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity at home. According to the U.N., the Sri Lankan security forces employed sexual violence not as “isolated acts but part of a deliberate policy,” and the U.N. confirmed there are credible allegations that these personnel — including police units — continue to use sexual violence against men and women in detention.

For three years in a row, U.N. investigators found prima facie evidence that Sri Lankan peacekeepers were systematically sexually exploiting children in Haiti as young as nine years old. An internal U.N. investigation in 2007 found this was not an isolated problem at one camp or with one contingent, according to a report obtained by the Associated Press. Rather, it continued from 2004 to 2007 at virtually all the bases where Sri Lankans were billeted, and the probe implicated several camp commanders. At least 134 Sri Lankan soldiers were involved in the exploitation, according to the U.N., and this is likely the tip of the iceberg. The Haitian children – boys and girls – received food or tiny amounts of money in return for sex. One Haitian boy told the U.N. he had both anal and oral sex with more than 100 Sri Lankan peacekeepers.

Four Sri Lankan military officers were despatched to Haiti in 2007 to assist the investigation. They were surprised at one young Haitian girl’s command of the Sinhala language, including knowledge of sexual expressions. In 2017, the Associated Press reported that a Haitian woman who had alleged rape by a peacekeeper was not interviewed by the investigating officer sent by Sri Lanka, and that he instead exonerated the accused soldier. The investigating officer himself, then Major General Jagath Dias,  faced allegations regarding his command role in the war in Sri Lanka. In 2007, the U.N. said the sexual acts described by just nine juvenile victims over many years were too many to be presented in their report. The report was reportedly handed over to then-Army Commander Sarath Fonseka, but to date Sri Lanka has failed to show that even one soldier was jailed for the sexual exploitation of minors.

Sri Lanka’s Failure to Investigate or Punish Perpetrators 

In 2016, the U.N. Committee Against Torture (UNCAT) asked the government of Sri Lanka about its accountability process for the alleged sexual exploitation and abuse in Haiti, expressing concern that, out of more than a hundred soldiers accused, only 23 were convicted and given “disciplinary punishments” for such serious crimes, according to the government. It also wanted to know – and did not receive clarification – whether the soldiers accused in Haiti would be redeployed as peacekeepers. UNCAT asked for details of the Sri Lankan and U.N. investigations into the child abuse, including the number of indictments, prosecutions, and punishments, if any, which it said should be criminal punishments in accordance with the gravity of the acts. There was no reply from Sri Lanka. U.N. Peacekeeping should have followed up on this before accepting Sri Lankan soldiers in U.N. missions again.

A subsequent Right to Information (RTI) claim by an intrepid journalist in Sri Lanka was also never adequately answered by the government of Sri Lanka, which in its responses distorted the fact that boys, as well as girls, were among the victims of sexual exploitation and abuse in Haiti. In its RTI response, the government of Sri Lanka also claimed only three soldiers had been involved in the abuse, not 23 as it had previously admitted to in a report to the U.N. Committee Against Torture (CAT/C/LKA/5). These child victims have been abandoned and have yet to experience either justice or reparations for the harm they suffered. And, those commanders who failed to stop the systematic sexual exploitation of Haitian children rose up the ranks of the Sri Lankan Army.

The lack of accountability by Sri Lanka for what happened in Haiti makes it all the more surprising that in 2017, Sri Lanka was admitted to the U.N.’s “Circle of world leadership on the prevention of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse, raising questions about the UN’s commitment to its zero tolerance policy.”

A Broken UN Process for Vetting Peacekeepers 

Deploying Sri Lankan soldiers who may be implicated in serious international crimes to peacekeeping missions is in breach of the U.N.’s own due diligence policy adopted in 2011. That policy aimed to prevent the risk to civilians by precluding the deployment of potential human rights violators who have been alleged to have committed grave violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law.

While states have the primary responsibility to ensure that military officials and soldiers deployed are properly vetted, the U.N. is required to do its own due diligence. In 2016, initially, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Geneva took the lead in the vetting of peacekeepers from Sri Lanka, which was done together with the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL), on the basis that the HRCSL would take this process over. However almost as soon as the vetting program actually began in 2018, it was beset by problems affecting the first deployment and that revealed bad faith on the part of the government of Sri Lanka from the very outset — the Sri Lankan Army dispatched troops to Lebanon without waiting for the vetting process to be finished.

This resulted in all deployments being suspended for some months, while a plan for better coordination was put in place. Later in 2018, the Sri Lankan contingent commander in Mali was repatriated because the International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP) provided the U.N. with information that showed the government had concealed the fact that his regimental unit had served in the 2009 war under Silva’s 58th Division, which is credibly alleged to have committed serious international crimes. Twice now, the government has been caught cheating on vetting, and yet it has been allowed to continue deploying peacekeepers.

OHCHR has now concluded that the domestic Human Rights Commission has lost its independent status, as it is now headed by a former government minister. The 2021 OHCHR report confirms that U.N. Peacekeeping is no longer in a position to certify that Sri Lankan troops have been properly vetted and screened unless it moves the vetting process back to OHCHR to conduct in Geneva. Deployments now need to be suspended pending new arrangements.

Employing Soldiers Who May Have Committed Mass Atrocities 

Last year, Sri Lanka pulled out of the internationally supported transitional justice process. Putting aside questions about whether the country was ever serious about that process, it is now clear there is not going to be any credible attempt to hold accountable those responsible for mass atrocity crimes, not least because the new government itself comprises many of the alleged perpetrators. If anyone had any doubts, the U.N. High Commissioner’s recent report to the Human Rights Council outlines the grave state of affairs in Sri Lanka and the serious risk of renewed violence in a country that has seen three mass atrocities in the last half a century. 

UN Peacekeeping Undermines Work of OHCHR 

Deploying peacekeepers is always a delicate balancing act for U.N. Peacekeeping, which has to find  troops from countries willing to contribute and yet ensure that they do not tarnish the reputation of the U.N. in the countries to which they are deployed. Nevertheless, as noted above, deploying Sri Lankan soldiers who may be implicated in serious international crimes to peacekeeping missions is in breach of the United Nation’s own due diligence policy adopted in 2011.

U.N. Peacekeeping Operations should not undermine the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights by ignoring the extensive reporting on war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the Sri Lankan Army, as this reduces the coherence and integrity of the U.N. system. OHCHR’s latest report says the Sri Lankan Army and the Defense Ministry are run by alleged war criminals – surely this has to be a consideration when deploying their troops.

UN Peacekeeping Undermines Member States’ Sanctions 

High Commissioner Bachelet has encouraged member states to consider individually targeted sanctions against current and former members of the Sri Lankan Army. The U.S. government has already sanctioned  Silva, the Army commander. Under the U.S. “Leahy Law” limitations on U.S. State Department assistance to security force units facing credible allegations of human rights violations, such restrictions should have kicked in, though this is not something that is made public.

Failing to respond to the U.S. designation was not an option for U.N. Peacekeeping. After Silva was brazenly promoted to Army commander in 2019, the U.N. appeared to agree to calls for deployments from Sri Lanka to be suspended. This was then qualified to exclude areas “where suspension would expose U.N. operations to serious operational risk.” That was understood to mean not in Lebanon. But in reality, there has been absolutely no change to the number of Sri Lankan peacekeepers deployed by the U.N. [see chart]. That undermines the principled positions of member states such as the U.K., the EU, the United States, and Canada as well as those of Michelle Bachelet.

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Reputational Damage to the UN

Sri Lankan soldiers are currently deployed to war zones by a government that does not respect human rights and international law and whose commander is credibly alleged to have committed serious international crimes. U.N. Peacekeeping has been tarnished because Sri Lankan soldiers wearing the U.N.’s blue berets have been repeatedly photographed saluting an alleged war criminal, Silva, as they depart for missions in Africa and the Middle East. The image exhibits the disdain Sri Lanka has for the entire regime of international law, as well as U.N. investigations.

IMAGE: Sri Lanka Army Commander Shavendra Silva reviewing troops headed to Mali as U.N. peacekeepers on Nov. 6, 2019, at the at the Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment (VIR) Headquarters at Boyagane, Sri Lanka. (Photo: Sri Lanka Army)