Sri Lanka - war crimes and gender-based sexual violence

Ever since the final stages of the Sri Lankan civil war in 2009, issues of the criminal accountability for war crimes, crimes against humanity and the ongoing sexualized violence against women have been a priority for ECCHR. According to a United Nations report, more than 70,000 civilians lost their lives during the Sri Lankan army’s final offensive against the rebel Tamil Tigers (LTTE) lasting from the end of 2008 until May 2009. Women and girls were repeatedly subjected to sexualized violence in the course and aftermath of the war.
Major setback for peace-building process in Sri Lanka:
Suspected war criminal promoted to Army Chief of Staff
 
In May 2015 the new Sri Lankan government appointed Major General Jagath Dias as Army Chief of Staff, one of the most important military posts. From late 2009 to 2011 Dias served as Deputy Ambassador of Sri Lanka in Germany, Switzerland and the Vatican. He was recalled from his post in the wake of allegations that he was responsible for war crimes committed in the final stages of the civil war. “The Sri Lankan government has to revoke the new position of Dias, to start a process towards an independent investigation, in line with international legal standards, into alleged crimes under international law in relation to all involved parties and to bring the suspected perpetrators to trial,” says Andreas Schueller,
head of the International Crimes and Accountability program at ECCHR.
 
ECCHR documented allegations against Dias in a comprehensive dossier in 2011. As commander of the 57th division General Dias is said to have been responsible for attacks on civilians in protected zones as well as for the bombing of hospitals, places of worship and humanitarian facilities.

Dossier Jagath Dias

To date no one has been held accountable for the civilian deaths and the suspected crimes against international law in Sri Lanka. On taking office in January 2015, President Sirisena announced plans to address the grave war crimes, stating that with the help of the international community he wished to establish an independent national judicial mechanism. Just three months later, in April 2015, he reneged on his promise. He made it clear that the mechanism would not have any power to prosecute but instead be of truth-seeking nature only. For this, he said, Sri Lanka would not need any international help.

Dias and De Silva Cases

A number of high-ranking members of the Sri Lankan army suspected of involvement in war crimes took up diplomatic posts in European and other countries after the conflict came to an end. As a result they could only face prosecution if their diplomatic immunity was revoked. With this in mind, ECCHR compiled dossiers on individuals including Dias and also former Major General of the 59th Division Prasanna De Silva, in association with the Swiss based NGOs TRIAL and Society for Threatened Peoples. The dossiers were presented to the respective Foreign Ministries in London, Berlin and Switzerland with the request to declare the individuals to be persona non grata and thus lift their diplomatic immunity. The Foreign Ministries entered into discussions and ultimately both former military members returned to Sri Lanka.
 
ECCHR calls for greater care to be taken in future with the accreditation of Sri Lankan diplomats. When visas are being issued to diplomatic embassy staff serious efforts must be made to investigate claims that the individual may be linked to war crimes. If necessary, these efforts must include independent preliminary investigations by the relevant prosecution authorities.
 

Sexualized Violence in Sri Lanka

At the 48th session of UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW Committee), ECCHR presented a report on the foreseeability of sexual violence in conflict in the context of Sri Lanka. The report calls for new legal means to hold perpetrators accountable and calls on the UN, as it works to uphold human and women's rights, to take into account the frequent occurrence of sexualized violence during conflict situations.
 
In June 2012 ECCHR called on three UN Special Rapporteurs and a UN Working Group to carry out further investigations into the situation of women and girls in northern and eastern Sri Lanka. Pressure must be exerted on Sri Lanka to comply with its international obligations and in particular to bring its Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) in line with the UN CEDAW Convention. This law makes it easier for police and military personnel to carry out body inspections and searches without giving any reason. These searches often involve sexual harassment and violence of a sexual nature.

 

Debate and Publications

ECCHR presented its study on criminal accountability at an event held parallel to the 15th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. ECCHR’s dossiers on the Dias and Silva cases were widely reported on by television and print media in Germany, Switzerland and the UK. In addition, numerous discussions were held on a diplomatic level as well as with various parliamentarians.
 
ECCHR reported on the situation of women in northern Sri Lanka at an event parallel to the 19th and 22nd sessions of the United Nations Human Rights Council as well as to the CEDAW Committee in Geneva and the European Parliament in Brussels. In addition, public events on this issue were held in Berlin.
 
ECCHR also contributed two witness statements to the UN study on accountability in Sri Lanka.