COLOMBO: Sri Lanka’s newly appointed army chief on Friday hit back against allegations he was connected to war crimes during the country’s brutal civil war, saying the military had acted in “keeping with international humanitarian laws and rights.”
Lt. Gen. Shavendra Silva, who led the 58th Division of the Sri Lankan Army, has been named in several UN reports for grave violations of international humanitarian law that contributed to war crimes, including the shelling of a hospital.
The US and the UN are among those who have expressed concern about his appointment. But Silva defended himself against the criticism.
“Any army in the world is committed to protect the inalienable rights of the country’s citizens and create a conducive atmosphere for a democratic way of life, while being alert to adopt any measures against internal or external threats with determination,” he said.
“During past humanitarian operations, we adhered to those guidelines, acceptable to any state, and acted in keeping with international humanitarian laws and rights.”
Armed forces wiped out separatist rebels in 2009 in an operation that ended a decades-long war, which killed tens of thousands of people.
The UN has estimated that around 45,000 ethnic Tamil civilians might have been killed in the last months of the fighting, while other estimates put the number much higher.
The US ambassador to Sri Lanka, Alaina Teplitz, said it was her obligation to share Washington’s policies and decisions.
“We have expressed our concern for Sri Lanka’s reputation, the government’s commitment to its people regarding justice and accountability. We are not asking the government to appoint this person or that person. We are only articulating our position on this matter.
“We are not telling Sri Lanka what to do. People here and the government can decide what they are going to do about it. I certainly hope that they take our concerns, and those of other nations, into consideration.”
She said one of the commitments made by the Sri Lankan government was to seek truth, reconciliation and accountability and there needed to be a process to fully address these.
“There are credible allegations in the case of Silva. There will be a good outcome. They can go before (a) court. Then the court can make a decision accordingly. But that has not happened."
Whether the allegations were serious and credible or not were different issues, she added, but there was a lot of documentation that had been put together by the UN and other organizations.
“During the 30-year war, terrible things happened, perpetrated by both sides. There is a need to get to the bottom of them.”
The official Sri Lankan army website says Silva has had an “illustrious” career, and that the 58th Division under his stewardship “liberated the country from terrorism.”
Sri Lanka’s Foreign Ministry said Silva’s appointment was a “sovereign decision” by President Maithripala Sirisena.
“Foreign entities trying to influence the decisions and internal administrative processes of public service promotions in Sri Lanka is unwarranted and unacceptable,” it said in a statement.
The US has given more than $1 billion in grants and direct development assistance to Sri Lanka since it gained independence from Britain in 1948.
More than 10,000 households have directly benefited from US government assistance, and these households’ gross income is now in excess of $10.7 million.
More than 5,000 micro-enterprises have benefited from US support, with total sales reported by all investment grantees of $68 million.