President Maithripala Sirisena on Monday named a general accused of war crimes as commander of the Sri Lankan Army, sparking concern over the appointment that the UN later termed “deeply troubling”.
In his capacity as the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, the President appointed “Major General Shavendra Silva... as the 23rd Commander of the Army effective August 19 after promoting him to the rank of Lieutenant General,” the Army said in a statement.
Mr. Silva commanded the Sri Lankan Army’s 58 Division during the final stages of the war against the rebel LTTE in 2009, and was implicated in an incident when white-flag carrying LTTE cadre, who were surrendering, were reportedly executed after being assured safety.
“I am deeply troubled by the appointment of Lieutenant-General Shavendra Silva as Commander of the Sri Lankan Army, despite the serious allegations of gross violations of international human rights and humanitarian law against him and his troops during the war,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said in a statement.
Though different UN probes in the past have accused his 58 division of grave violations of human rights, President Sirisena in January appointed him Army Chief of Staff. In her March 2019 report to the UN Human Rights Council, the High Commissioner referred to the appointment then as a “worrying development”.
In its 2015 report, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights referenced many alleged human rights violations linked to Mr. Silva's 58 Division, including intentional and indiscriminate attacks against civilians in Killinochchi, Puthukkudiyiruppu and Mullivaikkal in the Northern Province that amounted to “war crimes”.
Setback to reforms
His appointment as Army commander now “severely compromises” Sri Lanka’s commitment to promote justice and accountability in the context of the Human Rights Council resolution of 2015 that Sri Lanka co-sponsored, “undermines reconciliation efforts” and “sets back security sector reform”, Ms. Bachelet noted.
The appointment comes at a time when hope among Tamils, following the current government’s pledge to ensure accountability, are fading. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) said in a tweet that the installation of Mr. Silva as Army Commander was “a serious affront to the Tamil People. We are deeply dismayed”.
Colombo-based NGO Centre for Policy Alternatives said despite the gravity of allegations facing Mr. Silva, neither the previous nor the current government investigated them. “In fact, Major Gen. Silva’s series of promotions demonstrates how these alleged violations appear to be rewarded,” it said in statement.
Following the development, the U.S. said it was “deeply concerned”. “The allegations of gross human rights violations against him, documented by the UN and other organisations, are serious and credible. This appointment undermines Sri Lanka’s international reputation and its commitments to promote justice and accountability, especially at a time when the need for reconciliation and social unity is paramount,” a statement from the Embassy said.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and his United National Party are yet to comment on the President's move.