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March 18, 2021

When War Criminals Run the Government: Not Too Late for the International Community to Vet Sri Lankan Officials

Posted by Sondra Anton JD'22 and Tyler Giannini

(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 February 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 Human Rights Council’s deliberations over yet another resolution on Sri Lanka this month has cast renewed attention on repeated failures to achieve any semblance of accountability for past atrocities, and on the deteriorating human rights situation over the past year following the return to power of accused war criminal Gotabaya Rajapaksa as president. The lack of accountability and concerns about future violations have rightfully received the bulk of the attention. But there is another question worth bringing to the fore – namely, how did an alleged war criminal return to power – and relatedly, should the human rights system have done more to prevent such individuals from taking official power again?

These inquiries are centered around the legal concepts known as “vetting” and “lustration,” and they deserve increased attention. It is not just the election of Rajapaksa. Since his return to power, after having served as the defense minister who commanded the violent final phase of the country’s decades-long war that killed countless civilians, he has appointed a slew of other compromised individuals who face “credible allegations” of international crimes, including war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Rajapaksa, for example, immediately appointed his brother, former wartime President Mahinda Rajapaksa, as prime minister, and named other relatives and family associates to top cabinet positions. The large number of individuals with credible allegations against them who now occupy top positions in the government raises concerns about militarization of the government. It also all but eliminates any chance that those who suffered violations will obtain justice in the near term for the crimes committed against them.

The appointments involve so many high-level positions that they have even been described by Yasmin Sooka from the International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP) as “amount[ing] to a coup by stealth.” And had efforts to vet or ban alleged war criminals from public service been robustly in place, Sri Lanka would likely look very different today.

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