Earlier this year, the Sri Lanka Campaign was one of several organisations who raised the alarm about the growing number of Sri Lankan troops being dispatched to UN peacekeeping missions – despite unaddressed allegations of grave human rights violations by the Sri Lankan military, and amid serious concerns about measures designed to ‘filter out’ problematic individuals.
In an open letter in May, we urged the United Nations Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, to ensure that procedures in place to vet and screen Sri Lankan troops were sufficiently rigorous and, where necessary, to act to remove from peacekeeping missions those who may have evaded them.
Last Friday saw the culmination of the pressure brought to bear by various human rights groups, politicians and concerned citizens, with the announcement by official spokesperson Stephane Dujarric that the United Nations had asked the government of Sri Lanka to immediately repatriate Lt. Col. Kalana Amunupure, the commander of its 200-strong troop contingent assigned to a peacekeeping assignment in Mali.
While the UN is yet to provide a full public explanation of its decision – stating only that it followed “a review of the human rights background of the commander … based on recently reviewed information” – the move follows the recent submission of a dossier on Amanpure’s war record by the International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP).
What the dossier said (a summary from ITJP’s press release):
“During the final phase of Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2009 Amunupure was second in command of the 11th Sri Lanka Light Infantry which operated under the 58th Division. A UN Investigation in 2015 found reasonable grounds to say the 58th Division was involved in the repeated shelling of UN sites and hospitals as well as the killing of surrendees and torture. Amunupure’s unit is named in contemporaneous sources, including government reports, as having been involved in the assaults on Puthukkudiyiruppu (PTK) town in February 2009 and Putumattalan in March 2009, both of which involved extensive civilian casualties. The UN report described doctors in Putumattalan being unable to reach the dead and dying because of intense shelling and gunfire. At the time the ICRC, which rarely makes public statements, called the impact of the military’s attacks on densely populated civilian areas near Putumattalan’s makeshift hospital ‘nothing short of catastrophic’.”
According to UN officials, the repatriation will be carried out at Sri Lanka’s cost and according to normal procedures. The government of Sri Lanka, though apparently intending to comply with the decision, is reported to be planning to appeal the decision and will seek the commander’s reinstatement.
While the repatriation stands as a small victory for the victims and survivors of abuses by Sri Lankan soldiers, the truth is that such a state of affairs should never have been allowed to arise in the first place. A cursory review of Amunupure’s background in early 2017, when the members of the proposed contingent to Mali should have come before the UN and Sri Lanka’s National Human Rights Commission (two of the bodies responsible for conducting vetting), ought to have led to a red flag being placed over the commander’s name. Recent comments from the Chair of the National Human Rights Commission, highlighting the manner in which the government appears to have successfully circumvented full and proper scrutiny of the contingent, raise further questions about whether these processes are fit for purpose and if, in any case, the government of Sri Lanka can be trusted to respect and abide by them.
Further still, there remains the broader question of whether any Sri Lankan troops should be deployed as peacekeepers, so long as the government continues to shield from justice those responsible for grave human rights violations – including those involved in the systematic rape of children during a peacekeeping deployment in Haiti between 2004-2007. It is a question that is especially pressing in light of Security Council Resolution 2272, which specifically empowers the UN Secretary-General to determine member state participation in peacekeeping missions, based on their progress in investigating and holding accountable the perpetrators of sexual abuse and exploitation.
To the many victims of serious human rights abuses by Sri Lankan soldiers who are yet to receive justice, the knowledge that hundreds of Sri Lankan troops are currently stationed among some of the world’s most vulnerable populations will be as offensive as it is deeply troubling.
It is a situation that is all the more galling in view of the Sri Lankan state’s determined effort to use its role in UN peacekeeping as a way to rehabilitate the image of its armed forces on the world stage. In January of this year, the Sri Lankan army had described the Mali deployment as “one more feather in its cap”. Similar self-adulation followed the grotesque recent appointment of the government of Sri Lanka – an alleged user of cluster munitions against its citizens in 2009 – to the Presidency of the Convention on Cluster Munitions.
Therefore while we commend the UN’s recent decision, it is clear that a much wider re-think is required – both within the UN, and among the international community at large – about how they engage with the Sri Lanka in a way that prioritises the interests, dignity and rights of victims. For if those victims are ignored, they will surely not be the last.