Last month, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena announced that his government is planning to contribute more troops to United Nations peacekeeping missions. While more contributions to UN peacekeeping are desperately needed, the Sri Lankan offer should be treated with caution given its military’s human rights record – both domestically and abroad.
Causes for concern
Recently, the UN’s investigation into human rights abuses in Sri Lanka (“OISL) provided further confirmation that the Sri Lankan military likely committed gross violations of international human rights law, serious violations of international humanitarian law, and international crimes in the context of the Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war. Perpetrators of such violations have enjoyed near total impunity over many decades, as the Sri Lankan judicial system has failed to hold them accountable.
There is evidence that this climate of impunity has affected the actions of Sri Lankan soldiers deployed abroad. In 2007, for example, the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) investigated serious allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse of children committed by Sri Lankan peacekeepers within the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). The investigation concluded that ‘acts of sexual exploitation and abuse were frequent, occurred usually at night, and at virtually every location where the contingent personnel were deployed. In exchange for sex, the children received small amounts of money, food and sometimes mobile phones’. Indeed, Haitian lawyers accused Sri Lankan peacekeepers of ‘systematically raping Haitian women and girls, some as young as 7 years old’.
By way of response, 111 soldiers, one Lt. Colonel and two Majors were repatriated back to Sri Lanka on disciplinary grounds. This expulsion from Haiti constituted the single largest troop repatriation in UN peacekeeping history.
The Sri Lankan government claims that 23 soldiers were subsequently convicted of sexual exploitation and abuse and subsequently ‘discharged, demoted, formally reprimanded or otherwise punished’. However, these are merely disciplinarary sanctions, whereas the severity of the allegations clearly suggested a need for criminal investigations and prosecutions. There is no evidence suggesting that any of the Sri Lankan soldiers were ever prosecuted.
Recent UN Recommendations and Reform Proposals
In response to recent further scandals, UN officials do acknowledge that the organization has failed to adequately address sexual violence committed on UN peacekeeping missions. In the so called “HIPPO” report to the UN General Assembly earlier this year, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon set out comprehensive measures for strengthening protection from sexual exploitation and abuse. These include:
- Various measures aimed at strengthening accountability (The report emphasizes that ‘Member states must do their part to pursue cases of sexual exploitation and abuse to the full extent of the applicable legal framework’. Accountability measures must ‘cover command and individual responsibility, as well financial accountability where this is appropriate’.)
- Stronger vetting mechanisms. (Military contingents, for example, should not only be vetted for prior criminal offences and violations of human rights or humanitarian law, but also for prior misconduct while in the service of the organization).
These proposals must be read alongside the recommendations of the recently published “OISL” report on Sri Lanka. That report calls upon the international community to ‘ensure that no member of the Sri Lankan security forces is sent on a UN peacekeeping without vetting to establish that the individual, including commanders, have not in any way been involved in human rights violations or criminal acts. Any allegations of abuses by Sri Lankan peacekeepers while on peacekeeping duties must be fully investigated by the authorities.’
Impunity without borders
The example of Haiti clearly illustrates that a domestic culture of impunity and the failure of the Sri Lankan government to hold its military accountable for systematic abuses has far reaching consequences for the conduct of Sri Lankan soldiers.
If Sri Lankan troops are able to act with de facto impunity at home, it is not difficult to understand why these same troops would consider that their actions abroad are likely to be dealt with in a similar manner. In the circumstances, the International Truth and Justice Project’s call to suspend the involvement of Sri Lankan police and military personnel in UN peacekeeping missions ‘pending and independent international inquiry into allegations of current, systematic and widespread sexual abuse by the security forces in Sri Lanka’ would seem reasonable.
At the very least, effective vetting and accountability strategies must be in place before Sri Lanka’s offer to increase its contribution to UN peacekeeping is seriously considered. Furthermore, for a new Sri Lankan Government in search of credibility and legitimacy within the international community, disclosing the whereabouts and actions of units during the Sri Lankan civil war prior to them being sent on UN deployment would be a powerful shift towards a more transparent and effective approach to avoiding further abuses.