Withdraw the Defence Advisor banner: Urge the UK government to halt training and defence engagement with the Sri Lankan military

Withdraw the Defence Advisor

We, the undersigned, are deeply concerned by the UK government’s continued defence engagement with the Sri Lankan military despite no one being held accountable for war crimes committed by Sri Lankan forces during the civil war. With the government of Sri Lanka reneging on promises of accountability and justice, and perpetrators being promoted rather than prosecuted, the UK must stop all non-essential military engagement with the Sri Lankan defence establishment and withdraw the resident Defence Advisor from Colombo.

According to the Ministry of Defence’s Annual Report and Accounts 2018-19, the UK’s defence engagement programme with Sri Lanka is conditional on the military making progress on democracy, accountability, transparency, and ethics. Commitments made by the previous government between 2015 and 2019 led to the establishment of a resident Defence Advisor in Colombo. However, the government failed to live up to its promises and appointed Lieutenant General Shavendra Silva, who is credibly accused of multiple gross human rights violations, as Commander of the Army in August 2019.

It is now more than twelve months since Silva, notorious for commanding the brutal 58th Division during the final stages of the war, was appointed as Army Commander. There is credible evidence that the division carried out extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and sexual violence under Silva’s command. He has since been made Acting Chief of Defence Staff and has a prominent role in the current administration. Silva’s role as Army Commander is a clear signal that the Government of Sri Lanka has no interest in prosecuting individuals who are credibly accused of gross human rights violations during the war.

In November 2019, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected. He held the powerful role of Defence Secretary during the last stages of the civil war and is himself accused of involvement in war crimes. His government has rejected the promises made by the previous government to pursue justice and accountability and has instead vowed to protect soldiers from prosecution.

In February 2020, the Government of Sri Lanka withdrew from the Resolution 30/1 process at the UN Human Rights Council, under which the government had committed to delivering justice and accountability for crimes committed during Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war. In March 2020, the President pardoned a soldier convicted of murdering eight Tamil men and boys in 2000, sending a strong signal that the armed forces are above the law.

The UK must immediately review all activities under its defence engagement strategy with Sri Lanka and withdraw the resident Defence Advisor.

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Warm welcomes. Friendly handshakes. Cordial cups of tea…

…with the leaders of armed forces never held accountable for the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians they were supposed to protect.

To this day, almost no one has been held accountable for crimes committed during the civil war in Sri Lanka, or the many other human rights violations committed both before and after.

Join us to call on the UK government to halt its engagement with the Sri Lankan armed forces and withdraw the resident Defence Advisor post. Sign the petition today.

In January 2019, a resident Defence Advisor post was established in Colombo for the first time since 2009. The presence of a UK Defence Advisor and the active programme of engagement between the UK and Sri Lankan armed forces lends legitimacy to the Sri Lankan military. The Sri Lankan military regularly presents its interactions with the UK military as an endorsement of their work.

Since 2015, the UK has been rebuilding its relationship with Sri Lanka’s armed forces. This includes training programmes, joint military exercises, and diplomatic visits to senior commanders. The UK’s Ministry of Defence says that strengthening its partnership with the Sri Lankan military is based on improvements in the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, and the commitment of the armed forces to accountability, democracy, and transparency.

Yet to this day, almost no one has been held accountable for crimes committed during the civil war in Sri Lanka, or the many other human rights violations committed both before and after. Instead of being held accountable, alleged perpetrators in the armed forces have been promoted to key positions in the current administration.

Despite aggressive militarisation and an ongoing failure to deliver accountability for alleged international crimes committed by the Sri Lankan military, the UK military continues its friendly engagement, carrying out joint exercises and diplomatic visits to senior commanders.

Sign our petition today to ask the UK government to halt defence engagement with the Sri Lankan military until there is a realistic prospect of accountability for these crimes.

If you live in the UK, please also write to your MP using this template letter, asking them to contact the Ministry of Defence and Foreign and Commonwealth Office and join the campaign to withdraw the Defence Advisor.

Defence Advisor meets Overall Operations Commander
Defence Advisor meets with Shavendra Silva

Going backwards on accountability

Conditions set by the UK government for continued engagement with the Sri Lankan military are not being met. In the period since the Defence Advisor was appointed, the Sri Lankan government has failed to live up to its promises, reneging on promises of accountability and justice made to the international community and pursuing aggressive militarisation.

It is clear that progress on democracy, accountability, transparency, and ethics has not only stalled, but been reversed.

In August 2019, Lieutenant General Shavendra Silva was appointed Army Commander. Silva is credibly accused of numerous mass atrocity crimes during the final stages of the war, including bombing hospitals and other civilian targets, and executing surrendering men and women. Silva has since also been appointed as Acting Chief of Defence Staff, the highest position with the armed forces.

Silva’s promotion is an insult to victims and survivors and a clear signal that the Government of Sri Lankan has no interest in prosecuting individuals who are credibly accused of gross human rights violations during the war.

The new President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, himself accused of involvement in mass atrocity crimes, has pulled Sri Lanka out of international agreements to pursue justice for crimes committed during the war and has promised to protect soldiers from prosecution. In March 2020, he pardoned a soldier convicted of murdering eight Tamil men and boys in 2000, including a five-year-old child.

Timeline showing deterioration on human rights since 2019

What has the UK government said about the Defence Advisor position?

We wrote to ministers at the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in July to set out our concerns and call on them to withdraw the Defence Advisor post and reduce engagement with the Sri Lankan armed forces. They have rejected our call, writing that the aim of UK defence engagement with Sri Lanka’s armed forces is to “encourage the development of a modern, accountable and human rights compliant military.”

It is not clear how effective such engagement can be when the most senior position in the Sri Lankan military (Chief of Defence Staff) is occupied by an individual credibly accused of mass atrocity crimes and gross human rights violations.

Since arriving in Colombo in January 2019, the UK Defence Advisor has met with at least four senior commanders credibly accused of gross human rights violations, including General Silva himself.

Far from encouraging “the development of a modern, accountable and human rights compliant military”, British engagement with the Sri Lankan armed forces is boosting the reputation of a military that operates with total impunity.

Sign the petition today.

 

Four senior commanders accused of gross human rights violations whom the Defence Advisor has met since January 2019