Sri Lanka rejects criticism of army chief’s appointment

Sri Lanka Army commander Shavendra Silva

Sri Lanka’s government on Tuesday hit out at foreign criticism of its appointment of a general accused of war abuses as the new army commander.

The foreign ministry said in a statement that the decision to appoint a new commander was a sovereign decision by the head of state.

“Foreign entities trying to influence the decisions and internal administrative processes of public service promotions in Sri Lanka is unwarranted and unacceptable,” it said.

“Articulating a position of concern on this appointment by certain bilateral partners and international organizations, based on allegations, is regrettable and contrary to the principles of natural justice espoused by all responsible members of the international community,” it said.

President Maithripala Sirisena on Monday appointed Lt. Gen. Shavendra Silva as the new army commander.

Silva was in charge of the 58th Division, one of the groups that encircled the final stronghold of the Tamil Tiger rebels in the last stages of the civil war in 2009. The government declared victory over the rebels in May 2009, ending the Tamil Tigers’ 26-year campaign for an independent state for minority ethnic Tamils.

Both the Sri Lankan military and the rebels have been accused of wartime abuses. The United Nations has said some 45,000 ethnic Tamil civilians may have been killed in the final months of the conflict.

According to a 2015 investigation by the U.N. office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, near the end of the war Silva was tasked with capturing the Putumattalan area from the Tamil Tigers. It found evidence that both a hospital and a U.N. hub were shelled.

The investigation cited witnesses as saying cluster-type munitions were used by the Sri Lankan armed forces in their attacks on Putumattalan hospital and the United Nations hub. Silva has denied the allegations.

The government promised the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2015 that it would investigate the allegations and involve foreign prosecutors and judges, but nothing has been done so far.

The U.N. chief’s spokesman and the U.S. Embassy in Colombo expressed concern about Silva’s selection, saying the move undermines the post-war justice and reconciliation process which the government has promised to undertake.

In Washington, a senior State Department official said Tuesday the United States was “deeply concerned” by Silva’s appointment and was registering its objections. The official, who was not authorized to discuss diplomatic discussions publicly and spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity, said the appointment could affect cooperation and improved military relations between Washington and Colombo.

The official said the appointment “undermines Sri Lanka’s international reputation and its commitments to promote justice and accountability.” The official added that should Silva remain in the post it might also hurt a planned $480 million Millennium Challenge Corporation grant intended to help the country modernize its urban transport system and networks.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said Sri Lanka’s move could impact its ability to contribute to U.N. peacekeeping missions.

The European Union delegation in Sri Lanka issued a statement Tuesday endorsing Bachelet’s comments.

It said Silva’s promotion “calls into question Sri Lanka’s commitments to the U.N. Human Rights Council, as recently as March 2019, to ensure justice and accountability. It also undermines Sri Lanka’s efforts towards national reconciliation and sends a worrying message to victims and survivors of the war.” The statement was issued in agreement with the embassies of Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.