In June the Australian High Commissioner met Army Commander Shavendra Silva to hand over PPE supplies and accept a gift in return, posing for photos shared by the Sri Lankan Army. UN reports link Silva to mass atrocity crimes, including extrajudicial killings and disappearances. The US designated him last year on the basis of his involvement in gross human rights violations, meaning he and his family are banned from entering the country.
This is not the first time diplomats have publicly promoted meetings and photographs with members of the Sri Lankan government credibly accused of war crimes:
-Earlier this year, the French Ambassador met with Minister of Fisheries Douglas Devananda, later deleting the tweet promoting the meeting following criticism on social media, including by the Sri Lanka Campaign. Leader of a pro-government paramilitary group active during the war, Devananda is accused of involvement in extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, extortion, and violence against civilians.
-In October last year, the UN World Food Program took part in a staged photo with Secretary of Defence Kamal Gunaratne, who was among commanders who prevented food supplies from reaching trapped civilians in Mullivaikal during the final stages of the war and intentionally attacked food distribution points according to UN reports.
-Last year, the UK High Commissioner had photos taken accepting gifts from Silva during a meeting and we have identified meetings between the UK’s Defence Advisor in Colombo and at least five individuals credibly accused of mass atrocity crimes.
The government is littered with alleged perpetrators in key positions, as President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (also credibly accused of gross human rights violations) has appointed many former military commanders to civilian positions since his election in 2019. This presents diplomats with difficult decisions on how to maintain relationships and influence the government without lending legitimacy to those accused of horrific crimes. It is vital for diplomats to understand how their meetings are used to bolster the legitimacy of alleged war criminals, to consider ways of mitigating harm when these meetings are unavoidable, and to take other actions to improve the human rights situation in Sri Lanka where possible.
Lending legitimacy to a culture of impunity
There is a persistent culture of impunity for human rights violations in Sri Lanka that has perpetuated cycles of violence over decades. Instead of being prosecuted, alleged perpetrators have been promoted to high profile positions in government. Despite credible evidence of their involvement in mass atrocity crimes and serious human rights violations, Silva, Devananda, and Gunaratne have never been investigated or prosecuted.
By engaging in uncritical publicity with these individuals, diplomats are lending legitimacy to their appointments and activities. The Sri Lankan government is able to exploit these diplomatic relationships as proof of their respectability and credibility: diplomats’ willingness to be photographed next to them normalises the presence of alleged war criminals in the government even as the human rights situation in the country continues to deteriorate.
This is evident in the Sri Lankan Army’s publicity around Silva’s recent meeting with the Australian High Commissioner: they presented this meeting as an endorsement (“an impressive gesture of goodwill and appreciation”) of the armed forces in the pandemic response. In reality, Sri Lanka’s COVID response, led by Silva, has been criticised for its heavy-handedness and militarisation by Sri Lanka civil society activists, including the Centre for Policy Alternatives, and by international NGOS, such as the International Commission of Jurists.
Code of conduct
Diplomatic engagement and humanitarian support can exist without endorsement of the problematic figures in the Sri Lankan government; for example Canada and the US presented pandemic supplies to the Ministry of Health in June, rather than to Army Commander Silva, avoiding endorsement of the militarisation of the pandemic response.
Various Codes of Conduct for diplomatic engagement exist, but, for example, the UK’s Code of Ethics and Canada’s Conduct Abroad Code make no mention of human rights considerations. Reputation of the diplomat’s country does feature heavily in existing codes, including in reference to receiving gifts: it is surely damaging to their reputation for diplomats to be seen to accept gifts and take tea with individuals accused of mass atrocity crimes.
Sometimes meeting with problematic individuals cannot be avoided, especially given the number of such individuals who occupy high positions in the current government. Diplomats may need to liaise with senior army commanders about issues of national security or the safety of citizens. However, such meetings should take place only when absolutely necessary, and diplomats should refuse to be photographed and not accept gifts during the meeting. Human rights considerations, acceptable situations for meeting problematic individuals, and behavioural expectations at those meetings should all be set out in updated codes of conduct.
Using diplomacy to protect and empower victims and activists
As well as avoiding conferring legitimacy on alleged perpetrators, diplomats can improve the situation for victim-survivor communities and human rights defenders on the ground if they take proactive steps. It is painful and insulting for victim-survivor communities, still fighting for justice 12 years on from the end of the war, to see diplomats smile next to the individuals responsible for their suffering.
Public statements about the need for the government of Sri Lanka to respect human rights and address the past are seen as hollow when the same diplomats are sitting down to tea with alleged perpetrators. Diplomats can show solidarity by meeting regularly with civil society and victim-survivor communities, and publicising these meetings where it is safe to do so.
For example, during the Commonwealth Summit in Sri Lanka in 2013, UK Prime Minister David Cameron missed the opening ceremony to visit Jaffna, where he talked to residents of camps for people internally displaced by the war. This kind of visibility sends a powerful signal to the Sri Lankan government that diplomats are sincere about their concern for human rights and can protect those whose activism places them in danger of reprisals and surveillance by the Sri Lankan state. Diplomatic visits make it harder for the state to arrest or disappear activists and signal that there will be diplomatic consequences if their rights are violated. Regular meetings also ensure that diplomats are kept informed about the issues that affect these communities and diplomats can use their position to amplify the voices of victims and activists.
We continue to press diplomats to carefully consider the challenges of engaging with the current government. They should thoroughly vet any officials in advance of meetings, and refuse to meet those credibly accused of human rights violations except where absolutely necessary. Moreover they must be aware of the risk that such meetings may confer legitimacy on these individuals, and normalise a government filled with alleged perpetrators. To balance their engagement with a problematic government, diplomats can use their position to amplify the concerns of victim-survivor communities.