Monday, October 3, 2011

Sri Lanka abroad-Ambassadors non grata

A CONTROVERSIAL Sri Lankan army officer is leaving his diplomatic job in Germany, having served in Berlin for two years, after the federal prosecutor of Switzerland decided to investigate him for war crimes—should he ever enter that country. The prosecutor’s official determination means that Major-General Jagath Dias, if found on Swiss soil, could be interrogated on the charges against him. He could also be detained, if there is sufficient evidence to tie him to the commission of war crimes.

General Dias led a formation against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) at the end of a battle in which thousands of civilians perished. Just four months later, and despite enraged protests by Tamil activists abroad, he took up as deputy ambassador in Berlin. The mission is also accredited to Switzerland.

Two Swiss-based advocacy groups—TRIAL (Track Impunity Always) and the Society for Threatened Peoples (SPM)—responded to his appointment by submitting a confidential report against General Dias. Among the documents they lodged was an expert report on accountability for war crimes, commissioned by Ban Ki-moon, the UN’s secretary-general. It names General Dias as commander of the 57 Division, which reportedly shelled civilians and hospitals.

In a decision dated September 16th, the prosecutor found justification for opening an investigation against General Dias. With a catch: before any action can be taken, the general would need to visit Switzerland without diplomatic status.

So legal proceedings are a long way off. General Dias says he has no reason to enter Switzerland “as a diplomat, let alone as a civilian”. But SPM’s Ulrich Delius calls this a model case, from which clear judicial benchmarks for diplomatic immunity and war crimes might be derived.

Other pro-prosecution activists claim their campaign helped influence the Swiss to reject General Dias as a diplomatic representative. On August 31st, the Swiss government responded to a parliamentary question by saying it had formally taken up the allegations against General Dias with Sri Lanka. It declined to divulge details.

Similar moves could follow in other countries. With the war’s end in 2009, Sri Lanka ladled out diplomatic jobs in key missions to victorious military commanders, including serving officers such as General Dias.

The deputy permanent representative to the UN in New York is Major-General Shavendra de Silva; his unit is accused of shooting dead two Tamil Tiger leaders as they surrendered waving white flags on May 18th, 2009. He denies the charge.

General Silva is also now the subject of legal action, although this is a civil suit seeking monetary compensation for loss of life. A New York court has summoned him on a plaint filed by two groups on behalf of Vathsala Devi and Seetharam Sivam, two Sri Lankan Tamils whose relatives were allegedly tortured and killed by troops under General Silva’s command.

Mrs Devi is the wife of Thurairajasingham Devi, alias “Colonel Ramesh”, a prominent LTTE fighter whose corpse, apparently mutilated, was featured on the Channel 4 documentary “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields”. Mr Sivam is representing his late father, Siththar Sivam, a retired postmaster from Suthanphirapuram in the north. He says General Silva, as commander of the 58 Division, must answer for his father’s death.

He was first injured when shells fell onto his village home. But he wasn’t killed until the shelling of a hospital in Puthukkudiyiruppu, during General Silva’s march through the district.

A legal clinic and and NGO at American University in Washington, DC filed the suit.

Summons were served on General Silva on September 23rd, but it seems unlikely that he will appear in court. Sri Lanka maintains that he enjoys diplomatic immunity and that America, as the UN’s host nation, must ensure that he can work unhindered.

General Dias however, against whom protest was lodged at official levels, is due back in Colombo. While Swiss media reported that he is being recalled over the accusations of his involvement in war crimes, Sri Lanka maintains that he is simply finishing the natural course of his two-year term.

Rights groups are urging Switzerland to press Sri Lanka into investigating allegations of war crimes against its own army as well as the LTTE, and prosecuting wrongdoers. But Sri Lanka has already rejected the notion of “retributive justice”. Instead it has appointed a “Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission”, tasked with recommending how to avoid future strife.

Many Tamil diaspora groups and other activists will not be placated with anything less than punishment. But as the diplomatic gulf widens between Sri Lanka and Western countries, domestic support for the government and its military commanders is only likely to grow stronger among the Sinhala Buddhist majority.

In most of Sri Lanka General Dias is already revered for his bravery and efficacy in fighting the rebels. He is sure to be welcomed back from Germany as a hero. Whatever the reasons for his return, he should not regret saying goodbye to his post in Berlin. In Colombo he is tipped to be the next commander of the army. By Banyan for The Economist

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