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Britain needs to do more to bring war criminals to justice

Why is it left to a small NGO to track down suspected war criminals? Yasmin Sooka and Frances Harrison of the International Truth and Justice Project say it’s time for the UK government to step up

Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, has seen recent protests against the government. Image: Steven MacKenzie

Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, has seen recent protests against the government. Image: Steven MacKenzie

In a world where power often overrules justice, it can seem there are fewer consequences for mass murder than individual killings.

Sri Lanka is a case in point. Everyone knows that mass atrocities were committed there – they’ve watched the excellent Channel 4 Killing Fields documentaries even if they haven’t studied the United Nations reports. Hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils escaped from Sri Lankan security forces intent on killing, torturing and persecuting them.

Some of the victims settled in the UK over the decades, working in supermarkets, petrol stations, off licences, becoming doctors, engineers, poets and dancers. The UK Government should hold those responsible for the atrocities accountable by prosecuting or sanctioning them.

Now is the time to act; Sri Lanka’s former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is an alleged perpetrator of war crimes and crimes against humanity and now on the run. Known as the ‘terminator’, he was the powerful secretary of defence in 2009 when the UN estimated that between 40,000 and 70,000 civilians were killed in an area barely twice the size of Westminster.

Women and children cowering in shallow trenches and flimsy tents were relentlessly pummelled by sophisticated weaponry – multi-barrelled rocket launchers, supersonic jets, tanks, gunboats, cluster munitions and white phosphorous. Civilians were deliberately starved by Gotabayaand deprived of medicine in the war zone. When the end came, Tamil prisoners of war were executed, their corpses mutilated, subjected to enforced disappearance, raped and tortured in custody. The abductions and torture continue to this day, with Sri Lankan victims fleeing to the UK for sanctuary making up the largest cohort at rehabilitation charities like Freedom from Torture.

As a former military officer, in 2009 Gotabaya Rajapaksa allegedly issued direct orders to the brigadiers and generals at the frontline. He was not only fully aware of the atrocities, but watched them happen. The International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP) has spent years researching the crimes and his alleged role in them.

It’s been a cat and mouse game. The ITJP assisted victims to bring a civil suit against Mr Rajapaksa for torture in 2019 in California, serving court papers on him in the car park of Trader Joe’s. Evading accountability, he returned home, successfully stood for election, and as the newly elected President, enjoyed immunity from all prosecution.

Three years later, following mass protests over the spectacular economic collapse in Sri Lanka, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, his wife and bodyguard fled Sri Lanka on an air force jet, initially to a luxury resort in the Maldives and then to Singapore.

ITJP lawyers filed a complaint to the Attorney General’s office of Singapore alleging that as Gotabaya Rajapaksa had committed war crimes Singapore has a duty to arrest and prosecute him under universal jurisdiction – a legal concept that says some international crimes are so heinous that those responsible are ‘enemies of all mankind’ and everyone’s responsibility to prosecute.

Mr. Rajapaksa responded by moving to Thailand, escaping justice for now. One day we will checkmate him but in the meantime, the UK needs to make clear to Thailand that it is legally and morally unacceptable to give alleged war criminals sanctuary, especially when thousands of his victims live in Britain.

It shouldn’t be left up to a small NGO to chase war criminals around the world. The UK too needs to do more.

Yasmin Sooka is Executive Director of the ITJP, a leading transitional justice expert and internationally regarded as a human rights defender. Frances Harrison is Director of the ITJP, a former BBC Foreign Correspondent and author of Still Counting the Dead: Survivors of Sri Lanka’s Hidden War

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