Colombo: In a controversial decision President Maithripala Sirisena has named a general accused of grave human rights abuses in Sri Lanka's long-running civil war as the country's new army chief. His decision has been criticised as a move likely to undermine reconciliation efforts. Major General Shavendra Silva, was also promoted to the rank of lieutenant general, was in charge of an army division that encircled the final stronghold of the Tamil Tiger rebels in the final stages of the war that ended a decade ago.
Silva's 58th division has been accused of violating international human rights laws, including shelling a hospital. Silva, 55, has denied the accusations. "I am deeply troubled by the appointment of Lieutenant-General Shavendra Silva as Commander of the Sri Lankan Army, despite the serious allegations of gross violations of international human rights and humanitarian law against him and his troops during the war," the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Michelle Bachelet said in a statement.
The United Nations has estimated that some 45,000 ethnic Tamil civilians might have been killed in the last months of the war, while other estimates put the number much higher. The International Truth and Justice Project, a group seeking accountability for wartime abuses, said Silva's appointment was "immensely damaging to the country". "After so much bloodshed Sri Lankans need to hold their leaders accountable in order to stop the repeated cycles of violence," Yasmin Sooka, the organisation's executive director, said. "Silva's promotion, however, sends a message of total impunity."
The group also noted that Silva's appointment was made months before presidential elections are scheduled to take place in December. Former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa is hoping to run for president. He is also facing allegations of war crimes over his role in guiding Sri Lanka's war against Tamil rebels a decade ago. The appointment of Silva was also criticised by the United States.
"This appointment undermines Sri Lanka's international reputation and its commitments to promote justice and accountability, especially at a time when the need for reconciliation and social unity is paramount," the US embassy in Colombo said in a statement.