Sri Lanka names war veteran as army chief, U.S., U.N. critical of decision

COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka’s President on Monday named war veteran Shavendra Silva as its army chief, drawing sharp criticism from the United States and the United Nations over the appointment of an officer who has been accused of serious human rights violations.

Chief of staff of Sri Lankan army Shavendra Silva attends a news conference in Colombo, Sri Lanka May 16, 2019. Picture taken May 16, 2019. On August 19, 2019 Shavendra Silva was named as army chief. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

Silva, 55, is credited with successfully leading an army division against dissident Tamil Tigers in the final phases of the island nation’s 26-year-long brutal civil war

His victory, however, was highly controversial. Thousands of civilians were killed in the last phases of the armed conflict, including in areas declared by the government to be a ‘no fire zone’ which came under sustained army shelling, including hospitals.

A United Nations panel has accused Silva’s division of suspected extrajudicial executions of unarmed rebels in the final week of the war which ended in 2009 and systematic torture of people in custody.

Silva, who joined the army in 1984 and was its chief of staff since January, 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,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said in a statement on Monday.

His promotion “severely compromises Sri Lanka’s commitment to promote justice and accountability”, she said, adding that it also set back security sector reform.

Washington expressed its disapproval of Silva’s appointment in a strongly-worded statement.

“The allegations of gross human rights violations against him, documented by the United Nations and other organizations, are serious and credible,” the U.S. Embassy in Colombo said in a statement.

“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.”

Silva was named head of the army after the previous chief Mahesh Senanayake’s term ended on Sunday.

His appointment demonstrates a disregard for human rights, said civil society groups including the Center for Policy Alternatives.

The Sri Lankan President’s office and the military media unit did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the criticism.

Reporting by Sankalp Phartiyal and Shihar Aneez in Colombo; additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; editing by Ed Osmond