ITJP: Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s War Time Role

by International Truth and Justice Project, Johannesburg, South Africa, January 17, 2024

ITJP Gotabaya-Rajapaksas-war-time-role-Jan-2024_Final_26.01.2024_compressed

This report alleges that former Sri Lankan President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa had command and superior responsibility for multiple violations of international humanitarian law and international criminal law amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the final phase of the civil war. It is a sequel to the ITJP report which examined his alleged complicity in enforced disappearance in 1989 in Matale District.

Press Release, January 30, 2024
Press release: Is Gotabaya Rajapaksa ever going to be held accountable?
Johannesburg: Fifteen years after the war in Sri Lanka ended, mounting evidence has emerged
against former President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, for his pivotal role in the commission of war
crimes and crimes against humanity during the civil war, said human rights lawyers in a new
“If Sri Lanka is serious about dealing with its violent past, the litmus test is to hold Gotabaya
Rajapaksa criminally accountable for war crimes and crimes against humanity,” commented the
International Truth and Justice Project’s executive director, Yasmin Sooka.
The new report presents detailed linkage evidence connecting former President Rajapaksa to
orders given by him to commanders in the field in 2009 when he was secretary to the Ministry of
Defence. Although not the army commander, Gotabaya had command and effective control of
the security forces. The report shows he had contemporaneous knowledge of the violations of
international humanitarian law and international criminal law being committed, and failed to
take any steps to prevent them, or to hold those under his command accountable. He and
successive Sri Lankan governments have had countless opportunities since the war-end to initiate
credible investigations into allegations of gross human rights violations and to establish
prosecutions. Instead of allowing the truth to come to light, Gotabaya and his successors have
perpetuated denial of the complicity of the security forces in these violations, rewarding and
protecting the alleged perpetrators.
The 96-page document examines evidence of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s involvement in and
knowledge of attacks on the No Fire Zones set up to protect civilians, his failure to prevent and
investigate summary executions, enforced disappearance, torture, rape and sexual violence,
arbitrary detention and the denial of humanitarian aid to civilians.
This follows a report published by the ITJP in 2022 which examined Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s alleged
complicity in mass enforced disappearance in an earlier period of violence in the late eighties in
Sri Lanka. As a young army officer in Matale District in 1989, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was in
command and control when more than 700 people – mainly from the majority Sinhala
community – were disappeared under his watch. Both he and his subordinates from the period
were promoted and went on to play pivotal roles in the 2009 conflict with one currently serving
as Chief of Defence Staff despite being designated for gross violations of human rights by the US
In response to an ITJP submission, UN experts wrote to the current government in 2022 asking
what they had done to investigate Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s role in the violence in the late eighties.
To date there has been no response. This is despite the fact that the government of Sri Lanka
says it now wants to establish a Truth Commission to deal with the past – something it had
promised in 2015.
“Gotabaya Rajapaksa is arguably the most notorious alleged perpetrator involved in both the
violence against Tamils and Sinhalese; there is a direct line of impunity running from 1989 to 2009
and to the present day,” said Ms. Sooka. “There have been several commissions of inquiry with
reports unpublished and recommendations not implemented; these left many families of the
victims disillusioned and distrustful of the government. It is widely accepted that commissions
alone cannot achieve that guarantee of non-recurrence that societies need after conflict – without
criminal accountability”.
Accountability Attempts
The ITJP assisted eleven Tamil and Sinhala victims to file a civil case against Gotabaya Rajapaksa
for torture in the United States in 2019 but he acquired head of state immunity by being elected
President that year. Another case accused him of involvement in the assassination of a Sinhalese
newspaper editor.
In 2022, Rajapaksa was chased out of office by protestors angry about his mismanagement of the
economy. He fled to Singapore where the ITJP submitted a criminal complaint against him over
his war time role but he soon returned to Sri Lanka where he has continued to enjoy protection
despite the change of President.
Canada however has led the way in recently sanctioning Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brother.
Other countries though have been reluctant to follow suit, including those who voted at the UN
Human Rights Council for the establishment of a UN project looking at accountability for Sri
The current government of Sri Lanka has been arguing it can’t tackle a crippling economic crisis
at the same time as holding the security forces accountable for mass atrocities. The same
arguments were made in the past and only further entrenched impunity.

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