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Tamil groups ask Ottawa to bring Sri Lanka officials to global courts

OTTAWA — Tamil diaspora groups are praising Ottawa's sanctions on Sri Lanka officials, while asking Canada to bring that country to international tribunals.
Former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa, left, and former Defense Secretary and his brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa wave to supporters during a party convention held to announce the presidential candidacy in Colombo, Sri Lanka on August 11, 2019. Tamil diaspora groups are praising Ottawa's sanctions on Sri Lanka officials, including the brothers, while asking Canada to bring that country to international tribunals. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Eranga Jayawardena

OTTAWA — Tamil diaspora groups are praising Ottawa's sanctions on Sri Lanka officials, while asking Canada to bring that country to international tribunals.

"The Tamil diaspora has been calling for a new Nuremberg-like tribunal to prosecute the leadership of government of Sri Lanka," Vel Velautahpillai, a board member with the Federation of Global Tamil Organizations, said Monday on Parliament Hill.

Ottawa sanctioned four high-ranking officials earlier this month for alleged human-rights breaches during Sri Lanka's bloody, 26-year civil war with Tamil separatists.

The asset and travel ban included Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his older brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, who are both former presidents.

The pair oversaw the victory of Sri Lanka's majority Sinhalese population over Tamil groups, which came after widespread bloodshed and massacres.

Gotabaya temporarily fled his country last summer after mass protests over living costs, while Mahinda resigned from his post as prime minister last spring.

In reaction to the sanctions, the Sri Lanka government summoned Canada's envoy, and its diplomatic mission in Ottawa insists the Liberals have made arbitrary decisions to appease theTamil diaspora.

"Some of the extreme groups with separatist agendas do not wish to see progress in Sri Lanka, as it will jeopardize their livelihood in Canada," Sri Lanka's deputy high commissioner in Canada, Anzul Jhan, said in an email.

"It is only natural for these groups to be motivated by the Canadian sanctions."

Jhan argued that Ottawa is harming both its own relations with Sri Lanka and her country's internal reconciliation process.

"The sanctions come in the backdrop of tangible and meaningful progress made by the government in addressing issues of accountability and reconciliation, and in strengthening the country's democratic and governance structures," Jhan said.

"Given the significant community of Sri Lankan heritage of all ethnicities, Canada should play the role of peacemaker."

But Tamil groups say Ottawa has set a positive example for other countries, and they are asking the Liberals to start a process to bring senior officials to the International Criminal Courtover alleged crimes against humanity.

They also want Canada to bring Sri Lanka before the International Court of Justice, which handles disputes between countries. Velautahpillai said his group made that request to Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly nearly three weeks ago.

Joly’s office suggested Sri Lanka’s reconciliation initiatives are inadequate.

"We continue to call on Sri Lanka to take concrete actions to uphold its human rights obligations and to establish a meaningful accountability process," wrote spokesman Adrien Blanchard.

"We will continue to collaborate alongside international partners, including through relevant multilateral bodies to advocate for human rights and accountability in Sri Lanka."

The U.S. has previously sanctioned senior Sri Lanka officials, but Human Rights Watch says Canada is the only country to list the Rajapaksa brothers.

Velautahpillai's federation, which largely consists of grassroots groups in Canada and the United States, is calling on G7 countries to follow suit.

He said the group is not aware of any Canadian property held by the Rajapaksa brothers or the two military officials Canada also sanctioned last month. 

They are Sunil Ratnayake, whom a court sentenced to death for his role in a 2020 massacre of Tamils but who was later pardoned, and navy commander Chandana Prasad Hettiarachchi, who has been accused of abducting civilians who were later killed.

Washington sanctioned both officials in 2021, but has not brought similar action against the Rajapaksa brothers. The Trump administration also sanctioned Sri Lankan army chief Shavendra Silva in 2020, but Canada did not follow suit.

The Federation of Global Tamil Organizations argues that Sri Lanka has committed a genocide and needs to be held to account.

Last May, MPs passed a motion to create a day to recognize the genocide of Tamil people in Sri Lanka annually. Cabinet ministers supported the motion, but the Liberal government has steered clear of formally accusing the country of genocide.

Human-rights groups have accused the Sri Lanka government of impunity, while also documenting violence by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which Canada deems a terrorist group.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 30, 2023.

Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press

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