Justice for the Victims of War Crimes Act, Biden Administration’s Answer to the Autocratic Rajapaksa Regime in Sri Lanka

“If a man acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the carriage” Siddhartha Gautama Buddha, The Dhammapada. Over the years, a number of deposed corrupt foreign leaders have sought refuge in the United States. Examples include Syngman Rhee, the deposed President of South Korea; Lon Nol, President of Cambodia; Nguyen Cao Ky, Prime Minister of South Vietnam; and Filipino President Ferdinand Marcos. According to Daniel Krcmaric and Abel Escriba-Folch in their University of Chicago journal of politics article, the US has been a top destination for ousted and exiled dictators. The Biden Administration has taken significant steps to promote democracy and human rights. At the 2021 Summit of Democracy President Biden called for world leaders to commit to a democratic renewal centered on: strengthening democracy and defending against authoritarianism, fighting corruption, and promoting respect for human rights.

In addition, President Biden has signed into law the historic “Justice for the Victims of War Crimes Act” which passed with strong bipartisan support. This Act gives the US Department of Justice (DOJ) jurisdiction to prosecute persons in the US for war crimes committed anywhere in the world regardless of the nationality of the perpetrator. The new Act poses a direct threat to many autocrats, including former Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Rajapaksa and his family face multiple human rights cases in the United States. Rajapaksa had initially attempted to enter the US after the people’s uprising. Rajapaksa is a former US citizen, and his wife still holds citizenship. After Rajapaksa was initially denied entry, it was reported that he was applying for permanent residency. This isn’t the first time a dictator has tracked his bloody footprints over the American border. We only need to think of Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, or Anastasio Somoza of Nicaragua, who was responsible for the murder of ABC reporter Bill Stewart. Somoza even had the same pretext as Rajapaksa for coming to the US: his wife was an American citizen. Somoza, at least, never made it very far. President Carter denied him asylum, pointing to the ousted president’s string of well-documented atrocities. Rajapaksa’s three-year regime saw massive corruption, the stifling of parliamentary oversight, rampant human rights and civil rights violations, and a sneering contempt for the values of a republic. He saw himself as a kind of monarch and his family (many of whom he appointed to high office) as beyond accountability.

The repressive regime of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, 2019-2022, was responsible for multiple human rights violations, nepotism, rampant corruption, and suppression of democratic values. For corruption, you don’t require to look far; the former Sri Lankan ambassador in Washington DC, a Rajapaksa family member, was charged by US courts. Rajapaksa gave up his American citizenship before the 2019 elections because of a Sri Lankan law that barred foreign nationals from running for president. His regime ended in July 2022 following popular protest. His initial attempt to enter the US was denied just after the protest and he fled to Maldives, Singapore and Thailand. In August, it was reported that he applied for US green card to join his family in California.

On International Human Rights Day, the State Department sanctioned a secret unit of the Sri Lankan Army, the so-called Tripoli Platoon. The Tripoli Platoon was reportedly Rajapaksa’s hit squad. When Gotabaya Rajapaksa was defence secretary, any journalist or dissident who ended up in one of Tripoli’s unmarked white vans would undoubtedly be tortured and often never be seen again. Lasantha Wickramatunga, the editor of the Sunday Leader, was one victim. Others included Prageeth Ekneligoda, Keith Noyahr, Upali Tennakoon, and Prageeth Eknaligoda. Federica Jansz, a reporter at the Sunday Leader was also threatened with a similar fate and turned for protection to the US Department of State. According to the Center for Justice and accountability, ‘While Gotabaya Rajapaksa was Secretary of Defence from 2005 to 2015, dozens of journalists were killed, tortured, abducted, or disappeared.

You can ask Sandya Ekneligoda about “dignity” and “human rights” under the Rajapaksa regime. Her husband Prageeth Ekneligoda, a journalist, was “disappeared” by Sri Lankan security forces last year for prying too deeply into what should be public knowledge. He is presumed dead. Sandya Ekneligoda, named by BBC as one of the 100 most influential women of 2022, has called Sri Lanka “a cursed nation… Those who assumed political power robbed women of their happiness.”

But incredibly, Rajapaksa seems to stand a decent chance in Sri Lanka. He faces almost no pressure from his home government, which after the shakeup of his ouster, resettled into a status quo dominated by the Rajapaksa family and their military supporters. Current President Wickremasinghe, not elected by the people of Sri Lanka, along with his hybrid regime with Rajapaksa, has not held the former President to account. However, It gives me hope that human rights, dignity, and accountability are what my country desperately needs these past years, and the US and many other nations could help Sri Lanka. Canada was one such nation in this direction that imposed sanctions on four top Sri Lankan officials, including former presidents Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

There is little space for the present Sri Lankan regime to prosecute Rajapaksa, as there is a clear understanding of the Rajapaksa and their parliamentary majority rule. A similar cabinet of Ministers to the previous regime, with military and intelligence positions remaining the same as those appointed by Gotabaya Rajapaksa. A pathetic scenario where people’s protest hopes are lost, and accountability will be absent for the crimes committed in the past.

While domestic hopes in Sri Lanka are bleak, global attempts should be pushed forward from attempts such as “Justice for the Victims of War Crimes Act where like-minded allies could rally to strengthen global mechanisms to prosecute perpetrators of human rights. Alleged perpetrators of an act of evil and human rights should be prosecuted regardless of their sought refuge jurisdiction.

ABOUT AUTHOR: Senior Geopolitical Analyst, Strategic Advisor on Security and Author. Senior Fellow, The Millennium Project, Washington DC. Executive Director, South Asia Foresight Network (SAFN), The Millennium Project. asangaaa@gmail.com www.asangaabey.com

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