UN urged to stop sending Sri Lanka commander for Lebanon peacekeeping

The United Nations have come under fire for failing to screen a Sri Lankan military commander before his deployment for peacekeeping operations in Lebanon.

Several rights organisations have written to the head of UN peacekeeping operations requesting to stop Lieutenant Colonel Rathnappuli Wasantha Kumara Hewage due to lead the 12th Force Protection Company (FPC) for the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) on 18 February 2018.

A commander with frontline combat command experience in the final phase of the civil war in 2008-9, Lt Col Hewage “should have been screened out of all UN peacekeeping duties,” says the letter marked “very urgent” to Under Secretary General for Peacekeeping Operations Jean-Pierre Lacroix.

“We note that the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka has been asked to vet UN peacekeepers from Sri Lanka but consider that ultimately the responsibility lies with your department,” it adds.

Extensive violations

The letter details the commander’s wartime record in a period when extensive violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law perpetrated by the Sri Lankan security forces. 

“These violations involved repeated targeted attacks on civilian objects, such as hospitals and food queues, denial of food and medicine to civilians, as well as extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearance by the military, which met the threshold for war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

Referring to the official website of the Sinha Regiment, the letter points out that Lt. Col. Hewage (then Major) was present in Puthkudyiruppu frontline after he  'took over duties as the Commanding Officer of the 14th Battalion on 20th February, 2009'. This was after his active participation in the massive military assault on Kilinochchi as the Acting Commander of 4 Sinha Regiment, which functioned under the 57 Division led by Major General Jagath Dias. 

This information already in the hands of the UN would have been enough to reject his application, says the letter, which highlights that the failure to screen Sri Lanka troops and senior personnel ended up in sending three commanders with a war record for peacekeeping operations in Lebanon immediately before Lt Col Hewage.

The commanders are Lieutenant Colonel C.A Rajapaksha, Lieutenant Colonel Dinesh Udugama and Lieutenant Colonel G.P Kodithuwakku.

“All of this suggests inadequate screening by both the UN and Sri Lanka who also has a due diligence obligation, and this is only the contingent commanders, not the men serving under them,” Under Secretary General Lacroix was told.

The Lebanon-bound Sri Lanka Force Protection Unit contingent  comprises of 10 officers and 140 other rankers, says the Sri Lanka army.