COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lanka's president on Monday appointed a general accused of grave human rights abuses in the final stages of its long civil war as the country's new army chief, a move a top United Nations human rights official said is likely to impact contributions to U.N peacekeeping missions.
The new commander, Maj. Gen. Shavendra Silva, who was also promoted to the rank of lieutenant general, was in charge of the 58th Division which encircled the final stronghold of the Tamil Tiger rebels in the last stages of the civil war in 2009. Rights groups have accused the division of violating international human rights laws, including shelling a hospital.
Silva's appointment comes as President Maithripala Sirisena and his government face criticism that they failed to heed warnings ahead of a series of suicide bomb attacks in April. The attacks by two local Muslim groups that had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group killed more than 260 people.
Silva is respected by many in Sri Lanka's ethnic Sinhalese majority. He has denied attacking the hospital in the final stages of the war.
The government declared victory over the rebels in May 2009, ending the Tamil Tigers' 26-year campaign for an independent state for minority ethnic Tamils. Both the Sri Lankan military and the rebels have been accused of wartime abuses.
The United Nations has said some 45,000 ethnic Tamil civilians may have been killed in the final months of the conflict.
According to a 2015 investigation by the U.N. office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, near the end of the war Silva was tasked with capturing the Putumattalan area from the Tamil Tigers. It found evidence that both a hospital and a U.N. hub were shelled.
"Witnesses alleged the use of cluster-type munitions by the Sri Lankan armed forces in their attacks on Putumattalan hospital and the United Nations hub," the report of the investigation said.
The government promised the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2015 that it would investigate the allegations and involve foreign prosecutors and judges, but nothing has been done so far.
"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," a statement quoted UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet.
"It undermines reconciliation efforts, particularly in the eyes of victims and survivors who suffered greatly in the war. It also sets back security sector reform, and is likely to impact on Sri Lanka's ability to continue contributing to UN peacekeeping efforts," she said.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres' spokesman said the U.N. is concerned about the appointment.
"The United Nations remains committed to the highest human rights standards for all personnel deployed as part of U.N. peace operations," spokesman Stéphane Dujarric said. "All Sri Lankan uniformed personnel participating in U.N. peace operations undergo extensive human rights screening."
Sixty one personnel mostly from Sri Lanka Army Medical Corps left for South Sudan last month under the 6th phase of deployment. The U.S. Embassy in Colombo expressed concern over Silva's appointment.
"The allegations of gross human rights violations against him, documented by the United Nations and other organizations, are serious and credible," according to 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."
The rights group International Truth and Justice Project said the appointment marks the end of any reconciliation process.
"This is a man who has shown his willingness to violate international law," the group's executive director, Yasim Sooka, said in a statement.
"His promotion will spark fear throughout the country but especially among the hundreds of thousands of Tamils who suffered immense loss in 2009 when Silva allegedly oversaw attacks on civilian sites," Sooka said.