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.

"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 over the move, accusing Ottawa of caving to Tamil diaspora politics.

Sri Lanka's Foreign Minister Ali Sabry called the move arbitrary and harmful to both relations with Canada and to his country's reconciliation process.

But Tamil groups say Ottawa has set an 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.

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.

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

Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press