The general sat on a plastic lawn chair in the garden of his mother’s home, the scent of tropical blooms filling the air as he talked about the alleged rape and sodomy of a Haitian teenager by a Sri Lankan peacekeeper.
There was no rape, insisted Maj. Gen. Jagath Dias, who was dispatched to Haiti to investigate the 2013 case. He may not have been the best choice for that job — Dias had been accused of atrocities in his own country’s vicious civil war.
Dias didn’t talk to the accuser, he told The Associated Press, nor did he interview medical staff who examined her. But he did clear his soldier, who remained in the Sri Lankan military.
It wasn’t the first time that Sri Lankan soldiers were accused of sexual abuse: In 2007, a group of Haitian children identified 134 Sri Lankan peacekeepers in a child sex ring that went on for three years, the AP reported in April.
In that case, the Sri Lankan military repatriated 114 of the peacekeepers, but none was ever jailed.
In fact, Sri Lanka has never prosecuted a single soldier for sexual assault or sexual misconduct while serving in a peacekeeping mission abroad, the AP found.
The alleged abuses committed by its troops abroad stem from a culture of impunity that arose during Sri Lanka’s civil war and has seeped into its peacekeeping missions. The government has consistently refused calls for independent investigations into its generation-long civil war, marked by widespread reports of rape camps, torture, mass killings and other alleged war crimes by its troops.
The UN has deployed thousands of peacekeepers from Sri Lanka despite these unresolved allegations of war crimes at home. This is a pattern repeated around the world: Strapped for troops, the UN draws recruits from many countries with poor human rights records for its peacekeeping program, budgeted at nearly $8 billion this year.
Asked about the AP’s investigation on Friday and the UN’s acceptance of Dias as an investigator, a spokesman said the UN was working with the Sri Lankan government on enhanced screening for prospective peacekeepers.
In future deployments, Sri Lanka will provide UN officials with military records and personal information dating back to 2005 for all soldiers it plans to send on missions so they can be screened by the UN, said Farhan Haq, the deputy spokesman for UN secretary general Antonio Guterres.
Sri Lankan officials will have “to certify in writing that (they’re) not aware of any allegations against any unit member having been involved in the commission of any acts that amount to violations of international human rights law or international humanitarian law,” he said.
Sri Lanka must also establish its own screening process for the soldiers and “pre-deployment training by UN standards and specifications including conduct of discipline on human rights and on sexual exploitation and abuse,” Haq said.
An AP investigation last month found that in the last 12 years up to March, an estimated 2,000 allegations of sexual abuse or exploitation have been levelled at UN peacekeepers and personnel. That tally could change as UN officials update their records and reconcile data from old files.
Congolese troops also have been accused of war crimes during their own longstanding war. As peacekeepers in Central African Republic, at least 17 have been accused of sexual abuse and exploitation. The situation in Congo, meanwhile, is so complex the country is hosting a UN peacekeeping mission to manage its own violent conflict while also sending personnel on peacekeeping missions to other countries.
Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan understands the predicament. When fighting gripped Rwanda, he struggled to find peacekeepers to help stem what would later become a mass slaughter that killed an estimated 800,000 people.
“Sometimes the UN needs troops,” Annan told the AP earlier this month. “And they are so desperate that they accept troops that they will normally not accept if they had the choice.”
In the case of the Haiti sex ring, nine children told UN investigators of being lured into having sex in exchange for food and then being passed from soldier to soldier. One girl said she didn’t even have breasts when she first had sex with a peacekeeper at age 12. Over the course of three years, another child said he had sex with more than 100 Sri Lankan peacekeepers, averaging about four a day.
The allegations of sexual abuse by Sri Lankan peacekeepers echo those of the country’s generation-long civil war against the ethnic Tamil rebel group, known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which was fighting for an independent homeland in the island nation’s north and east. Eight years after the war ended, people are increasingly coming forward to give horrific accounts of camps where they say they were tortured and gang-raped.
One Tamil woman said in testimony shared with the AP that she was kidnapped by masked men in plain clothes and taken blindfolded and gagged to what she thought was an army camp.
“He removed all my clothes and forced me down on a mattress on the floor and tied both of my hands and legs apart with a nylon rope to iron bars on both sides of the mattress,” she said. She was held for about two months, and repeatedly raped.
She described another of her tormentors, who was brought into the room she shared with four other girls. “He was asked to take his pick,” she told the International Truth and Justice Project, which issued a 57-page report in March documenting the alleged torture or rape of 43 people, some as recently as December. “He looked around and chose me. And took me to another room and raped me.”
She identified him from a series of photographs of soldiers. The AP found that the man, an officer, went on to become a UN peacekeeper.
The woman asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution. The Sri Lankan army and the government declined to comment on the report.
Sri Lanka has routinely denied that its forces have been involved in widespread torture or abuse. In interviews with the AP, Sri Lankan officials pointed to their new peacekeeping role in Mali as evidence that their military is beyond reproach.
“If Sri Lanka is being invited to do this job, then that means all those issues have been dealt with in a way that everybody’s comfortable with,” Deputy Foreign Minister Harsha de Silva said.
That’s not exactly how the UN sees it.
Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the UN had few offers when it went looking for peacekeepers to protect convoys in Mali, one of the most dangerous UN missions in the world.
“The only ones who offered soldiers were the Sri Lankans,” he said.
Countries with better trained troops and human rights records have been reluctant to offer personnel for peacekeeping since 1993, when 18 American troops were killed in Somalia. The deaths were considered to be a key reason why the UN struggled to find help ahead of the Rwanda genocide in 1994.
Robert O. Blake, who was the U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka from 2006 to 2009, was one of many officials who pressed the Sri Lankan government for more transparency about the war crimes allegations.
“As a peacekeeper, you are there to keep the peace,” Blake said in an interview last month. “If they themselves are guilty of atrocities, clearly they are not suitable candidates for peacekeeping operations.”
WHAT CHILD SEX RING?
The mustachioed general Dias gently batted at mosquitoes swirling in the damp heat of his mother’s garden as he described the barrage of allegations against Sri Lanka’s soldiers as unfair. The fact that few soldiers are ever prosecuted, he said, shows that few have done any wrong.
“We can’t talk about an allegation. If there are facts, then let’s talk about it,” he said in the interview with the AP. “If a soldier has raped a woman, he should be court martialed, no doubt about it. But where is the evidence? Allegations are just allegations.”
Dias led an army division whose troops were accused of attacking civilians and bombing a church, a hospital and other humanitarian outposts in 2009, during the fierce last months of Sri Lanka’s civil war. He flatly denied the allegations, telling the AP that his 57th Division only targeted areas where rebels were firing on the troops.
Yet, evidence presented against Dias by two human rights groups in Europe led authorities to threaten a criminal investigation in 2011 while Dias was serving as a deputy ambassador to Germany, Switzerland and the Vatican. He was soon recalled to Sri Lanka, and two years later was sent to investigate the alleged rape by a Sri Lankan peacekeeper in 2013.
“A suspected war criminal is the wrong person to conduct an investigation into alleged crimes committed by a peacekeeper,” said Andreas Schuller with the European Center for constitutional and Human Rights, a Berlin-based group that helped launch the complaint.
In 2015, the Sri Lankan government promoted Dias to army chief of staff — the country’s second-highest military post. He retired a few months later and now runs a private security business.
Dias was not involved in the Haiti child sex ring investigation in 2007, when UN and Sri Lankan officials interviewed nine child victims who identified photos of at least 134 soldiers as their abusers. But Dias disputed both the UN investigative report’s findings, as well as his own government’s.
Instead, he suggested that “an outside party” linked to the Tamil rebels was likely conspiring to damage Sri Lanka’s reputation.
“None of the cases was, to my knowledge, serious at all. And none of the soldiers was ever prosecuted,” Dias said. “We didn’t find any person guilty on those accusations, right?”
Yet following the report, Sri Lanka repatriated 114 of the troops. “I don’t think that was a good decision,” Dias said.
After months of stalling, Sri Lanka finally acknowledged in a statement to the AP that its military had acted against just 18 soldiers implicated in the sex ring, and said that the UN considered the matter closed.
The statement did not acknowledge that the UN investigation had implicated at least 134 men. It also contradicted another government statement four months earlier: that the army had dismissed one soldier, forced an officer to retire and imposed unspecified disciplinary action or punishments on 21 others “based on the gravity of the offences committed,” according to an affidavit submitted to the UN Convention against Torture, a body that regularly monitors human rights conditions.
The UN, which corroborated the findings against the peacekeepers, says it does not know what happened to the children abused in the sex ring.