US President Joe Biden has signed into law the historic “Justice for Victims of War Crimes Act” giving the US Department of Justice (DOJ) jurisdiction to prosecute persons present in the U.S. for war crimes committed anywhere in the world regardless of the nationality of alleged perpetrator or victim.
This law, passed with strong bipartisan support, better aligns the US with her allies and the Geneva Conventions, and gives DOJ the ability to try persons responsible for war crimes in any part of the world should they come to the US.
According to a press release from the White House ,the changes to the “Justice for Victims of War Crimes Act,” have expanded the scope of individuals subject to prosecution for war crimes;
Senators Grassley, Durbin, Graham, and Leahy and Congress Representatives Cicilline and Spartz are reportedly responsible for giving leadership in this regard
The bill, which broadens the Justice Department’s jurisdiction to prosecute war crimes, was passed in the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday after winning Senate approval on Wednesday.
Known as the Justice for Victims of War Crimes Act, the bill allows the Justice Department to bring war crimes charges against people in the United States, regardless of where the alleged crime occurred.
Current statute only allows for prosecution when an alleged war crime occurs in the United States or when the victim or offender is a U.S. national.
The law is primarily aimed at Russions responsible for alleged war crimes in Ukraine. In fact the Ukrainian lobby in the US strongly canvassed for the law .
However it appears that an unintended consequence of this exercise would be its potential impact on former Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa known as Gota. The Lankan ex- president was earlier a naturalized US citizen holding dual citizenship in Sri Lanka. He served as Defence secretary under his elder brother Mahinda Rajapaksa from 2005 to 2015.
In 2019 Gota was elected as the 7th executive president of Sri Lanka. In July 2022, Gota fled the country and resigned as President due to widespread protests described as the “Aragalaya”(struggle). Thereafter he retuned to Sri Lanka and is living in Colombo with Govt protection
Gota had renounced his US citizenship prior to contesting the Sri Lankan presidential elections to be eligible to contest. His only son daughter in law and grand daughter are all US citizens living in California. Gota’s spouse too is a US citizen
According to various media reports Gota has been trying to return to the US and be reunited with family by staying permanently in the US. However reports say there is no chance of Gota getting a US green card.Even a visitors visa has been refused state media reports
Meanwhile some cases have been filed in US courts by victims of alleged Human rights violations and war crimes that took place under Gota’s watch as Defence secretary. Furthermore Canada -US neighbour and ally-has sanctioned him for alleged acts of omission and commission as President
Under these circumstances there seems very little chance of Gota ever getting a visa to enter the US. But now with the new US law, Gota would be extremely vulnerable on US soil even if he does gain entry. The strengthened US law enables the US dept of Justice to take action against any alleged offender on behalf of war crimes victims regardless of him or her being a foreign national. Also victims can seek justice for war crimes committed in any part of the world
Thus Gota runs the risk of being targeted judicially by his alleged victims if ever he is on US soil. Given the large number of alleged victims in North America and the support given by Human rights organizations, the chances of action being taken against Gota under the US Justice for Victims of War Crimes Act.
This places Gota in a very difficult position. Even if he achieves his dream of returning to the US,it may turn into the nightmare of being prosecuted and possibly convicted under the US Justice for Victims of War Crimes Act. Canada’s sanctions have increased this possibility.
What then will Gota do?
D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org