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Civil War ends in 2009

In May 2009, Sri Lanka’s long civil war came to an end, with the decisive military defeat of the Tamil Tigers (also known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE).

Sri Lanka’s relationship with the rest of the world has been strongly shaped since then by allegations that the army committed war crimes and crimes against humanity during the final phase of the civil war. A UN Panel of Experts reported in April 2011 that that there were “credible allegations” of those crimes by both government and Tamil Tiger forces.

The Sri Lankan Government in power in the final phase of the war, denied many of the accusations of crimes against the military and civilian Government at the time, and argued Tamil forces had used civilians as “human shields”.

2011 Reconciliation Commission report

The then Sri Lankan Government, at that time led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (in power from 2005-2015), established a Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission’ (LLRC), which published its final report in December 2011. It concluded that government forces had not deliberately targeted civilians.

The UK Government stated at the time that the report contained “many constructive recommendations for action on post-conflict reconciliation and a political settlement”, however it noted that “many credible allegations of violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law, including from the UN panel of experts report, are either not addressed or only partially answered”.

2015 UN OHCHR report

An investigation by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights into the Civil War that reported in 2015, detailed a “horrific level of violations and abuses that occurred in Sri Lanka, including indiscriminate shelling, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, harrowing accounts of torture and sexual violence, recruitment of children and other grave crimes”. The report also called for a special court to be set up to investigate crimes, and that it should include international judges, prosecutors, lawyers and investigators, alongside Sri Lankan counterparts.

New UNP Government commits to UN process

In 2015, the election of a new United National Party (UNP) led Government, resulted in a shift in approach to reconciliation. The new Government co-sponsored a landmark UN Human Rights Council resolution, 30/1, (adopted in October 2015) making commitments to promote reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka.

The resolution committed the Government to investigate and prosecute war-related crimes as part of a package of wide-ranging legal reforms and transitional justice measures.

The UNP Government, however, still insisted that only domestic courts and processes should investigate any crimes committed during the civil war.

New Sri Lankan Government elected 2019

In November 2019, a new Government led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was involved in directing military operations at the end of the civil war was elected. He is also the brother of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was appointed Prime Minister.

President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, has faced accusations of being involved in crimes during the civil war and intimidating journalists, claims he has denied.

Critics of his Government have said the rule of law and human rights have suffered since he came to power. President Rajapaksa is hugely popular with the majority Sinhala group, principally because of his role as Defence Secretary in 2009 in crushing the Tamil forces rebellion.

Rajapaksa Government withdraws support for UN reconciliation process

In February 2020, the Government of Sri Lanka informed the Human Rights Council of its decision to withdraw its co-sponsorship of Council resolution 40/1 and related resolutions 34/1 and 30/1, expressing its intention to pursue an “inclusive, domestically designed and executed reconciliation and accountability process”.

The UK, alongside the Governments of Canada, Germany, North Macedonia, Montenegro and the UK, the “Core Group on Sri Lanka”, announced their “profound disappointment at this development”. They added that they remained “firmly committed to advancing the resolution’s goals of accountability, reconciliation, and inclusive peace in Sri Lanka”. They stated further that:

While the Government of Sri Lanka has stated its own commitment to advancing these principles through domestic processes, we stress that any accountability mechanism must have the confidence of those affected.

Latest UN Human Rights Council session and resolution

The UN’s Human Rights Council is holding its 46th Regular Session, that lasts from 22 February 2021 to 23 March 2021.

In February 2021, the UK announced that alongside the Core Group of nations, that it would present a further resolution on promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka, to the Council. It said that the resolution would be “informed by the recent report of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights”.

Human Rights Commissioner released a statement alongside the report, condemning the inaction of successive Sri Lankan Governments to properly investigate crimes committed during the civil war, and called upon the Council to:

[E]xplore new ways to advance various types of accountability at the international level, for all parties, and seek redress for victims, including by supporting a dedicated capacity to collect and preserve evidence and information for future accountability processes, as well as to support relevant judicial proceedings in Member States.

No official version of the joint-UK draft resolution has been published, however versions have been leaked to the press.

Sri Lankan Government reject resolution

Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister, Dinesh Gunawardena, has urged the Council to reject the resolution, saying in a video address to the Council that Sri Lanka had been subjected to an “unprecedented propaganda campaign”. He added “it is regrettable that … elements working against Sri Lanka intend to table another country-specific resolution.” Mr Gunawardena said further that Members should choose whether Sri Lanka “warrants the urgent attention of this council – or if this campaign is essentially a political move that contravenes the very values and principles on which this council has been established”.

Concerns over treatment of minorities

The then Foreign and Commonwealth Office 2019 Human Rights and Democracy report, expressed concerns over “increased intercommunal tensions, violence against minority groups, and intimidation of human rights defenders” in Sri Lanka.

A series of suicide bombing on Easter Sunday 2019, claimed by the Islamic State terrorist group, several of which were directed at Christian churches and resulted in the deaths of around 280 people, raised inter-communal tensions.

Tensions further rose in 2020, when the Government introduced a policy of “enforced cremations” for the victims of Covid-19, upsetting Sri Lanka’s Muslim community, a policy the Government have now ended.

The Government is about to introduce a ban on face coverings including the Burka, and may shut down several hundred madrassa Islamic schools that are not registered with the Government.

UK aid to Sri Lanka

The UK spent around £8.44 million in bilateral development aid in 2018 in Sri Lanka. Some of that funding was delivered through the cross-Government Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF) that aims to tackle instability and prevent conflicts that threaten UK interests. The most recent review of CSSF work in Sri Lanka, published in March 2020, revealed that the funding for the programme in 2018/19 was £3.3 million. The review reported that the programme contributed in delivering the following goals:

  • clearing 533,922 square kilometres of high-density minefield; and providing mine risk education to approximately 40,000 people;
  • resettling nearly 2000 internally displaced people;
  • building anti-bribery and corruption capacity in the civil service and judiciary; and
  • providing technical support to security sector reform, and also strengthened community policing and police response to gender and human rights.

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