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Civil war

In 2009, Sri Lanka’s civil war came to an end after more than two decades of conflict, with the decisive military defeat of the Tamil Tigers (also known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE) by Sri Lanka’s armed forces.

The Tamil Tigers were an armed separatist group fighting for an independent homeland for Tamils in North-eastern Sri Lanka, where most of the Tamil population live. They were proscribed as a terrorist group by the UK Government in 2001.

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 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 made against the military and civilian Government at the time, and argued Tamil forces had used civilians as “human shields”.

Reconciliation after the Civil War

In February 2020 the Sri Lankan government, then led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, withdrew its support for a UN-led reconciliation process, which had committed the Sri Lankan government to investigate and prosecute war-related crimes as part of a package of wide-ranging legal reforms and transitional justice measures.

Ranil Wickremesinghe took over as permanent President in July 2022 after Rajapaksa fled the country following mass protests against his government. In May 2023, the new government announced that it was establishing a National Unity and Reconciliation Commission, that would take “Tak[e] into account the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa”.

The Commission is set to comprise of 21 members that will “represent the pluralistic nature of Sri Lanka, including gender”.

Human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch criticised the plans in a joint letter, writing they had “grave reservations” about the Commission that “echo many of those already raised by victims of conflict-related abuses and their families”. The letter states further that:

The latest initiative risks repeating the mistakes of the past, exposing victims to renewed security threats and re-traumatization without any realistic chance of a different outcome. There have not been any genuine confidence-building measures, or steps to ensure a safe and conducive environment for such a commission to function effectively. There has been no meaningful consultation, including with affected communities.

A 2023 analysis by the International Crisis Group echoes these concerns, arguing that the Commission “in present circumstances, would have little to no chance of success”.

In October 2023, in an interview with German broadcaster DW, President Wickremesinghe defended plans for the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission, saying discussions were ongoing and more details would be available soon:

At the moment discussions are on with the parties plus the government, and we are talking with the western governments […] and the Truth and Reconciliation Bill will come to Parliament before the end of the year.

A report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, published in September 2023 for the 54th UN Human Rights Council, criticised the Sri Lankan government’s reconciliation plans and called for “deeper institutional reforms and tangible progress on accountability, reconciliation and human rights”.

Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva, Himalee Arunatilaka, delivered a statement in response to the report in which she said her government rejected the report and “its conclusions and recommendations”. She stated further that: “Sri Lanka remains firmly committed to pursuing tangible progress on human rights through our domestic institutions”. The statement added that “The proposed truth-seeking mechanism has been identified as a meaningful way to secure the peace achieved after three decades of brutal conflict. Consultations are ongoing with stakeholders including the civil society on the proposed mechanism”.

Human Rights reports

A December 2023 Commons Library Debate Pack looked at Sri Lankan Tamils and human rights, and a November 2022 Debate Pack focused on the UK response to the human Rights and economic situation in Sri Lanka, after a year of political and economic upheaval, during which mass protests led to the resignation of the country’s President.

Human Rights Watch (HRW), the human rights NGO, in a January 2024 report looking at human rights in Sri Lanka in 2023, raised issues with growing hunger, the lack of social protections, and existing and new laws being used by the government to stifle dissent:

Regressive government policies and inadequate social protection left many Sri Lankans at risk from the worst effects of the country’s economic crisis.

A US$3 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) helped stem the immediate economic crisis in Sri Lanka after it had defaulted on its foreign debt in 2022. However, the government and IMF’s response to the economic situation undermined human rights, leaving more than 17 percent of the population moderately or acutely food insecure and in need of humanitarian assistance and 31 percent of children under 5 malnourished, according to the World Food Programme.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who came to power in 2022 after his predecessor’s departure from office following months-long protests, sought to suppress dissent, ending a moratorium on the use of the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). A proposed new counterterrorism law would give sweeping powers to the police, the military, and the president, and create new speech-related offenses. Other proposed legislation would further constrain freedom of expression online.

In the north and east of Sri Lanka, which was most affected by the 1983-2009 civil war, victims of past human rights violations, their families, and activists campaigning for truth and accountability were subjected to surveillance and intimidation by the police and intelligence agencies.

A March 2024 report by HRW reported comments by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, on enacted and proposed laws that HRW say will “will severely curtail civil liberties”, including the Online Safety Act, the Anti-Terrorism Bill, the Electronic Media Broadcasting Authority Bill, and the Non-Governmental Organization Supervision and Registration Bill. Türk warned that these policies “grant broad powers to the security forces, and severely restrict rights to freedom of assembly, association and expression, impacting not only on civic space but the business environment”.

Sri Lanka is one of the UK’s 32 ‘human rights priority countries’ as identified by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO). The FCDO’s annual human rights and democracy report published in July 2023, looking back at 2022, raised issues with the “marginalisation” of minority communities by state authorities, the treatment of the Tamil minority, and the security responses to the 2022 protests which it said “often featured intimidation and violence against peaceful protesters”.

The FCDO report also stated that the Sri Lankan government had “signalled its readiness to decriminalise same-sex relations”, describing it as a “welcome move”. In May 2023 the Sri Lankan Supreme Court ruled that draft legislation to implement decriminalisation was constitutional. The legislation has yet to be passed.

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