by Prachi Aryal
The United Nations Human Rights Council recently passed a resolution allowing the collection, consolidation, and preservation of information and evidence surrounding the gross violations of human rights that occurred in Sri Lanka during the Civil War. Sri Lanka’s Civil War was a protracted conflict that took place between 1983 and 2009 resulting in over 100,000 deaths and 60,000 enforced disappearances.
The Origin of Ethnic Violence
Having gained independence from British rule in 1948, Sri Lanka has since been in a constant struggle for peace, with its Sinhalese-Buddhist majority in near-perpetual tension with its minority populations, who have been systematically excluded through discriminatory practices. The government, in a series of attempts to disenfranchise minority populations, made Sinhala the official language and Buddhism the nation’s primary religion. The actions taken by the government reduced the scale of civic participation for minority groups that spoke other languages. The Tamil migrant plantation workers and Muslim minorities had reduced access to education and government jobs, relegating their position in society. The Sinhalese government, who were wary of British favouritism towards Tamils during colonial times, enacted these discriminatory procedures, ultimately sowing the seed for prolonged ethnic strife.
The growing feud, divided along ethnic lines, concurrently led to the formation of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) under the leadership of Velupillai Prabhakaran. The organization, formed in 1976, began campaigning for a Tamil homeland in the northern and eastern parts of Sri Lanka. Started initially to campaign for an independent Tamil homeland, the LTTE morphed into an armed group as members became increasingly convinced it was the only way to affect change. In 1983, the LTTE ambushed an army convoy thereby triggering to a fully-fledged armed conflict between the group and the government.
The LTTE employed tactics of suicide bombing and guerrilla warfare to coerce the government into negotiations. The conflict waxed and waned through fragile peace processes brokered by third-party mediators and finally came to an end in 2009 when the government employed a ferocious military offensive against the group.
The conflict witnessed a period of gross human rights violations from both the LTTE and the Sinhalese majority government. Lasting almost 30 years, it resulted in over 100,000 deaths of which almost 40,000 were civilians. The war also led to over 60,000 disappearances and internal displacement.
Aftermath of the conflict: scars of the past
Following the end of the conflict in 2009, the Sri Lankan government has faced increased scrutiny from the international community. Some attempts have been made to promote reconciliation in the country but without much effect. Tamil families are still searching for thousands of people who disappeared during the war.
The government has attempted to promote national cohesion and integration through the introduction of bilingual policies and civic education. The bilingual policy essentially establishes Tamil as a national language alongside Sinhala, with the aim of fostering communication and integration between ethnic groups. Similarly, through the introduction of civic education, the school curriculum is instrumentalised to promote cohesion amongst different ethnic groups. However, the policies seem to have had little effect on inter-communal relations and are concentrated only around the urban areas, rather than in rural spaces where the conflict was mostly conducted.
Similarly, the reparation program, limited only to education, seems to have done little to heal the scars of families who continue to search for their missing loved ones. A report by Amnesty International states that Sri Lanka has one of the world’s highest number of disappearances, with a backlog of investigations on over 60,000 enforced disappearances.
In 2015, The Sri Lankan government committed to establishing four mechanisms of transitional justice: a Commission for Truth, Justice, Reconciliation, and Non-Recurrence, the Office on Missing Persons, the Office for Reparations, and a Judicial Mechanism with a special counsel by co-sponsoring Resolution 30/1 at the UNHCR. However, despite multiple efforts, the commission is yet to achieve any substantive result. Furthermore, with the initiatives led by the same nationalist politicians and generals who were in office at the end of the war, the commission finds itself in a place with reduced freedom of operation.
Sri Lanka Today
The Human Rights Watch World Report 2021 has highlighted that the human rights situation in Sri Lanka has deteriorated under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s administration. Rajapaksa was the defence secretary during the civil war period, and with his election reconciliation looks like a far-flung goal. The government revoked its commitment to the UNHCR and is continuing to appoint individuals implicated in war crimes into the administration.
There is a rise in Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism fuelling sectarian divides and the country is witnessing new waves of violence. The systematic prejudices that resulted in the conflict remain unaddressed and a new fear of sectarian policies continues to trouble minorities. Various reports have highlighted the shrinking civil society space and the increased surveillance and intimidation of human rights activists, victims of past abuses, lawyers, and journalists. Furthermore, the government has taken several decisions, for instance, banning the Burqa and Niqab alongside targeted closures of Madrasas (Islamic educational institutions), stoking the fear of another ethnoreligious rift.
Hopes for accountability
The UN Resolution passed on the 23rd of March, offers some hope in the reconciliation process for victims. The resolution grants the UN human rights office (OHCHR) permission to gather evidence for future prosecutions and make recommendations to the international community. It thereby significantly ramps up international scrutiny and gives hope to the victims waiting for justice. The resolution, if upheld, may herald the beginning of an end to the culture of impunity in Sri Lanka.
The resolution comes at a time when the Sri Lankan government is, yet again, being criticised for marginalising various minority communities and targeting civil society actors. It is hoped that the report will pave the way for a process of accountability and reconciliation amongst the people in Sri Lanka.
Prachi Aryal is an MA student in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. Her research interest is inclined towards Gender, Human Rights, and Cross border conflicts in transitioning nations and how visuals from conflict zones play a role in communicating the realities of conflict to the broader world.
She completed her BA in Journalism from the University of Delhi, India.