Frequently Asked Questions
To help you understand the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, how we got here, and what we are doing about it, we’ve put together some information in the form of an FAQ below. If you’d like to know anything else, please get in touch.
What happened during the war in Sri Lanka?
Despite enjoying a relatively peaceful transition from British rule to independence in 1948, Sri Lanka’s postcolonial history is one that has been marred by bitter social divides and repeated cycles of mass violence.
The most notable conflict has been that between the ethnic minority Tamil community and the majority Sinhalese community, a conflict which has produced almost three decades of civil war and a lengthy catalogue of grave human rights violations. While the origins of the conflict are complex, the antagonism between these two communities has its roots in the years that followed independence, as the Sri Lankan government set about a series of discriminatory reforms designed to advance the interests of the majority community.
After the failure of various peaceful campaigns for power-sharing, and following a series of brutal anti-Tamil pogroms prompted by growing Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, the 1970s saw the emergence of a number of militant Tamil separatists groups. By the mid-1980s, the most dominant among these was the LTTE (‘Tamil Tigers’), who waged a full-scale insurgency against Sri Lankan government forces with the aim of establishing an independent Tamil state (‘Tamil Eelam’) in Sri Lanka’s north and east.
Having successfully captured significant amounts of territory in the decades that followed, and having established a de facto state across large parts of the island, by 2002 the LTTE had entered into a fragile peace agreement with the government. This broke down completely in 2006 following the election of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, prompting a steady escalation of violence and efforts by the government to re-capture rebel held territory by force.
By early 2008, the government had signalled its firm intention to defeat the LTTE by military means. In September, the government expelled all aid agencies and foreign journalists from northern Sri Lanka, clearing the way for a full-scale assault on the LTTE’s last remaining strongholds and setting the stage for a “war without witness.” In January 2009, as the territory under the LTTE’s control shrank, the government began to unilaterally declare a series of so-called ‘No Fire Zones’ (NFZs) within which Tamil civilians were encouraged to gather. These zones were then repeatedly shelled by government forces, with sites targeted including hospitals, food distribution centres, and UN facilities.
Despite calls for a truce by the UN, various world leaders, and the LTTE, the army finished its brutal onslaught and declared victory on 19 May 2009, having killed the LTTE’s senior leadership. Hundreds of civilians, including many children, are believed to have been forcibly disappeared in the final few days of the war alone. In the months and years that followed, many of those who survived the war would go on to endure serious human rights abuses, including widespread torture and sexual violence, in the prison-like conditions of the government’s “humanitarian camps.”
The UN has credibly estimated that as many as 40,000-70,000 civilians were killed during the final stages of the war, mostly due to government shelling. Some civil society groups suggest the total could be much higher. A major UN investigation published in September 2015 (the ‘OISL report’) found extensive evidence of atrocities by both sides of the conflict; atrocities which investigators said could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity, if established in a court of law.
What is clear is that both parties showed appalling disregard for the lives of those trapped between them in the final stages of the war. In addition to indiscriminate attacks on civilians in the NFZs, allegations of mass disappearances, extra-judicial killings, and systematic torture and sexual violence by government forces are yet to be addressed. Meanwhile, there is yet to be a full accounting for the LTTE’s crimes, which include the alleged use of forcible conscription (often involving child soldiers), the use of civilians as ‘human shields’, and extra-judicial killings.
Members of the international community also bear a responsibility for what happened in Sri Lanka in 2009. World leaders – many of whom in 2009 were enthusiastic champions of the global “war on terror” – fell shamefully short when it came to condemning the human rights consequences of the government’s counter-insurgency strategy, and putting stop to the carnage. An internal report from the UN Secretary-General’s office laid bare the many ways in which the UN failed appallingly in its task of protecting civilian lives.
For more information about the final stages of the war, we strongly recommend watching Channel 4’s ground-breaking documentary ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’. You can watch the trailer below:
Further resources, including key UN reports, are available in the Reports section of our website.
Why does this still matter?
Our analysis – shared by many activists, academics and decision-makers both inside and outside of Sri Lanka – is that impunity for human rights abuses is the root cause of multiple cycles of mass violence on the island. We believe that to prevent future violence and achieve lasting peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka, individuals must be held accountable for the crimes they have committed.
While Sri Lanka’s war has ended, its bitter ethnic conflict has not gone away. Indeed, there are troubling signs that it is alive and well as a result of the government’s post-war policies. The continued militarisation and repression of the Tamil community – on top of the failure to address war-time abuses – have helped fuel underlying grievances. Meanwhile, the state’s support for extreme forms of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism have resulted in a persistent sense of fear and insecurity among Sri Lanka’s minorities. In recent years Muslims, in addition to Tamils, have increasingly borne the brunt of the island’s exclusionary politics.
To prevent these dynamics from spilling into further violence, and to lay the foundations for sustainable peace, it is therefore essential that Sri Lanka begins to address its past – including by establishing the truth about the final stages of the war, holding perpetrators to account, and creating space for meaningful reconciliation.
But what happens in Sri Lanka has implications far beyond its borders. Since the end of the war, the government of Sri Lanka has been busy promoting its “model” for dealing with conflict among various countries around the world – a model which advocates the overwhelming use of military force to defeat opponents without regard for human rights. It is this attitude which led to untold human suffering as the government of Sri Lanka sought to bring its 26-year civil war to an end in early 2009.
A lot of countries around the world have been – and are – watching what happens in Sri Lanka very closely. If the government of Sri Lanka succeeds in evading responsibility for its war record, then many will be encouraged to follow their example; crushing anyone who stands in their way with an even greater ruthlessness than before. There are already disturbing signs that dictators, authoritarians and warlords around the world have learnt all the wrong lessons from the Sri Lankan experience. Meanwhile the UN and the international community appear not to have taken the steps needed to address their own failings during the final stages of the war. We believe it doesn’t have to be this way.
Isn’t this just modern-day imperialism?
Some government officials in Sri Lanka have talked of human rights as an outside imposition. The current President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, has even said, “as far as I am concerned, democracy and human rights are western values. They are not for us.” But this claim does not withstand scrutiny. Throughout history – from the slave trade and imperialism, to the “war on terror” – western countries have often possessed a poor record when it comes to human rights. Meanwhile, from the struggles for independence and liberation in Africa, Asia, South America, to the “responsibility to protect” doctrine that the UN adopted in 2005 – it has been non-western nations that have frequently led the struggle for human rights.
Today, there is a vocal but marginalised community of citizens in Sri Lanka who share a deep commitment to human rights – rights which they are entitled to under both international law and Sri Lanka’s constitutional framework. It is a community which includes the families of the disappeared, women’s rights activists, trade union members, LGBT activists, and those working on all manner of rights-related issues, from land occupation to the impacts of urban development. It is a community that, while not always in agreement, straddles many social, ethnic, and political divides.
Both this community and the history of human rights cannot simply be erased with the lie – often pedalled by state officials to justify the oppression of the weak by the strong – that human rights are “not for us.”
I often hear the Tamil Tigers are responsible for this situation. What’s your view?
The LTTE (or ‘Tamil Tigers’) were a brutal organisation that carried out massacres, assassinations, and various acts of ethnic cleansing in the name of carving out an independent Tamil state. Thousands of people – including many civilians as well as government officials – were killed or permanently injured as a result of their actions.
The LTTE’s ruthless approach was not limited to its targeting of state officials or those from the Sinhala population. Scores of Tamil opponents, including many peaceful critics, were killed by the organisation in its goal of becoming the sole voice of the community. While some have sought to emphasise the movement’s purported progressive features – for example, its treatment of women and anti-casteism – it was also one defined by its militarism, intolerance of dissent, and totalitarian mind-set.
Investigations by the UN have highlighted evidence of multiple alleged human rights violations by the LTTE during the final stages of the war, including the use of forcible conscription (often involving child soldiers), the use of civilians as ‘human shields’, and extra-judicial killings. While it is indisputable that the government of Sri Lanka bears direct responsibility for the overwhelming majority of civilian deaths during the war, many have pointed to the LTTE’s policy of preventing people from leaving the war-zone as significantly contributing to the loss of life and human suffering.
By refusing to establish credible truth and justice mechanisms to investigate the past, the government of Sri Lanka shields not only itself, but also the LTTE, from the accountability they can and should face. Some of the worst alleged human rights abusers in the LTTE, people such as Colonel Karuna, went on to serve as Sri Lankan government ministers and continue to live in Sri Lanka with impunity.
Unfortunately, many of those in the LTTE with command responsibility for serious human rights abuses were killed before they could face justice. Nonetheless, we would strongly support the prosecution of any surviving members of the organisation against whom there are credible allegations – and believe that a wider process capable of establishing the truth about the LTTE’s crimes is essential.
The war ended more than ten years ago and I’ve heard that Sri Lankans want to move on – aren’t things better now?
While the war is over, the government of Sri Lanka is yet to take the steps necessary to bring about a just and lasting peace in Sri Lanka. To date, not a single person has been brought to justice for war crimes and crimes against humanity alleged to have been committed by both sides in the conflict. Indeed, many alleged perpetrators continue to occupy some of the highest offices in the country.
Despite promises made by successive governments to deal with the legacy of the war – and indeed, some very limited progress in a few areas – action has fallen far short of what is needed. Survivors and war-affected communities continue to demand truth, justice, compensation, and guarantees of non-recurrence, despite attempts to intimidate and silence them. Families of the disappeared await answers about their loved ones, but investigations are painfully slow despite the government acknowledging that some records exist which could help establish the truth. Minimal progress has been made in investigating and prosecuting the so-called ‘emblematic cases’, widely regarded as a litmus test for the state’s willingness to tackle impunity for serious human rights violations. Disturbingly Sri Lanka’s current President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, has not only pledged to shield members of the armed forces from accountability; he has also begun releasing some of the handful of individuals who have successfully been convicted.
Meanwhile, the situation in the Tamil majority north and east of Sri Lanka remains grim. Although some progress has been made in releasing military-held lands back to civilians, a disproportionate number of Sri Lankan Army camps and tens of thousands of troops remain stationed in the area. In October 2017, researchers estimated the ratio of soldiers to civilians in Mullaitivu, the epicentre of the final stages of the war, to be as high as 1:2. While the period 2015-2019 saw a slight decrease in the visible presence of the military in war-affected areas, recently there has been a resurgence of roadblocks and checkpoints staffed by armed soldiers. Busses are stopped and searched in the middle of the night. The climate of fear is palpable.
Harassment and intimidation of journalists and human rights defenders in the north and east has continued, albeit unevenly, since the end of the war. With the return to government of the Rajapaksa family in 2019, the surveillance, harassment, and intimidation of dissenting voices is intensifying. There are disturbing ongoing reports of the use of torture and sexual violence by state forces, predominantly against Tamils.
As we note elsewhere in this FAQ, these trends are not only of concern to victims and survivors. They also increase the risk that Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict might one day result in yet more mass violence on the island. That is why a credible truth and justice process that could help facilitate meaningful reconciliation is so important.
You can find updates on the latest human rights situation in Sri Lanka here.
What is the Sri Lanka Campaign doing to change things?
The Sri Lanka Campaign works to support all those fighting for truth, justice, and lasting reconciliation in Sri Lanka. We do that by working to amplify the voices of victims, survivors, human rights activists, journalists, and other critical voices – highlighting issues that might otherwise be too dangerous for people to speak about openly inside the country.
Our campaigns, research and advocacy are designed to put pressure on the government of Sri Lanka to respect the human rights of its citizens and take the steps necessary to ensure lasting peace. Where we cannot change things directly, we aim to bring pressure to bear through members of the international community. Using our position based outside of Sri Lanka, we strive to act as a bridge between critical voices in Sri Lanka and the wider world, connecting an international audience – members of the public, decision-makers and politicians – to the issues that matter.
While meaningful change must come from within Sri Lanka, the deeply rooted structural and systemic problems in Sri Lanka mean that it is very unlikely that solely domestic attempts at reform will be successful unless supported and supplemented by the international community. This is particularly true when it comes to the issue of tackling impunity for serious human rights violations, which we believe lies at the root of Sri Lanka’s repeated cycle of mass violence. Time and again in Sri Lanka, we have seen that progress on human rights issues only occurs in response to sustained pressure from the international community.
We are a small organisation, which we means we have to think carefully about how we use our limited resources create change. We find that people power – empowering individuals like you through campaigns such as this – is very effective. We also do a lot of work with diplomats, United Nations officials, and members of the media. In recent years, our research and advocacy has had a significant impact in shaping the conversation about Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council.
Our blog should give you a good idea of what we’ve been up to lately.
What impact are you having?
We are a small organisation, up against some sizeable and deep-rooted challenges. Nonetheless, working alongside many brave and tireless activists in Sri Lanka and around the world, we have enjoyed considerable success.
You can read about some of our previous campaigns and achievements here.
How can I help?
How did the campaign form?
The campaign came together in 2009 as a crisis response to the dire humanitarian situation in military-run detention camps in the north of the country at the end of the war. However, we quickly realised that what was needed was a comprehensive international human rights campaign for Sri Lanka to pursue allegations of serious violations of international law, and address the root causes of violence and oppression in Sri Lanka.
From the very beginning, we were a multi-ethnic non-partisan campaign.
The Campaign started as a volunteer-led organisation, and in its early days was little more than an email mailing list and a website. In late 2010 we acquired a small amount of seed funding and we were able to rent an office and hire a member of staff. We remain a global campaign, but our office is based in London, where we are financially registered.
Since then, we have been able to able to expand a little. But we are still a relatively small organisation, currently employing just two members of staff (1.5 FTE). Much of our work is still done by volunteers and supporters, people like you.