top of page
  • Writer's pictureDurham Pro Bono Blog

Looking Back: Nearly Ten Years After the End of Sri Lanka’s Civil War

In October, Sri Lanka was ranked the top country for travel in 2019 by the Lonely Planet, a sign of the island’s success in regenerating its tourism industry after the civil war. Ask someone what first comes to mind when they think of Sri Lanka, and the question will likely conjure up images of lush beaches, tea plantations and elephants galore. However, unbeknown to many who travel there, these idyllic images mask a deeply troubled history. Nearly ten years later after the war ended, the wounds of terrible human rights violations have not yet healed. Have those responsible for the atrocities committed been held accountable, and how have the lives of survivors changed in the aftermath?

On the 19th of May 2009, the Sri Lankan government declared an end to a war that had been waging for 25 years. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a separatist rebel group, had finally been defeated by army forces in the north-east of the island, and their leader was reported to have been killed in the fight. At the time, the President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, spoke of how liberation had finally been achieved from the grasp of terrorism, and his intention that all citizens would live “as equals in this free country”. His words suggesting an idealistic future, however, are set in stark contrast to the reality of the government’s oppressive actions in the aftermath of the conflict, and the continuing marginalisation of religious and ethnic minorities.

During the war, a reported 65,000 people went missing, (although estimated figures range up to 100,000), meaning Sri Lanka has one of the world’s highest number of disappearances. Stories of the men who came in ‘white vans’ to carry out abductions still haunt the collective psyche of the nation; many Sri Lankans personally know someone who has disappeared, or have heard the horror of eyewitness accounts. These groups of abductors have never been identified, and the response of the government has been to broadly dismiss these reports as exaggerated, denying their involvement. Included amongst the kidnapped were activists and journalists, as well as ordinary citizens who were suspected of having links to the Tamil Tigers; essentially individuals who had dissenting views or were regarded as posing a threat to the authority of the state. The whereabouts of many who were taken are still unknown, whilst those who have returned do so with allegations of torture. Fear of repercussions from speaking out means there are likely many others who suffer in silence. Families are left in a painful state of flux, never knowing if their loved ones are dead or alive, and therefore lacking the closure to be able to move on. Furthermore, many of the disappeared were the sole breadwinners, meaning the economic consequences on their families have been dire. Those who have asked for answers are faced with an elusive and unresponsive government- a promise in June 2017 by the president, Maithripala Sirisena, to release lists of the disappeared has yet to come to fruition.

Furthermore, the UN Special Rapporteur found that ill-treatment and torture was ‘routine’ practice , justified under The Prevention of Terrorism Act: 80% of those arrested under the PTA complained of torture and ill- treatment. The Act gives the police with a wide remit to detain anyone suspected of having links to the Tamil Tigers. The PTA, which the Human Rights Watch denounced as ‘draconian’, has been continually used as a tool to systematically discriminate against the Tamil minority, and essentially constitutes an impediment to the correct path of justice. As well as arbitrary arrests, ‘incommunicado and secret detention practices… that dramatically increase risks to detainees’ still take place. The UN Special Rapporteur also noted the use of extended detention periods without trials, with some sentences ranging up to 12 years. In what seems to be a reoccurring theme, the government’s pledge to replace the act with a slightly more lenient Counter Terrorism Act has not yet materialised.

Some progress has been achieved, although it has been markedly slow. Recently, for example, the government established an Office of Missing Persons as a part of its commitments to reform. The chief of defence staff, Ravindra Wijegunaratne, was remanded in custody in November 2018, as the court investigated his role in covering up the disappearance of eleven men. Such steps may appear small, but could demonstrate signs of progress, particularly when considering the government’s history of hesitation in attributing blame to officials. However, it is also necessary to avoid an overly optimistic attitude towards these supposed advances. The implementation of the Office has generally been viewed as ineffective, and its leaders are regarded with distrust by the general public, due to their military backgrounds. More fundamentally, it fails in addressing one of its key aims: providing much-needed support for the families of victims. Overall, the consensus appears to be that the government has not carried out substantially adequate measures to amend their past transgressions. According to the 2017/2018 Amnesty International Report, “progress had slowed and there was evidence of backsliding”; a United Nations report in July 2017 was even more critical and was a damning indictment on the current state of human rights, stating reform had “virtually ground to a halt”.

In the aftermath of the conflict, there has been a myriad of reports on the allegations of human rights abuses published by the international community, as news of the atrocities came to light: what some may consider as too little, too late. Their response both during and after the conflict has been regarded as grossly inadequate by human rights groups. In 2012, a leaked internal inquiry of the UN’s actions acknowledged the organisation’s culpability in the war: “events in Sri Lanka mark a grave failure of the UN to adequately respond... to the detriment of hundreds of thousands of civilians”. In Channel 4’s documentary “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields”, one UN staffer recalled townspeople pleading with staff to remain on the ground if only to witness their plight, and his feeling that the UN was abandoning people in their ‘greatest hour of need’. If a state fails to ensure the protection of rights of its citizens, then intergovernmental organisations like the UN must be expected to intervene effectively. In many regards, their failure in adequately safeguarding these rights brings into question the supposed role of the UN as the world’s moral arbitrator.

Contrastingly, the Sri Lankan government has been reluctant to accept responsibility for their role in orchestrating these allegations of human rights abuses, which are documented in the UN’s 2011 “Report of the Secretary-General's Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka”. It determined that there had been “a wide range of serious violations of international humanitarian law…committed both by the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE, some of which would amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity”. The allegations included enforced disappearances, targeting of civilians through attacks in no-go areas and executions of prisoners. The government denied the accusations and released statements concerning their desire for the international community to stop interfering. In the same year, they published the ‘Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission’, with the aim to ‘reflect on the conflict phase and the sufferings the country has gone through’. The Commission had the aims of investigating what circumstances had led to such violations, who was to be held responsible, how were victims to be aided, and what lessons were to be taken forth to prevent any recurrences. Unfortunately, as one might expect of a government with such a track record of human rights violations, the Commission was in essence only skin-deep. Analysis conducted by the United Nations concluded that the Commission was ‘deeply flawed’, and did ‘not meet international standards for an effective accountability mechanism’. With the government’s refusal to fully face the mistakes of the past, it is evident that few lessons- if indeed any-have been learnt.

Currently, Sri Lanka is plagued by a political crisis, with fights breaking out between members of Parliament. The crisis was catalysed by Sirisena’s reinstatement of Rajapaksa as Prime Minister, a move which has caused grave concern for some human rights activists. As well as the return of a leader who has ruled during the most violent years of the civil war, there are also fears that the eruption of such turmoil could further impede investigations. The hope that Sirisena’s government would usher in a new era of reconciliation has diminished to some extent. The future of Sri Lanka seems uncertain at best, and there are worries that the situation could deteriorate further with outbreaks of violence; in October, for example, a government minister’s bodyguard shot at protestors, resulting in one death and two injuries.

Nearly ten years after the war has ended, it must be said that the action taken to ameliorate the wounds left behind has not been adequate. The process of achieving justice for families has been painstakingly slow, and the present political situation suggests that for the time being, this will not change. The international community must not turn a blind eye to the casualties of war, as they once did, and should continue to exert pressure on the government to find justice for victims. Next time you hear Sri Lanka touted as the newest trendy place to travel, perhaps take a brief moment to remember its history, and that for many, the struggles of the past have not yet ceased. But with the growing rates of tourism, therein lies the opportunity to raise awareness of the atrocities of the past, and to prevent continuing abuses of rights. Moreover, the most promising path of hope lies in campaigning for proper utilisation of the legal system to affect change and achieve true equality for all citizens of Sri Lanka.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes above.

Shayahi Kathirgamanthan

Asia Section Writer

3 January 2019



Matthew Weaver and Gethin Chamberlain, ‘Sri Lanka declares end to war with Tamil tigers’ The Guardian < >, accessed 24 November 2018

“Only Justice Can Heal Our Wounds”: Listening to the demands of families of the disappeared in Sri Lanka’ Amnesty International < >, accessed 23 November 2018

‘Sri Lanka - Victims of disappearance cannot wait any longer for justice’ Amnesty International < >, accessed 25 November 2018

‘Enforced disappearances’ Amnesty International < >, accessed 25 November 2018

‘Full Statement by Ben Emmerson, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism, at the conclusion of his official visit’ United Nations Sri Lanka < >, accessed 23 November 2018

Amnesty International Report 2017/2018: The state of human rights’ Amnesty International < >, 29 November 2018(n 5)

Ravindra Wijeguneratne: Sri Lanka defence chief held over murders’ BBC News< >, accessed 24 November 2018

Lyse Doucet, ’UN 'failed Sri Lanka civilians', says internal probe’ BBC News < >, 24 November 2018


‘Report of the COMMISSION OF INQUIRY ON LESSONS LEARNT AND RECONCILIATION’ Government of Sri Lanka < >, 29 November 2018(n 9)

Michael Safi, ‘Flying fists and pelted bottles – warring politicians shock Sri Lanka’ The Guardian < >, 29 November 2018

Michael Safi, ‘Sri Lankan minister's bodyguards open fire on protesters’ The Guardian < >, 28 November 2018

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes above.

203 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Mass Atrocities in Myanmar

By (...) Human rights violations in Myanmar have risen detrimentally after the military coup seized power from the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi on February 1, 2021. The coup d


bottom of page