Click for News Update: tweetsTrove

transCurrents Home

Legacy of Abuse in Sri Lanka

by Anna Neistat

For several months during and after the end-game of the decades-long civil war between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Sri Lanka's government brushed off Western criticism of its abusive practices. It has relied instead on moral and financial support from states less concerned with such matters, such as China and Pakistan. Countries with similar problems and equally questionable human rights records are paying close attention — has Sri Lanka discovered the magic formula for brazenly ignoring meddlesome Western countries and getting away with it?

Sri Lanka's policy of complete dismissal was initially successful. But now the government seems to have discovered that ignoring the strongly held opinions of powerful Western partners has consequences that might not be in the long-term interest of the country or its ruling elite after all.

Atrocities and Cover-up

On May 19, 2009, the Sri Lankan government declared victory over the LTTE. This marked an end to a 26-year-long civil war that killed tens of thousands of people. Human Rights Watch's continuous research in the country established that during the final phase of the conflict, both the Sri Lankan Armed Forces (SLAF) and the LTTE repeatedly violated the laws of war, causing numerous civilian casualties.

Forced to retreat by SLA offensive operations, the LTTE drove civilians into a narrow strip of land on the northeastern coast of Sri Lanka. They effectively used several hundred thousand people as human shields. On at least several occasions, the Tamil Tigers shot at those trying to flee to government-held territory. LTTE forces also deployed near densely populated areas, placing civilians in greater danger from government attacks. As the fighting intensified, the LTTE stepped up its practice of forcibly recruiting civilians, including children, into its ranks and into hazardous forced labor on the battlefield.

The government, in turn, used the LTTE's grim practices to justify its own atrocities. Sri Lankan forces repeatedly and indiscriminately shelled areas densely populated with civilians, sometimes using area weapons incapable of distinguishing between civilians and combatants. As the LTTE-controlled area shrank, the government unilaterally declared "no-fire zones" or "safe zones" on three different occasions, telling civilians to seek shelter there. Nevertheless, government forces continued attacking these areas. In blatant disregard of the laws of war, government forces also fired artillery that directly struck or landed near hospitals on at least 30 occasions.

Sri Lanka claimed that in the last days of the war, it carried out "the largest hostage-rescue operation" that liberated thousands of Tamils from the oppressive rule of the LTTE. Yet in reality, to this day the "rescued" Tamil population has seen neither freedom nor relief. From March 2008 until the present, the government has confined virtually all civilians displaced by the war in military-controlled detention camps, euphemistically called "welfare centers." In violation of international law, the government denied the displaced their rights to liberty and freedom of movement. The camp residents are kept in the dark regarding their own future and the fate of their missing relatives. More than four months after the end of hostilities, the government continues to hold more than 250,000 civilians in illegal detention.

The full extent of the crimes committed by both sides to the conflict is still unknown. The Sri Lankan government spared no effort to prevent independent coverage of its military operations and the plight of displaced civilians. It has kept out both international and local media as well as human rights organizations, has made sure that witnesses to its abuses are securely locked up in camps, and has harassed and persecuted those who dared to speak out — doctors, activists and journalists. It has even deported outspoken UN officials.

Turning East

Despite mounting evidence of abuses in Sri Lanka, the response from Western countries was initially weak, though eventually several governments, including the United States, the United Kingdom and France, raised their voices. They strongly condemned indiscriminate attacks and urged a humanitarian corridor for civilians trapped in the war zone. After the war, they called for an independent investigation and continued to advocate against indefinite detention of the displaced. In a show of disapproval of Sri Lanka's human rights violations, these countries, along with Germany and Argentina, also made the unprecedented move of abstaining from the vote on the International Monetary Fund's $2.6 billion loan to Sri Lanka. The loan, delayed for several months because of these concerns, was eventually approved in July 2009. But each quarterly installment will need a separate vote of approval by the IMF's board of governors.

The Sri Lankan government, however, gambled on the idea that no matter how upset the West may be, nobody would judge the "winners." It dismissed all criticism out of hand. It attacked Western governments for their own human rights practices, calling the pleas for civilian protection "hypocrisy and sanctimony." And it accused critical governments and international institutions of being LTTE sympathizers.

Sri Lanka's confidence in the face of criticism was also boosted by a gradual re-orientation of its foreign policy toward the East. According to some defense experts, Chinese military ordnance was decisive in the final stages of the war against the LTTE. Pakistan has boosted its annual military assistance loans to Sri Lanka to nearly $100 million. Iran granted $450 million for a hydropower project and provided a seven-month credit facility so that Sri Lanka's entire crude oil requirement could be sourced from there; it also reportedly provided low-interest credit so that Sri Lanka could purchase military equipment from Pakistan and China. Libya pledged $500 million as a financial co-operation package for development projects. Even Burma donated $50,000 to the Sri Lankan government.

In addition to substantial financial support, Sri Lanka's new friends also stood up to defend Sri Lanka against accountability at the UN Security Council. In the Human Rights Council, Sri Lanka received wholehearted support from countries like Cuba, Pakistan, Venezuela, Iran, and others who ensured the adoption of a deeply flawed resolution that largely commended the Sri Lankan government for its current policies. In June, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization — an intergovernmental mutual-security organization founded by the leaders of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan — granted Sri Lanka the status of Dialogue Partner.

While the support for Sri Lanka was largely driven by each country's political and economic motives, some common factors were also clearly in play — an effort to counterbalance India's influence in the region (in the case of China and Pakistan), similar problems with separatist groups and abusive counterinsurgency campaigns, and an overall tendency to jointly oppose Western criticism and challenge Western domination in the international arena.

Reality Bites

Sri Lanka's hardnosed response to its Western critics may have worked in the short term but it may not be, after all, sustainable.

The first reality check came with the European Union's threat to withdraw significant trading privileges granted to Sri Lanka under a trading scheme called the Generalized System of Preferences plus (GSP+). Since 2005, the privileges allowed Sri Lanka to export goods and products duty-free to EU countries. According to an EU estimate, the agreement was worth €900 million and employment of over 100,000 people in the apparel sector in Sri Lanka.

In September this year, the EU presented the Sri Lankan government with the results of a year-long investigation of Sri Lanka's compliance with human rights requirements for continued GSP+ status. The Sri Lankan government refused to cooperate with the investigation. However, upon realizing that the threat of withdrawal was real and could become politically costly if the government calls early presidential elections, authorities launched an aggressive campaign, spearheaded by a president-appointed ministerial task force, to ensure the continuation of the trade concessions. Through it all, the government insisted at home that it wouldn't bend under Western pressure.

In the meantime, the U.S. State Department has been preparing a congressionally mandated investigative report into allegations of war crimes committed by both sides during the final phase of the conflict. Around September 21, when the investigation was due to be presented in Congress, pro-government Sri Lankan media published dismissals of the report, saying that it was based on hearsay and "violates Sri Lanka's rights and sovereignty." The critics admitted they hadn't seen the text — which wasn't surprising, given that the presentation of the report had been postponed and the whole campaign proved to be a false start. It did indicate, however, how anxious Sri Lanka is about the report's possible conclusions. Some of the top officials must be particularly concerned about being accused of war crimes by a country where they hold citizenship or permanent residency status.

Sri Lanka's nervousness about its international standing has not yet triggered any significant improvement on human rights matters, and there is no indication that the government is genuinely rethinking its policies. The changing discourse, however, implies that the government may be more susceptible to pressure than the international community previously believed. And the international community should use this moment to ensure progress on some of the burning human rights issues — freedom for thousands of displaced Tamil civilians, the end of persecution of journalists and civil society activists, and accountability for violations committed during the conflict.

In addition to pushing publicly and privately for the release of the displaced, the United States has a particularly important role to play on the issue of accountability. It should use its influence at the UN to help launch an international independent investigation into violations of humanitarian law. Washington should also make clear that future development aid to Colombo will depend on concrete progress on these key issues. Abstaining from the vote on the second tranche of Sri Lanka's IMF loan would be an appropriate way to convey the message.

Anna Neistat is a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch's emergencies division and is a specialist in humanitarian crises.


It is very clear now what the west's agenda is. The only way to counter this avalancche of criticism is the support MR govt. should receive within the country. This is not at all easy with the local agents are working overtime to throw a spanner in the state machinery. Petroleum corp. strike is the start. We will see more such events in the run up to the almost declared elections. The Sarath Fonseka story is not just a rumour. His alleged meeting with Ranil in Singapore on his way to US (if it was true) points to where we are heading for. The western agenda is to field Sarath Fonseka as an independent candidate with the belief that he will receive the votes otherwise would have gone to MR, thus weakening MRs popularity, hoping Ranil W, the third candidate to win comfortably. The fact that with all the allegations of human right abuses during the final days of the war (Channel 4 Video et al) no one in the Western bloc is calling to refuse him entry to US. This confirms the unseen hand behind the Sarath Fonseka story.

Posted by: Dutugemunu | October 27, 2009 11:42 PM

Guess what you are right but there are no more killings bcause of the war isnt it.So lets give some credit to srilanka goverment.

Posted by: Roshan | October 28, 2009 01:26 PM

It was a do or die (slowly) situation over here. If the government has to do it again, we the people will beck it all over again. By the way, we are no fools, the importance of US & EU in the world stage is declining by the day. In the meant time you can keep dreaming...

Posted by: Greg | October 28, 2009 11:31 PM

Tamils died because Tamils fought the Governments forces.

When there is NO war there are NO TAMILS DYING.

So where is the discrimination NOW.

The Tamils started attacking the state using terrorist militia means. Then when the state legitimately responded to these attacks they scream that THE TAMILS ARE DISCRIMINATED.



Posted by: Sinhala_Voice | October 29, 2009 01:39 AM

Miss Neistat...

You can take your GSP + and SHOVE IT WHERE THE SUN DON'T SHINE... Its this sort of CONDESCENDING WESTERN ARROGANCE displayed by you LOWER MIDDLE CLASS NOBODIES of White countries (who simply could not find meaningful Employment in the Private Sector) that resort to lecturing 3rd World Countries how to do everything from protecting OUR Rain forests, and Settling OUR internal conflicts... You NGOs are Not POLITICIANS... you're not granted VISAs to come to our shores to tell our leaders and our people how to conduct themselves. You are no better than us, you only have more money than us... that's it.

RICHER does not equal SMARTER... got it?

You people display such ARROGANCE towards us because you think we're still like our COLONIAL GENERATION of ancestors who bowed our heads and smiled for their WHITE BWANAS... They were Well trained DOGGIES I will admit, and your Ancestors taught them well. So well infact that a lot of our people (ESPECIALLY TAMILS) still behave like the "HOUSE NEGROS" they are... I sincerely hope you EUROPEANS cancel all your WELFARE PROGRAMS to us,..infact cancel them to ALL OF ASIA... Lets see which Civilization Collapses first eh? My Money is on your DECAYING AGING TOP HEAVY FINANCIALLY UNSUSTAINABLE SOCIALIST NIGHTMARE COUNTRIES... You are nothing more than GREEN MAILERS on the NATION LEVEL. Sooner or Later the shackles will come off and the tables will be turned - we'll be going to your countries to vacation there... while your grandchildren SHINE our SHOES and bring us COCKTAILS while we kick up our feet and relax on Holiday in your Back yards...

You are only in our country to hand our food, dig ditches, de-mine former LTTE controlled villages and maybe even fix a toilet or two. Please don't comment above your pay grade... No one pays for your opinion, they pay you to Swat the files off the backs of starving Little Africa Children and that's about it... so Do us a favor and just do your JOB and KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT...

Thank you.

Posted by: Devinda Fernando | October 29, 2009 01:58 AM

All the countries that SriLanka is currently allied with including India have many skeletons in their cupboards. The Tamil struggle for Equality is not Terrorism. It turned militant due to the actions of the Government. Still till today - the Govt officials have not realised what the whole issue has really been - some SriLankans do have small minds. Who says killings are over. They are just not being reported - well not allowed to be reported. SriLankan will now join the ranks of the `pariah' nations. WOuld you ever learn ??

Posted by: Ivar | October 29, 2009 04:06 AM

This is the person who entered the country as a "tourist" and visited the IDP camp for HRW work. This is how she respects for laws of the country.
Show that you have some integrity before you ask other countries the same.

Posted by: pushpa | October 29, 2009 05:04 PM

You guys collect money from young Westerners by telling them all sorts of bullshit.This money is spent on propaganda to destabilize poor Countries in Africa and Asia that are struggling to look after their citizens.

Most of these young including my own children only know what they see on TV or advertised on the net.They have no idea of the real time Terror campaigns in poor countries and how these affect the wellbeing of the majority.

The sadness of your actions are you never make any outcry when the Terrorists carry out executions, mutilations killings and rapes.You only attack the States when they try to eliminate Terror from their societies.

If you have done your rserach correctly you should have a clear idea waht happened in Srilanka over the last thirt years.You should also know the abuses killings etc on both sides. So wiegh them up and work out which side has done the worst.

Posted by: Ex Srilankan | October 29, 2009 07:33 PM


My, my, my!!! You are ill again. Totally unbecoming language on a lady of much learning. My measure of you is different to what I think of that vermin a.k.a. kudu gemunu. What a babbling brook of bullshit this time. You have’nt taken your tablets. From cold turkey to verbal diarrohea. Why so hard on charming Anna? She’s a lovely lass and a do-gooder and I see very little offence here. You’re on overkill mode here. She and many foreign readers are going to assume all Lankans are troglodytes. We thought you hated only Tamils and now find the mania is spreading to other races and nationalities too. The sooner you lie on the couch of your shrink the better.


Posted by: Ilaya Seran Senguttuvan | October 29, 2009 09:02 PM

Please See on line edition of Srilankan Daily mirror on Thursday 29.10.09 for a viedo view

When the policemen and some army personnel arrived he jumped into the sea as was his habit. He threw stones he had collected at the people and security personnel. One army officer was injured. When they attempted to get near him he went further into the sea and threw sand at them.

By this time Balawarnam was a threat to the people and security personnel. Some passengers threw two poles which were drifting on the sea to the policemen. This is the Justice of Srilankan state appratus to a mentaly deranged Tamil man- Killing him. Throwing stones and sand is a threat to army and police personnel So it is Justified to kill him.even after he had bee pleading for help.Let us wait and See what happens to these personnals in the comming months. Thank god the LTTE is no longer there otherwiss it will be blamed as the man was a Tamil tiger and trying to Kill president by throwing stones and sand.

Posted by: shocked Pandian | October 31, 2009 09:03 AM

Devinda Fernando have you seen the video on The SL daily mirror on line I think on last friday or thursday Do you think this video also fake and made by tamil diaspora to discredit Sinhala Buddhist Supremacist. Are your Government investigators are going to prove it as fake.'KILLING OF DERANGED YOUTH SHOCKS NATION' why not Request Rajeva wijasingha to go on Algzeera to tell it was made up by LTTE.

It is not Shocking to me as I am aware that your government has already killed SEVERAL people un armed and waving white flag trying to surrender.And showed an example to your army and police they are following it.

Posted by: ashamed Ex Srilankan | October 31, 2009 09:29 AM

Post a comment

(The comment may need to be approved by Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting; generally approved/posted if they are not abusive of the topic as well as the author and/or another commenter.)

(Please write the comment in paragraphs if its long and allow space between paragraphs, for easier reading by others)

Recent Posts on TC