Populations at Risk Previously Studied Situations

Sri Lanka

A lack of accountability for war crimes and other atrocities committed during Sri Lanka's long civil war continues to hamper reconstruction and reconciliation efforts. Growing tensions and sporadic attacks on Muslims by Sinhala Buddhist extremists increases the potential risk of widespread inter-communal violence.
It has been less than a decade since Sri Lanka ended its civil war with Tamil separatists. From January until May 2009 the government of Sri Lanka intensified efforts to militarily defeat the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who had been fighting for an independent Tamil homeland since 1983. Civilians in the northeast of the country, trapped between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government's armed forces, faced war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated by both sides. The LTTE placed armed fighters amongst civilians, shot at those who tried to flee, and relied upon forced conscription to its forces.

The Sri Lankan army, meanwhile, used heavy artillery and aerial bombardment in densely populated civilian areas and was widely accused of extrajudicial killings and sexual violence. The civilian death toll resulting from the Army's final offensive against the LTTE is estimated at 40,000 people.

Since 2009, calls for accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity remain unanswered. It took the government nine years to set up an Office of Missing Persons to investigate the unexplained disappearances of thousands of people during the civil war.

Recent targeted attacks against Sri Lanka's Muslim population have raised fears of a return to conflict and instability in the country. Tensions between the Sinhalese Buddhist majority and the minority Muslim community have increased since 2009. Muslims constitute approximately nine percent of Sri Lanka's multi-ethnic and multi-religious population.

Riots between February and March 2018 were sparked by a "road rage" incident involving a Sinhalese Buddhist truck driver and Muslim men in Kandy district, which resulted in the death of the driver. After 4 March, mobs of Buddhist extremists carried out targeted attacks on Muslim-owned businesses, houses and mosques. At least two civilians were killed and dozens wounded.

On 6 March Sri Lanka declared a state of emergency in an attempt to stop the violence from spreading to other parts of the country. The government also temporarily shut down various social media platforms to control incitement of violence and hate speech against the Muslim minority.

Following the end of the threat posed by armed Tamil separatism and the LTTE, the Muslim minority is now seen by some extremist Sinhalese elements as posing a threat to the dominance of Buddhist culture.

The government has not done enough to address the underlying mistrust between the Buddhist and Muslim communities. Hate speech and the actions of Buddhist extremists has increased the risk of violence.

The Sri Lankan government manifestly failed to uphold its Responsibility to Protect during the civil war and must effectively and consistently protect minority populations within the country.

After a three-day visit to the country during March 2018, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, urged the Sri Lanka government to bring perpetrators of violence and hate speech to justice, and to take active measures to prevent recurrence.

Almost a decade after the end of Sri Lanka's civil war, there needs to be an internationally credible effort to hold perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the civil war accountable for their actions.

The government must uphold its responsibility to protect all populations within Sri Lanka, regardless of their religion or ethnicity. The government needs to take practical steps to curb rising hate speech, mediate inter-communal conflict, and counter violent extremism.

Last Updated: 2 May 2018