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Human rights abuses are plaguing Sri Lanka – the UK must step up and introduce sanctions


3 min read

Thirteen years ago, a civil war on the island of Sri Lanka came to a bloody culmination. During the final months of the conflict, over a hundred thousand civilians suffered horrific human rights abuses and war crimes at the hands of the Sri Lankan government military.

In designated “no fire zones”, civilians were trapped and subjected to torture, rape and summary execution. It is estimated that over 169,000 people – mostly Tamils – were killed during this final phase of the war. 

To this day, the shadow of genocide still looms heavily over Sri Lanka. The victims of the war crimes committed during the conflict are still waiting for truth, justice and accountability. Influential figures who oversaw grotesque human rights abuses have been elevated to positions of authority in the current Sri Lankan government without formal investigation, trial or punishment. And, depressingly, human rights abuses continue to plague the island during their worst economic crisis since gaining independence in 1948.

War criminals should not enjoy impunity because the state in question is unwilling or unable to prosecute them

Last month, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a new resolution to help collect, consolidate, analyse and preserve evidence of human rights abuses that may be used in future war crimes trials. The Sri Lankan government has rejected the resolution, instead claiming confidence in their own domestic mechanisms, which, 13 years on since the end of the war, are yet to produce any results for victims of the atrocities. The new UN resolution is certainly a step in the right direction, but it falls short of providing a mechanism to truly investigate crimes and pursue criminal accountability.

Justice for past crimes is only one part of the problem, however. The Covid-19 pandemic and the economic crisis, combined with the powers given to the state under the prevention of terrorism act, has provided an opportunity and means for the Sri Lankan government to expand the militarisation of the country. As a result, human rights are deteriorating.

The media is suppressed; minority groups are harassed and face discrimination; civilians are subjected to arbitrary detention and torture; and disappearances have become commonplace, with Sri Lanka now reported to have the second highest number of UN-registered enforced disappearances in the world.

In April, the country defaulted on its $51bn external debt and is now in talks with the International Monetary Fund for a $2.9bn bailout. This contributed towards a shortage of basic necessities, including medicines, cooking gas, fuel and food, which in turn sparked mass protests and further militarisation.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Tamils secured a debate in the House of Commons this month to address these concerns and request the government take decisive action.

The motion called for the government to propose conditionalities on any IMF financial assistance for Sri Lanka during the current economic crisis to address the human rights situation. This includes ensuring that Sri Lanka carries out a review of its military spending, which is currently larger than its health and education budget combined.

Further, the United Kingdom should follow other allies from across the world, like the United States, and introduce targeted sanctions for those who are credibly accused of committing war crimes and human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. War criminals should not enjoy impunity because the state in question is unwilling or unable to prosecute them.

Hundreds of thousands of Tamils live in the UK – many of whom are still affected by the horrors that have taken place (and continue to take place) in Sri Lanka. As parliamentarians, it is not only our responsibility to our constituents to address the human rights situation on the island. It is also our responsibility as a Commonwealth partner to demonstrate international leadership in the fight for justice and human rights until they are achieved.


Elliot Colburn, Conservative MP for Carshalton and Wallington and chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Tamils.

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