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Sri Lanka

Abstract and Keywords

In spite of the adoption of the responsibility to protect (R2P) by the Sri Lankan government in 2005, both Sri Lankan and LTTE forces killed thousands of civilians during the conclusion of the civil war. In this chapter, it is shown that these atrocities occurred in large part due to existing international political dynamics, which were focused on the War on Terror, and a shortage of information on what was occurring in the conflict zone. This facilitated states in supporting the government, while diminishing criticism from others that may have been more supportive of the invocation of R2P. Yet following the conflict, with increased information on the crisis, subsequent initiatives taken by the international community have endeavoured to obtain accountability, justice, and to prevent such atrocities from occurring in the future. These initiatives have strengthened the UN’s ability to implement R2P; however, ongoing challenges remain.

Keywords: Sri Lanka, responsibility to protect, United Nations, Human Rights Council, Rights Up Front

It is estimated that during the final stages of the 2009 war in Sri Lanka, up to 40,000 civilians were killed due to the conflict.1 The lack of protection for civilians trapped in the conflict zone contrasted with the stated principles of the responsibility to protect (R2P).2 In spite of the increasingly dismal conditions for trapped civilians, both the UN and many Member States made little effort to engage in the crisis through the R2P framework. The government and its supporters framed the conflict as part of the War on Terror, thus claiming that the crisis was an internal matter for Sri Lanka to address. This obstructed potential action by the UN and concerned Member States. It was not until after the conclusion of the conflict that demands for accountability and justice led to a strong international response.

In this chapter, it is argued that this occurred in large part due to the international political dynamics surrounding the war that shifted after the conclusion of the conflict, allowing the international community to demand accountability from parties to the conflict.3 The international preoccupation with terrorism combined with the inadequate response of the UN, which was coerced by the Sri Lankan government into choosing between providing humanitarian assistance and relaying accurate information to states, produced a response that was incapable of preventing atrocities against civilians. After the conflict subsided, information on what occurred during the war became more widely available. This led to an increased demand for accountability and justice, as well as measures within the UN to prevent a similar response in the future.

Subsequent initiatives to address the UN’s inadequate response to the Sri Lankan crisis have ultimately strengthened the organization’s capacity to implement R2P in future crises. Although many challenges remain, there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic. There is hope for change within Sri Lanka with the election of President Maithripala Sirisensa, who won with the support of ethnic minority Tamils and Muslims.4 At the international level, there are ongoing developments in the UN Human Rights Council to obtain accountability for civilian deaths and investigate alleged war crimes. The UN Secretariat has also been active in addressing institutional failures in its response to the crisis, which has led to reform through the ‘Rights Up Front’ initiative.5

(p. 877) This chapter will open with a brief examination of the background and development of the conflict, particularly in relation to the Sri Lankan government’s actions during the war. The next section examines the existing international dynamics in relation to the conflict, as well as the response of the international community to this crisis. Despite evidence that civilians were being killed in large numbers, the UN and Member States failed to act decisively to prevent atrocities. The final section focuses on initiatives the international community has taken to obtain accountability for civilian deaths and investigate alleged war crimes. Ultimately, while the crisis represents a failure to implement R2P during the conflict, steps taken since have the potential to strengthen the ability of the UN to effectively address such situations in the future.

The Sri Lankan Conflict in 2009

The last phase of the Sri Lankan civil war began to escalate when the government decided to end the collapsing ceasefire with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on 2 January 2008. This was followed by a series of LTTE attacks on civilian areas.6 After withdrawal from the ceasefire agreement, the government began preparations for armed conflict, which included purchasing arms from Pakistan and China.7 Norwegian military observers, who were in Sri Lanka monitoring the ceasefire, left when the government officially withdrew from the 2002 peace agreement. Their departure left no independent officials to oversee the conflict.8

On 2 January 2009, the government announced the capture of Kilinochchi, the de facto rebel capital, followed by the rest of the Jaffna Peninsula and Mullaitivu, which ultimately cornered the LTTE on all sides.9 Throughout the conflict, the LTTE waged a particularly gruesome campaign that trapped an estimated 250,000 civilians, using them strategically to set up heavy artillery and attack government forces.10 The government responded by pressuring the LTTE to allow civilians to flee, with assurances from President Rajapaksa that they would be safe.11

Following a brief pause, in which few civilians were able to escape, the government continued their assault on LTTE-held territory. This included the indiscriminate shelling of sites within self-declared no-fire zones (NFZs) that included makeshift camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs), hospitals, and UN compounds, which resulted in many civilian casualties.12 The unavailability of clean water, sanitation, and food in the war zone made life for trapped civilians intolerable. The conflict escalated in March, leading to calls for a ceasefire from the UN.13 Many civilians were reported to be dead by this point, due to ‘inadequate medical care and lack of food’.14 In April, the government allowed for a two-day suspension of military activities to encourage civilians to leave. However, only a few hundred of the remaining estimated 190,000 civilians managed to escape.15 The government also vowed to end the use of heavy weaponry in the conflict zone, which was reportedly violated soon after, when another hospital was destroyed, forcing doctors to leave.16

(p. 878) The condition of civilians who managed to escape was dire, with rampant malnourishment, dehydration, and infected and untreated wounds.17 Camps for displaced civilians were reported to be in bad condition as well. Women and children in particular were vulnerable to exploitation and abuses.18 In an attempt to identify LTTE cadres, everyone coming out of the conflict zone was screened, without the presence of any staff from the UN or the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Some 280,000 individuals were detained in military-run closed camps. Allegations of human rights abuses at both the screening points and in the camps persisted, yet the UN was not permitted by the Sri Lankan government to conduct independent monitoring of the area.19

While resources in the camps were scant, conditions were somewhat improved by May 2009 due to the efforts of aid workers.20 Humanitarian groups on the ground in Sri Lanka made statements on the crisis where possible, but many were hesitant, fearing that they would be removed from the conflict zone by the government.21 Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) and the ICRC deplored the lack of hospital space and staff, medical supplies, clean water, and other necessities.22 Ultimately, aid organizations on the ground were placed in the difficult position of having to choose between complying with government restrictions on their public statements or being instructed to leave the country.23

Throughout the war, the Sri Lankan government made a considerable effort to justify its actions, claiming that there were no civilian casualties and that any human rights violations were the sole responsibility of the LTTE.24 It also reiterated that the conflict was part of the ongoing War on Terror. President Rajapaksa argued that Western countries ‘encouraged us to defeat terrorism … We fought their war. We showed that you can defeat terrorism.’25 The Sri Lankan government also effectively monopolized the conflict narrative by restricting access to information. The military controlled access to journalists by taking them on monitored trips to specific areas in the conflict zone and only allowed them to film footage of civilians protesting against the LTTE.26 Media crackdowns by the government also occurred with the justification that irresponsible analyses were being published.27 The UN and many aid organizations were barred or restricted from accessing Tamil civilians or the conflict zone; consequently making it more difficult to independently verify activities on the ground or ensure civilians were protected ‘by presence’.28 Any information on civilian suffering leaked to the international media was quickly refuted. Sri Lankan representative to the UN, Palitha Kohona also decried reports that were critical of the government’s handling of the crisis, stating, ‘we need to be cautious about what we read on the Tamilnet, and which is very readily repeated by headline seeking journalists’.29

Assaults continued on the area until late May, with the death of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, while the LTTE’s civilian leadership attempted to negotiate their surrender with UN officials and the Sri Lankan government. However, other elements in the LTTE continued to fire at government officials from inside the NFZ. The government assured the UN Chef de Cabinet that although they would not allow their presence in Wanni, safe passage was guaranteed for surrendering LTTE leadership. By 18 May, most of the LTTE leadership was confirmed killed, which the government insisted occurred either in armed engagement or at the hands of other LTTE members. Other sources indicated that they were executed, including those that were unarmed with white flags.30

(p. 879) It is estimated that there could be as many as 40,000 deaths as a result of the final stages of the conflict.31 While UN officials had an estimated number of civilian casualties developed by the UN Crisis Operations Group during the crisis, there was significant disagreement between different UN bodies whether or not to release the figures publicly and risk losing humanitarian access to the conflict zone.32 The government drew on this disagreement when they were criticized for disregarding civilian casualties by pointing to UN statements that were more cautious in casualty estimates.33 They claimed that the UN’s estimates were inaccurate and that sources inside the conflict zone were mistaken or intentionally misleading.34

The high rate of civilian casualties and the shelling of civilian areas is evidence of significant negligence regarding the legal principles of proportionality and distinction. In addition, there were many reports of human rights abuses committed against civilians who escaped LTTE-held areas.35 While the LTTE were responsible for civilian deaths, government forces inflicted the overwhelming majority of civilian deaths during the final stages of the conflict. The government therefore failed in its duty to protect populations caught in the fighting and to uphold their stated commitment to R2P.

International Response

The response of the international community to this conflict was ineffective in persuading the Sri Lankan government to live up to its responsibility to protect. It should be noted that R2P was still a relatively new concept at the time, having been articulated in the World Summit Outcome Document only four years earlier and that it was not debated in the General Assembly until after the war. According to the Report of the Secretary-General’s Internal Review Panel on United Nations Action in Sri Lanka, while there was some reference to R2P in the Security Council at the end of the conflict, due to confusion among ‘Member States and the Secretariat of the concept’s meaning’36 and relevance to the crisis, R2P was seen as too contentious and counter-productive to invoke. Nonetheless, many key states supported the Sri Lankan government’s position, while others that would generally be more supportive of R2P responded cautiously or were sidelined by the Sri Lankan government and their supporters.37 In UN proceedings, this support combined with ambivalence on the part of potential R2P advocates helped the Sri Lankan government to conclude the conflict without effective interference from the UN or its Member States.

International Stakeholders

Prior to the conclusion of the war, the Sri Lankan government had been active in seeking increased trade relations and ties to China, which culminated in political cooperation.38 China became a powerful political ally, keeping Sri Lanka off the Security Council agenda and supporting the government in the Human Rights Council.39 During the (p. 880) conflict, China and Pakistan provided the government with armaments and funds, improving relations between the countries.40 This development was viewed with caution by the Indian government.41 However, India was also constrained from acting too openly supportive of the Sri Lankan government, owing to the significant Indian Tamil population that sympathized with the Sri Lankan Tamil community.42 This was particularly significant as Indian national elections were occurring concurrently with the crisis in Sri Lanka.43 India was one of the few states to cite R2P in reference to the crisis, as External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee reminded the Sri Lankan government of its responsibility to protect its citizens.44 However, India ultimately supported the Sri Lankan government in the Human Rights Council.45

Western governments had limited leverage over the situation, given Sri Lanka’s increased reliance on its partnership with China, which decreased Sri Lanka’s dependence on Western partners for financial stability. However, Western leaders were also notably weak in responding the Sri Lankan government’s actions that contributed to the humanitarian crisis.46 John Holmes, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, claimed that Western states, including the United Kingdom, United States, and France had large and well-organized Tamil diasporas, forcing them to take account of Tamil lobbying.47 In spite of this, they deflected political pressure on to the UN rather than take significant action themselves.48 However, the UN’s Internal Review report on Sri Lanka claimed that ‘some Member States on the Security Council complained that they were receiving almost no information from the Secretariat on the international human rights and humanitarian law situation in the Wanni’.49 Instead, they relied on reports from international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), indicating that the lack of accurate information on the conflict was problematic.

The Obama administration in the United States did relatively little to address the crisis. It made occasional statements that emphasized the need for restraint from both sides, and requested that the Sri Lankan government end the use of heavy artillery in areas with large numbers of civilians.50 US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was reported to have privately conferred with President Rajapakse, stating that Sri Lanka was on ‘the verge of defeating terrorism’51 and could restore peace to the country. The administration’s tacit support for Sri Lanka’s actions contrasted with its focus on human rights in Obama’s foreign policy platform.52 The reluctance of the United States to become involved may have signalled a renewed focus on geostrategic alliances and an ongoing policy to combat terrorism, which was highlighted in a report by the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. The report noted that ‘the US, India and China all share an interest in deterring terrorist activity … that could disrupt maritime trade’,53 signalling a point of consensus between these countries and Sri Lanka that centred on the threat of terrorism.

European leaders were arguably more proactive in addressing the crisis than the United States, and theoretically had the potential to exert some influence with the Sri Lankan government, as there are significant continuing trade relations between Europe and Sri Lanka.54 UK Foreign Minister David Miliband and his French counterpart, (p. 881) Bernard Kouchner, attempted to negotiate with the Sri Lankan government, which produced no changes in Sri Lanka’s behaviour.55 Ultimately, they were able to brief the UN Security Council on the situation, culminating in the release of a joint non-binding statement of concern over the rising civilian death toll.56 However, Sri Lanka’s supporters in the UN Security Council remained hesitant, and the statement focused on the crimes committed by the LTTE.57 Mexican Ambassador to the UN and President of the Security Council during the relevant period, Claude Heller, claimed that an informal statement condemning the LTTE and urging the government to ensure civilian protection was the best way to send a message, as members of the Security Council could not agree to formally add the Sri Lankan conflict to the Security Council’s agenda.58

Another notable initiative supported by the United States, Britain, and France during the conflict was a threat to block an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan for 1.9 billion US dollars to Sri Lanka in May of 2009. However, this was ultimately defeated after the United States, France, Germany, Argentina, and Britain abstained from voting.59 Ultimately, a lack of coordination between EU Member States, as well as between the EU and the United States, undercut efforts to use economic coercion to secure Sri Lankan compliance with its international obligations.60

Japan and Norway were also instrumental actors in Sri Lanka, as Japan provided large amounts of foreign aid to Sri Lanka and Norway was the broker of Sri Lanka’s peace process since 1997.61 Although lobbied by INGOs to increase pressure on the Sri Lankan government, the Japanese government did not advocate for the inclusion of the crisis on the formal agenda of the Security Council, preferring diplomacy with the Sri Lankan government to more confrontational measures.62 However, Japan did continue to lobby for a political solution and expressed concern for populations trapped in the conflict zones to Sri Lankan representatives.63 Norway maintained its official position as mediator between the parties until April 2009, at which point the Sri Lankan government terminated the role.64 In a report evaluating the outcome of the Norwegian government’s involvement in the conflict produced by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation, it was noted that external facilitation as an approach to address the conflict was sidelined by the Sri Lankan government in favour of a military solution once the conflict was ‘reframed … as a terrorist problem’.65

UN Response

The UN had been given advanced warning in 2008 that a major military operation in Wanni was likely to take place, which would likely result in a significant number of civilian casualties. In response, the Secretariat sent a series of UN high-level officials to Sri Lanka to present concerns and recommendations, most of which were rejected by the government.66 Sri Lankan authorities maintained a largely antagonistic relationship with the UN. They threatened to revoke visas, made false allegations about the UN in the government-controlled media, engaged in external surveillance of UN activities, and used other disruptions as a way to control and intimidate UN staff. By September of (p. 882) 2008, the government informed the UN that it could no longer guarantee the safety of staff on the ground, resulting in the evacuation of UN staff from the conflict zone, which was shortly followed by the end of humanitarian assistance convoys.67

From early 2009, the UN adjusted its focus to the prevention of large-scale loss of life through political engagement with both parties to the conflict. UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon adopted an approach based on ‘quiet diplomacy’ and privately conferred with President Rajapaksa to get assurances that civilians would be protected.68 In the Security Council, senior Secretariat officials presented statements that focused on the humanitarian situation rather than providing information on civilian deaths or the role that both parties played in creating the unfolding catastrophe.69 Instead, UN officials withheld accurate casualty estimates and information related to the Sri Lankan government’s role in the crisis, in order to avoid public criticism of the government and protect its humanitarian access.70

Action on the crisis through the UN Security Council was also difficult. In spite of pressure from non-permanent Security Council members Mexico, Austria, and Costa Rica to address the crisis in official meetings, Sri Lanka received support from Russia and China, in particular, as well as Libya and Vietnam, who considered the issue to be an internal matter.71 The Council settled upon basement-level informal meetings between the Security Council and the Sri Lankan government, which were arguably the only way for talks to resume.72 These dialogues were reported to have had some limited success in restraining the Sri Lankan government.73

The UN Human Rights Council held a special session on the crisis in Sri Lanka that concluded soon after the military end of the conflict. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, pressed for an independent international inquiry into the conflict.74 Seventeen council members75 proposed a resolution deploring abuses committed by both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government, and called for a number of measures to ensure justice and accountability for these crimes, which was rejected by the majority of states on the Human Rights Council.76 Instead, the Sri Lankan government successfully lobbied Member States to pass a resolution drafted by Sri Lankan representatives that condemned the LTTE and congratulated the Sri Lankan government.77 Pillay again tried to raise Sri Lanka’s human rights record in June. She was rebuked by India’s Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Gopinathan Achamkulangara, who stated that Pillay had over-extended her brief and that ‘the independence of the High Commissioner cannot be presumed to exceed that of the UN Secretary-General’.78

While the UN was operating in a difficult political context, with multiple demands and considerations to take into account, its reluctance to take further steps to hold the Sri Lankan government accountable ultimately allowed the conflict to proceed without significant criticism or involvement from the international community. In this case, the UN failed to challenge the government in its claims that civilians were safe, in spite of the fact that the UN had evidence to the contrary.79 Commentators later noted that the subdued response from the international community was due in large part to the shortage of verifiable information available from the conflict zone.80

(p. 883) Aftermath and Follow-Up

Immediately following the war, Ban Ki-moon was harshly criticized privately for a lack of leadership and moral authority in his handling of Sri Lanka.81 He was seen by some to have undermined states that supported stronger action in the UN Human Rights Council against Sri Lanka by making statements praising the government’s efforts after the conclusion of the conflict during his visit to Sri Lanka.82 However, he was later credited with having engaged in sustained advocacy towards the end of the conflict, using every opportunity to engage the Sri Lankan government, which likely increased ‘the pace of population returns and accountability after the conflict’.83

Shortly after the conclusion of the conflict, Ban travelled to Sri Lanka to visit Menik Farm camp for people displaced by the war and to speak with President Rajapaksa. The meeting focused on the humanitarian situation and post-conflict initiatives, including the investigation of human rights abuses during the war.84 While the Sri Lankan government had promised in May 2009 to ensure accountability for human rights abuses that occurred during the war, progress on this issue was not evident in the years after the war.85 The government did establish a Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), but this failed to meet international standards of independence and impartiality.86 The Commission took the view that there was no deliberate targeting of civilians by the government.87 However, the LLRC was not given a clear mandate to investigate mass violations of international law, leaving it to focus on individual abuses.88 Furthermore, triumphalism on the part of the government excluded the views and concerns of moderate Tamils in the aftermath of the conflict, and little effort was made towards reconciliation.89 Continued military occupation and the perceived ‘Sinhalezation’ of the North also aggravated ethnic tensions.90

UN Initiatives

Responding to this criticism, in June 2010, Ban appointed an International Panel of Experts led by Indonesian lawyer Marzuki Darusman to advise the Secretary-General on violations of International Humanitarian and Human Rights Law during the conflict.91 The report found that there was ‘reasonable basis to believe’ that both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government were responsible for violations of Humanitarian and Human Rights Law against civilians.92 In its recommendations, the panel implored both the UN and the Sri Lankan government to undertake independent investigations into alleged human rights violations and ensure long-term accountability.

The report also prompted the creation of the Internal Review Panel on Sri Lanka and encouraged later consideration of the situation in Sri Lanka in the UN Human Rights Council. It found that in the final stages of the war, the UN ‘failed to take actions that might have protected civilians’.93 The report also claimed that the Human Rights (p. 884) Council might have passed its now notorious resolution congratulating the Sri Lankan government without complete information, due to the UN’s failure to publicly release casualty figures. To remedy this, it implored the Human Rights Council to reconsider the resolution on Sri Lanka, and called for the Secretary-General to ‘conduct a comprehensive review’ of the UN’s actions in Sri Lanka to implement its humanitarian and protection mandates.94

The Human Rights Council took heed of the Panel of Experts suggestions, and held another session on Sri Lanka in March 2012, passing a notably stronger resolution promoting reconciliation and accountability.95 The change in several Member State positions is credited to the increased availability of information on the conflict, including NGO reports, the report of the Panel of Experts, and the broadcast of British Channel Four film, Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields.96 Another resolution followed in 2014, which called upon the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to investigate alleged large-scale abuses of human rights by both parties to the conflict.97 The Human Rights Council was scheduled to debate the Office of the High Commissioner’s forthcoming report on alleged war crimes committed by the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government during the war in September 2015.98

The Internal Review Panel on Sri Lanka was commissioned by Ban Ki-moon to review the UN’s response to the crisis, including allegations that UN had failed to protect civilians, under-reported government violations, and suppressed accurate reporting by their field staff.99 The report bluntly concluded that, ‘events in Sri Lanka mark a grave failure of the UN to adequately respond to early warnings and to the evolving situation during the final stages of the conflict and its aftermath, to the detriment of hundreds of thousands of civilians and in contradiction with the principles and responsibilities of the UN’.100

To remedy these shortcomings, the Internal Review called on the UN to ensure that its senior staff regularly reaffirm their obligation to uphold the principles and values of the UN as a way to frame strategy and policy responses and to ensure a human rights perspective is embedded in these strategies. The aim of these measures is to ensure a ‘whole-of-United Nations crisis response’ is called for at an institutional level. These initiatives will correspondingly renew accountability in cases where civilians are at risk of human rights violations on a mass scale.101 The report also asserted that the UN must provide Member States with the necessary information to build political support. The R2P has a key role under this initiative, as it may allow the Secretary-General to use R2P as a ‘convening’ initiative to allow Member States to ‘receive and consider information on the human rights aspect of a relevant crisis situation’102 in addition to ensuring the Secretariat is fulfilling its own responsibilities. Ultimately, this set of recommendations would guarantee that the protection of populations from mass atrocity crimes was the first priority of the UN, rather than having to negotiate competing mandates.

These initiatives were further institutionalized with the 2013 follow-up plan of action, the Rights Up Front initiative.103 The aim of Rights Up Front is to ensure that the protection of people and their human rights are central to all UN strategies and operations.104 The six actions highlighted in the initiative directly draw from the conclusions of the (p. 885) Internal Review Panel and renew the commitment of the Secretariat, funds, and programmes to uphold the UN’s protection responsibilities ‘whenever there is a threat of serious and large-scale violations of international human rights and humanitarian law’.105

Changing Dynamics in Sri Lanka

Within Sri Lanka, President Maithripala Sirisena was elected in January 2015, winning with the support of ethnic minority Tamils and Muslims. Sirisena ran on a campaign that promised to end policies enacted over the last five years that have aggravated ‘social, political and economic’ crises in the country.106 His government has taken several steps towards reconciliation with the Tamil population, including lifting a travel ban for foreigners, instating a civilian governor in the Northern Province, promising to free detained Tamils and return lands seized during the conflict.107 Additionally, Sri Lankan political parties came to an agreement to implement the thirteenth amendment of Sri Lanka’s constitution, which sets up Provincial Councils with legislative powers in each of the nine provinces of Sri Lanka.108

However, challenges to reconciliation will be difficult to overcome. The lack of accountability for crimes committed during the war continues to be a source of outrage for Tamil groups.109 Furthermore, ongoing ethnic tension and violence against minority communities continues to plague the country.110 Sirisena will also have difficulties implementing his agenda, as many of these measures address policies and institutions that are well entrenched in Sri Lanka.111

Significant changes have occurred since the end of the 2009 war at the international level, and increasingly, within Sri Lanka itself. A wealth of information, made available after the war through UN fact-finding and independent reporting, has led to a demand for accountability and justice for victims of the conflict. It has also catalysed institutional reform in the UN Secretariat, ensuring that protection of populations is the primary objective of the organization. More recently, the election of President Sirisena in Sri Lanka has brought some welcome change and promising initiatives, in spite of ongoing challenges that may impede the implementation of more substantial initiatives.


The Sri Lankan government failed in its responsibility to protect during the 2008–9 crisis, while the international response failed to live up to the standards set by R2P in 2005. The crisis was framed as part of the War on Terror, which was supported by the Sri Lankan government. This, combined with lack of information available to the international community about what was happening on the ground, contributed to the perception of the crisis as an internal issue for Sri Lanka to address and discouraged (p. 886) the international community from viewing the crisis in terms of R2P. Furthermore, the inadequate response of the UN and a lack of political will from states to commit to action that would encourage the government to ensure the protection of civilians allowed the crisis to continue without a strong international response to atrocities committed during the war.

Although R2P has come a long way since the conclusion of this conflict, many of the challenges that were highlighted by this case persist.112 The global preoccupation with terrorism was central to the outcome of this crisis, as it gave the Sri Lankan government and their supporters a powerful rhetorical tool to respond to criticism and calls for the protection of populations trapped in the conflict. This is particularly concerning, as it shows the capacity of other interests to trump protection concerns. Similar tactics have already been used by the Assad government in Syria, who controlled the conflict narrative and invoked frames of terrorism, providing rhetorical ammunition to Russia and China, which supported it in the Security Council.113 Furthermore, there is reason to suspect that the events that led to civilian atrocities in Sri Lanka could be replicated elsewhere.114 The Sri Lankan government effectively showed that indifference to mass civilian casualties in defeating terrorism is a viable option for other states that face similar circumstances.

Yet there is much reason to be hopeful. Within Sri Lanka itself, a period of transition is underway. President Sirisena has promised reform and has put in place measures to this effect, but he faces significant difficulties in ensuring true reconciliatory policies are enacted. Furthermore, it is not yet clear how he will address ongoing impunity for abuses committed during the war. However, international involvement in some capacity will be key to ensuring a fair and impartial process.

Over the past several years, with increased information provided to the international community and pressure to ensure accountability from the UN Secretariat, the international community has supported measures to make certain that accountability for atrocities committed during the final stages of the war will eventuate. Resolutions in the UN Human Rights Council in 2012 and 2014 have ensured that the international community continues to be involved in the accountability process. The Internal Review Panel on Sri Lanka examined the crisis and its aftermath, highlighting the UN’s failures during the crisis. The recommendations to address these failures culminated in the Rights Up Front initiative. This has included some promising policies that would make it the priority of the UN to ensure the prevention of mass atrocity crimes and the protection of populations is front and centre of all UN activities. Although these initiatives have come too late to save the thousands of civilians killed in the final stages of the conflict, they promise to strengthen the ability of the international community to address similar situations that might arise in the future through R2P.


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                                                                                                    (1.) Darusman et al. 2011, p. 40; Petri 2012, pp. 13–14.

                                                                                                    (3.) This chapter draws on Nackers 2015.

                                                                                                    (10.) Petri 2012, p. 49.

                                                                                                    (12.) Petri 2012, p. 10.

                                                                                                    (14.) Petri 2012, p. 9.

                                                                                                    (17.) Petri 2012, p. 13.

                                                                                                    (18.) Darusman et al. 2011, pp. 45–6.

                                                                                                    (19.) Petri 2012, p. 13.

                                                                                                    (25.) Rajapaksa in Thottam 2009.

                                                                                                    (28.) Petri 2012, p. 8.

                                                                                                    (29.) Kohona in Cannane 2009.

                                                                                                    (30.) Petri 2012, pp. 85–6.

                                                                                                    (31.) Darusman et al. 2011, p. 40; Petri 2012, pp. 13–14.

                                                                                                    (32.) Petri 2012, p. 12.

                                                                                                    (33.) Petri 2012, pp. 12–13.

                                                                                                    (35.) Petri 2012, p. 20.

                                                                                                    (36.) Petri 2012, p. 26.

                                                                                                    (37.) Although many R2P advocates supported stronger action through the UN or Member State-led initiatives, others were unconvinced that this was a crisis in which R2P applied to the Sri Lankan government’s military actions. Most notably, Ramesh Thakur stated, ‘it was hypocritical and wrong—morally, politically and militarily—of westerners to fault Sri Lanka’. See Thakur 2009.

                                                                                                    (39.) Samaranayake 2011, p. 136.

                                                                                                    (42.) Chowdhury 2009, p. 1.

                                                                                                    (43.) Chowdhury 2009, p. 1.

                                                                                                    (46.) Castillejo 2011, pp. 3–4.

                                                                                                    (49.) Petri 2012, p. 82.

                                                                                                    (56.) McDonald 2009b; Petri 2012, pp. 84–5.

                                                                                                    (60.) Castillejo 2011, p. 4; Lindberg et al. 2011, pp. 61–5.

                                                                                                    (64.) Sørbø et al. 2011, pp. 67–132.

                                                                                                    (66.) Petri 2012, p. 6.

                                                                                                    (67.) Petri 2012, pp. 7–9.

                                                                                                    (69.) Petri 2012, p. 14.

                                                                                                    (70.) Petri 2012, pp. 11–12.

                                                                                                    (75.) Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Canada, Chile, France, Germany, Italy, Mauritius, Mexico, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Slovakia, South Korea, Switzerland, Ukraine, Uruguay, and the United Kingdom. Human Rights Watch 2009.

                                                                                                    (79.) Petri 2012, p. 82.

                                                                                                    (83.) Petri 2012, p. 26.

                                                                                                    (96.) Petri 2012, p. 25.

                                                                                                    (99.) Petri 2012, p. 4.

                                                                                                    (100.) Petri 2012, pp. 28–9.

                                                                                                    (101.) Petri 2012, pp. 31–4.

                                                                                                    (102.) Petri 2012, p. 34.

                                                                                                    (106.) Initiatives include a pledge to end the over-reach of presidential powers by repealing the 18th constitutional amendment, rebalancing foreign policy in Asia, ensuring freedom of the media, and protection for the media from intimidation and violence. See Sirisena 2014; Aneez and Chalmers 2015.

                                                                                                    (112.) For example, R2P has developed through institutional support through the Office of the Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on R2P and the increasing number of states that belong to the Friends of R2P group, and through implementation in many crises since this case.

                                                                                                    (114.) In 2014, Nigeria’s Defence Headquarters has stated that it is interested in using similar tactics to defeat Boko Haram after talks with Sri Lankan officials. See Stroehlein 2014.