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Sri Lanka’s 30-year-long civil war ended on 29 May 2009 when the government declared victory against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who had been fighting for a separate state for minority Tamils in the country’s north and east. However, the formal end of the conflict left behind countless military and civilian casualties, as well as many victims of systematic dispossession of land and rights violations. In the last stages of the war, in particular, as fighting intensified, national and international human rights organizations drew attention to violations by both sides, including forced recruitment by LTTE militants, government embargos on basic necessities like medicines and the bombing of civilian protection zones, known as no-fire zones.
An end to the war had been unthinkable to most Sri Lankans and was celebrated in many parts of the country. In the war-torn areas of the north and east, however, it was a different story, with hundreds of thousands of civilians who had survived the fighting forced into internment camps. International and national human rights monitors, humanitarian workers and the media were prevented from accessing these camps, and displaced people were not allowed any public contact. Many people, women in particular, were parted from their loved ones at army check points and did not hear from them again. Hundreds of Tamils, men in particular, were disappeared following their detention. To this day, the fate of many of these individuals remains unknown.
Allegations of violations of international humanitarian law, including war crimes and crimes against humanity, were levelled against the Sri Lankan government by a number of international actors. Finally, following heavy international pressure, authorities opened up the internment camps in 2010 and released the detainees, who then returned to bombed out villages with little or no remaining infrastructure. Thousands were not able to return to their homes because their lands had been taken over by the military to create High Security Zones or allocated for new development opportunities in the area. These people had to remain in displacement camps. Meanwhile, the military presence in the area was still alarmingly high, while most of the survivors were single women who were especially vulnerable to sexual violence and exploitation. In addition, surveillance by plainclothes intelligence officers and members of former paramilitary groups continued. In this environment, Tamils had very limited freedom of expression, association or movement: for many it was like being imprisoned in their own homes.
In May 2010, in a bid to appease criticism, the government appointed the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) to investigate allegations of violations of international law. However, the LLRC lacked impartiality and its report, released in November 2011, was accused by critics of whitewashing the military. Nevertheless, it included some good recommendations on reconciliation – though the government failed to implement these fully. This followed the dismissal by Sri Lankan officials, some months before, of the findings of an expert UN panel that in March 2011 reported credible allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by both sides. The government subsequently refused to cooperate with any further international investigations and condemned several subsequent UN resolutions calling for an independent investigation into human rights abuses during the conflict.
The government’s failure to ensure an equitable and secure environment for civilians, particularly minorities, in the aftermath of the conflict has meant that Sri Lanka’s human rights record continues to be characterized by killings, torture, abductions and other violations against a backdrop of impunity. Journalists and civil society activists have received death threats or been physically attacked. In her visit to the country in 2013, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reported that Sri Lanka was slipping towards becoming an authoritarian state, while calls for justice and accountability for victims of the war were ignored or suppressed. Because of blanket censorship towards the end of the war, however, most Sri Lankans outside the affected areas were unaware of what had happened and felt the country was being unfairly targeted.
Nevertheless, increasing disenchantment towards the government due to allegations of corruption and authoritarianism led to an unexpected victory against the incumbent Sri Lanka Freedom Party in national elections in January 2015. While the new President, Maithripala Sirisena, campaigned on the promise of a policy of ‘compassionate governance’ for the country, the implications for its conflict affected populations remain uncertain. Nevertheless, tentative hopes remain that the change of power could signal a broader transformation in the situation of minorities within Sri Lanka.