Sri Lanka

Report of the Special Rapporteur on minority issues on her mission to Sri Lanka (A/HRC/34/53/Add.3)

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Note by the Secretariat

The Secretariat has the honour to transmit to the Human Rights Council the report of the Special Rapporteur on minority issues on her mission to Sri Lanka from 10 to 20 October 2016.

In her report, the Special Rapporteur commends the National Unity Government established in January 2015 for many of its reform initiatives and positive practices to promote good governance and national reconciliation. To achieve peaceful coexistence after the long and devastating civil war, a comprehensive, well-planned and well-coordinated truth, reconciliation, healing and accountability process must take place. While such goals cannot be accomplished overnight, the Special Rapporteur notes the mounting frustrations about the pace of progress. It is important for the Government to seize the momentum and put in place some immediate and concrete measures to clearly demonstrate its political will and commitment to better protect the country’s minorities. Particular attention should be paid to effective participation of minorities in decision-making, equality in access to economic and social opportunities and the constructive development of practices and institutional arrangements to accommodate ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity within society. For the reconciliation and the good governance initiatives to succeed, there is also a need for all Sri Lankans to come together and regenerate trust at all levels of society. While addressing the past and ensuring accountability, a conscious effort to strengthen the Sri Lankan identity and the notion of nationhood is critically needed to foster a stronger sense of belonging and togetherness on the part of all Sri Lankans.

I. Introduction

  1. The Special Rapporteur on minority issues visited Sri Lanka between 10 and 20 October 2016. She wishes to thank the Government for its cooperation and for the importance that it attached to this visit. The Special Rapporteur was provided with extensive access to government institutions relevant to her mandate, many at the highest level. This included mechanisms established by the current administration as part of its “good governance” agenda, including the Office of National Unity and Reconciliation, the Secretariat for the Coordination of the Reconciliation Mechanisms, the Taskforce on National Consultations and the Inter-Religious Council. She also consulted with the National Human Rights Commission, political party leaders and provincial authorities, as well as the commander of the security force in Jaffna.

  2. The Special Rapporteur visited Colombo, Jaffna, Vavuniya, Trincomalee and Kandy. She met persons representing the communities of Sri Lankan Tamils and Plantation Tamils (also known as Indian or Up-Country Tamils), Muslims, Hindus, Christians, including Catholics and members of other, smaller denominations, Telugus, Veddas, Burghers, Malays and Sri Lankan Africans. She also met with Sinhalese Buddhist leaders and those who identify as majority, to seek their views. She thanks all the representatives of civil society organizations, community members, religious leaders and academics who provided information to her and facilitated aspects of her visit.

  3. Like most multi-ethnic and multi-religious polities, Sri Lanka is characterized by relations of coexistence and interdependence as well as tensions and differences between different ethnic and religious groups. Historically, ethnic and religious identities have defined power and social relations, leading to tensions and social divisions between the majority and minority communities as well as between minorities. These long-standing grievances, and the failure of successive Governments to effectively address them, precipitated conflict and, eventually, a long civil war that seriously damaged the social fabric of the country.

  4. The country’s ethno-religious profile is often described in terms of a simplified dichotomy: two ethnic groups with two distinct geographical boundaries — the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils. However, the reality is far more complex. Ethnicity, language and religion intersect and create the rich mosaic of Sri Lankan identities, which are often multiple and multilayered.

  5. According to the 2012 census, Sinhalese make up 74.9 per cent of the population of 20 million. The Sinhalese are predominantly Buddhist, with some belonging to the minority Christian community. Tamils make up the largest minority group in Sri Lanka, with two distinct groups numbering some 3.1 million in total. The “Sri Lankan Tamils” live predominantly in the North and East of the island, forming approximately 11.2 per cent of the population. Another group of Tamils are the “Indian Tamils”, also known as “Plantation” or “Up-Country” Tamils, the descendants of Indian Tamils brought by the British as indentured labour to work on plantations; they comprise 4.1 per cent of the population. The majority of Tamils are Hindu, with the remainder belonging to Christian denominations. The Muslim community, most of whom descend from Arab Moorish traders, form the third largest ethno-religious group at 9.3 per cent of the population. They are concentrated mainly in urban areas in the southern parts of the country, with substantial populations in the Central and Eastern provinces. Smaller minorities include the Malays, who are descendants of South-East Asian settlers, and the Burghers, who are descendants of Europeans; both groups number 0.2 per cent of the population. The Sri Lankan Africans (also known as Ceylon-Africans or “Kaffirs”) are descendants of Africans brought as slaves, soldiers and labourers in the seventeenth century. While they once spoke Portuguese Creole, now most speak Sinhalese and Tamil. Chetties, who are descendants of a community of Indian traders, comprise 0.03 per cent of the population. Bharatha, originally from Tamil Nadu in India, constitute 0.01 per cent of the population. The census also provides for the category of “other”, which covers the 0.09 per cent of the population who do not identify themselves as falling within the aforementioned categories.

  6. Many minority representatives questioned whether the 2012 census data truly reflect the actual composition of the society, where categories overlap. The implications of undercounting may be considerable, particularly in view of the proportional representation system. The category of “other”, as pointed out by smaller minority groups, is problematic, given that they are not provided with the opportunity to self-identify and to have a separate voice under the proportional representation system. According to the Department of Census and Statistics, consideration is being given to the possibility of allowing for self-identification in the next census. The Special Rapporteur would welcome such a step.