Sri Lanka

War crimes charges to shift Colombo's strategic focus

In recent months, issues relating to alleged violations of human rights and war crimes during the final stages of the civil war (ie early 2009) have acquired prominence in international forums and the media. On June 14, for example, UK's Channel 4 broadcast a documentary, 'Sri Lanka's Killing Fields', which included alleged video evidence of war crimes. This furore has raised questions about the effect of these allegations on post-war development and reconciliation.


  • The economic and diplomatic impact of war crimes allegations could be severe for Sri Lanka.
  • The allegations will propel Colombo into fostering closer economic and strategic ties with non-Western players, especially China.
  • International pressure on Colombo to undertake pro-minority reforms will grow and may result in some meaningful changes.

What next

Despite rising international pressure, Sri Lanka has failed to provide a coherent response to these allegations. Nonetheless, this pressure has created an opportunity for engagement with the government on issues of reform and reconciliation. Yet measures adopted to investigate the allegations will need to have local support, if they are to engender positive results towards a meaningful reconciliation process.


An expert UN panel, in its report released in April, identified five key respects in which alleged violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law took place during the final stages of the war. They included:

  • killing of civilians through shelling;
  • shelling of hospitals and humanitarian facilities;
  • denial of humanitarian assistance;
  • human rights violations suffered by victims and survivors of the conflict, including both internally displaced persons (IDPs) and suspected Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) cadre; and human rights violations outside of the conflict zone, including against the media and other government.

The panel believed that these violations point to credible allegations that war crimes and crimes against humanity had taken place, and that they had been conducted by persons acting on the government's behalf. Yet it also severely censured the LTTE for its conduct, finding six key areas of serious violations of international laws.

Sri Lanka's response Colombo has consistently denied the allegations and the legitimacy of the sources from which they have arisen. Indeed, the minister of external affairs declined to respond to the UN report or to recognise the panel.

Diplomatic consequences However, the allegations could have numerous diplomatic consequences.

UN intervention

Since the UN panel functioned in the capacity of an 'adviser', its report, while being indicative, does not reflect an official UN position on the matter of accountability during the last stages of the war. It can therefore be understood as the first step towards the development of a more concrete UN response:

  • Sri Lanka is not a signatory to the Rome Statute, which set up the International Criminal Court (ICC), but the UN Security Council (UNSC) could refer the country to the Court, as it did in the case of Sudan.
  • It could also move to set up an alternate mechanism that is akin to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia or the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda to look into the allegations. However, this would require the UNSC to exercise the powers vested in it under the UN Charter. In either case, the support of Russia and China (permanent UNSC members with veto powers) could prove vital to Sri Lanka.
  • Sri Lanka could also be referred back to the UN's Human Rights Council for a re-examination of the resolution adopted in 2009.

Turning East

Most Western countries have a limited strategic interest in Sri Lanka. Nonetheless, they have tended to collaborate with Colombo on economic and strategic issues, and limited their engagement with the war crimes issue to some public statements. This ambiguous response has been buttressed by Sri Lanka's attempts to cultivate ties with non-Western players such as China, Russia, India, Iran and Libya (until the recent crisis disabled its leadership).

During the war against the LTTE, President Mahinda Rajapaksa scaled back dependence on Western aid. The allegations that atrocities were committed will ensure greater dependence on non-Western partners, especially China, for development aid and support.

China and India

Sri Lanka has sought China's support for many of its large-scale development projects as well as within the UNSC.

To avoid a full-scale international war crimes investigation the government would also need support from India, which has hitherto taken a non-committal public stance, despite domestic pressure from Tamil Nadu. Delhi's concern about China's growing influence in Sri Lanka has infused caution to its position on the allegations of war crimes.

Economic impact The allegations could also have serious economic consequences:

  • Sri Lanka has already lost the EU's GSP+ concessions due to concerns about a poor human rights record. These allegations could have further negative impact on future concessions from the West, especially the EU and the United States, Sri Lanka's main export markets.
  • They could also be used by lobby groups to urge Western consumers to boycott Sri Lanka. For example, the "No Blood for Panties" campaign calling for a boycott of Sri Lankan manufactured garments caused concern within the industry and encouraged diversification of production to surrounding countries.
  • They could affect investor confidence and foreign direct investment in Sri Lanka, in turn impeding the rate of technological transfers from the West to local industries.

Impact on the reconciliation process Nonetheless, the allegations may enable the international community to pressure the government into adopting a more serious commitment to state reform and reconciliation with the minority groups.

The effectiveness of credible threats was seen when prior to the loss of the GSP+ concessions the government took a number of conciliatory steps such as pardoning of an imprisoned journalist and speeding up the release of IDPs in welfare centres.

Keen to host the 2018 Commonwealth Games and the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Governments Meeting, Sri Lanka may respond to these pressures by making concessions and commitments to a meaningful reconciliation process. In such a scenario, the bargaining power would likely shift towards organisations seeking justice.

Local support It is also possible that the allegations could persuade some countries to lobby actively for an independent, international investigation into military actions during the last stages of the war. However, such a move would be seen as a hostile act domestically, providing a strong rallying point for further pro-government groups and fuel majority, nationalist sentiments.

Absent such local support for accountability, international action on alleged war crimes will reduce popular support within the country for pro-minority reforms.


Oxford Analytica
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