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How Britain Was Complicit in Sri Lankan War Crimes

The Sri Lankan government's war on the Tamil community saw up to 70,000 civilians killed in 2009, but they weren't acting alone – Britain sold weapons to the regime even as the world read reports of slaughter.

After more than a decade of broken promises and unfulfilled United Nations resolutions, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has declared that Sri Lanka is unable and unwilling to pursue accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Far from committing itself to a process of reconciliation, the Sri Lankan government has established commissions to exonerate those accused of the most egregious crimes. A leading minister called for the teargassing and arrest of Tamil politicians peacefully demonstrating, and the state has relentlessly pursued bigoted policies targeting Muslims.

Despite unified calls from senior UN officials, Tamil political representatives, and victim communities for decisive international action, a draft UN resolution offers a tepid response. Instead of heeding these early warning signs of decay, the international community appears content to provide Sri Lanka with a further 18 months of breathing space.

Britain, as a member of the Core Group that has been leading resolutions on Sri Lanka, has paid lip service to the idea of accountability but persistently refused to take meaningful action that will see perpetrators held accountable and victims receive justice. Instead, behind closed doors, the British government has continued arms sales, the training of Sri Lanka’s security forces, and has even destroyed documentation implicating the UK in Sri Lanka’s crimes.

For Britain’s Tamil community, none of this is a surprise. It follows a long history of bipartisan British support for the Sri Lankan regime.

Cold War Antagonisms

Britain’s unyielding support for the Sri Lankan state can be traced back to not only its colonial ties but also to geopolitical concerns during the Cold War.

In the 1980s, as Tamil militancy grew, both the UK and US administrations enabled Sri Lanka’s president, JR Jayewardene, to galvanise Western support by casting the ethnic problem on the island as one of a Marxist insurgency.

‘The terrorists are a small group who seek by force, including murder, robberies, and other misdeeds, to support the cause of separation, including the creation of a Marxist state in the whole of Sri Lanka and in India, beginning with Tamil Nadu in the south,’ Jayewardene declared.

This argument garnered the sympathies of both US and British administrations, with Thatcher visiting the country in 1985 and advocating for a firm response to the Tamil armed liberation struggle.

‘Both our countries have been the victims of terrorist violence – a disease which affects so many countries today, so I can sympathise with your efforts to combat terrorism here in Sri Lanka,’ Thatcher stated. ‘A firm response to those who use violence and who try to achieve with the bullet what they cannot do through the ballot is essential.’

Her reference to ‘both countries’ underlies her comprehension of the Tamil armed struggle as akin to the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Six months prior to her visit, she had narrowly avoided an IRA bomb planted at the Brighton Hotel. Thatcher had no sympathy for ‘terrorists’, and within weeks would impose visa restrictions on Tamil refugees fleeing Sri Lanka.

Her statement came just one year after Sri Lanka’s notorious ‘Black July’ pogrom during which Sinhala mobs, aided by state forces, burned Tamil homes and businesses to the ground, killing approximately 3,000 civilians. While Thatcher’s administration would attempt to distance itself from these atrocities, investigative journalist Phil Miller documents how former British soldiers established a private mercenary organisation that trained Sri Lankan forces and even engaged in horrific crimes in Sri Lanka. Although the Metropolitan Police’s War Crimes Unit are now investigating these crimes, they all occurred under the watchful eye of Thatcher’s Foreign Office.

Miller reports that in 1985, Whitehall officials gave two senior Sri Lankan police officers a VIP tour of the UK, during which they were sent on an MI5 counterterrorism course and invited to visit the Metropolitan Police’s Special Branch to discuss ‘the activities of organisations based in the UK agitating for a separate state for Tamils in Sri Lanka’. The unruly Tamil refugees were to be closely monitored.

During her administration, Thatcher would grant similar support to Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi during her campaign against Sikh separatists. This campaign led to the slaughter of over 8,000 Sikhs within three days of pogroms. British arms sales to India exceeded £800 million in 1983, amounting to over £1.25 billion since 1975.

In private letters, Thatcher assured India’s prime minister of her support for her ‘healing touch’, and assured her that Sikh activists in Britain would not abuse the country’s ‘traditional freedoms’.

A ‘War on Terror’

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the 9/11 attacks, a new ‘global war on terror’ was inaugurated by George W. Bush. Sri Lanka therefore reframed their campaign against Tamil militancy as not one against socialism, but against ‘terrorism’.

This ‘global war on terror’ was one gleefully indulged in by Tony Blair, who bolstered military aggression under the banner of ‘humanitarian intervention’. Sri Lanka, besieged by a number of disastrous military campaigns, would enter a brief lull in the conflict, as the leading Tamil militant organisation—the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)—offered a ceasefire and peace talks with the state. However, these talks would break down as Sri Lanka continued its relentless opposition to propositions of devolution, and instead mobilised international support for a military solution.

In 2005, following the brief respite from the conflict and having restored their military capacity, Mahinda Rajapaksa sailed to victory in Sri Lanka’s presidential elections on a fierce Sinhala nationalist ticket. His regime, which would rule for a decade, was characterised by the forcible disappearance of government critics and nepotistic corruption. He would ultimately crush the separatist LTTE during a military campaign that saw the indiscriminate shelling of civilians in no-fire zones and hospitals.

The final months of the conflict saw the slaughter of up to 70,000 Tamil civilians, with an estimated 100,000 unaccounted for, reports of sexual violence and torture, as well as mass executions captured on grisly video footage by Sri Lankan soldiers themselves.

Across the last three years of the conflict, Gordon Brown’s administration approved £13.6 million in arms sales to Sri Lanka, with £700,000 worth being sold during the final military campaign and a further £1,000,000 being approved following the end of the conflict.

Britain’s continued support for Sri Lanka came despite massive demonstrations outside Westminster, as British Tamils launched hunger strikes, petitions, and protests pleading for relief from the carnage. The protests were some of the largest in British history, with tens of thousands on the streets, and an occupation of Parliament Square lasting 72 days and nights.

Misplaced Faith

The years and months after the massacres of 2009 saw a shift in the Western relationship with Sri Lanka. Instead of devolving powers to Tamil regions as pledged, Rajapaksa continued to rule with an iron fist. Human rights defenders and journalists still faced grave danger, and generals who oversaw massacres were being rewarded with diplomatic appointments, instead of being held accountable. As Sri Lanka grew closer to China, pressure began to mount around the island’s human rights record and its failure to hold anyone accountable for mass atrocities.

Resolutions began being passed at the UN Human Rights Council, led by Washington, which tentatively called for accountability mechanisms and the beginning of a justice process. All were fiercely opposed by Sri Lanka, as the Rajapaksa regime’s relationship with the West grew frostier. Concessional trade tariffs with the European Union and military training with the US and UK continued, but the Western focus on human rights began to chafe on the regime, which was facing its own internal electoral challenges.

After an unexpected electoral defeat in 2015, following massive Tamil and Muslim voter mobilisation and growing unpopularity due to corruption and nepotism from within the Sinhala electorate, a new government took the helm on the island. Although the new regime made wide-ranging pledges on human rights and accountability, this was not borne out of a genuine desire to address the concerns of the victim communities – instead, it was simply better management of a failing foreign policy.

The new ‘National Unity Government’ reached the understanding that tokenistic measures and supportive rhetoric on transitional justice would alleviate international pressure on Sri Lanka and revitalise fraying ties with the West. By 2016, the government had gained the fawning approval of then US envoy to the UN Samantha Powers, who described the country as a ‘global champion of human rights’. There had still been no prosecutions for war crimes and no devolution of powers, and just months later, Tamil mothers would launch roadside protests demanding answers to the whereabouts of their forcibly disappeared loved ones.

The Office of Missing Persons, which the government had established to investigate such cases, was shown to be consistently failing due to its inability to call into question military officials who were seen detaining those tens of thousands who disappeared.

While making gestures towards accountability and justice, Sri Lanka would permit military expansions and continued occupation in the traditional Tamil homeland in the northeast of the island. According to one report, in Mullativu, by October 2017, there was one soldier for every two civilians.

This brief respite from authoritarian rule was not a fundamental shift: the governing ideology of military impunity and Sinhala Buddhist nationalism remained thoroughly entrenched throughout Sri Lankan society. It would only lay dormant for so long.

A Return to Fear

In November 2019, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the Defence Secretary who oversaw the massacres of Mullaivaikkal during the final phase of the war, was appointed president. He rode in on a wave of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, attacking the previous administration for the small concessions it had made to Tamils and claiming that Sri Lanka was under threat.

His administration has been characterised by a return to authoritarian rule, with the passage of the 20th amendment consolidating power within the presidency and undermining the independence of public institutions and courts. He has further appointed Commissions of Inquiries which have called for the jailing of his political adversaries and the pardoning of those accused of war crimes, and prosecuted those who have complained of these abuses.

As the Sri Lankan flag was hoisted at Sri Lanka’s Independence rally, tens of thousands of Tamils continued to demonstrate against the government. Their demands were not aimed at a government that held them in contempt, but at the international community. Families of the Disappeared, who continue to courageously speak out on behalf of their loved ones, continue to demand that the UK refer Sri Lanka to the International Criminal Court. British Tamils who sought asylum on these shores continue to stand in solidarity with those back home and demand that their government take action.

Instead of heeding their calls for action, the UK has renewed its training contracts with Sri Lanka’s police force; the British High Commissioner has shaken hands with the head of Sri Lanka’s army, who is barred from entering the US due war crimes accusations; and the English cricket team has taken a controversial tour of Sri Lanka, refusing to answer questions posed by the Tamil diaspora and human rights NGOs.

For its part, Britain’s Labour Party appears to be breaking from tradition, with its shadow minister for Asia Stephen Kinnock questioning the government’s weak response. Kinnock has maintained that Britain has a moral and political responsibility, and that the government is ‘failing to rise to the challenge’. In his statement, he asked why not a single Sri Lankan government or military official implicated in human rights abuses was on the UK sanctions list, and criticised the government’s refusal to refer Sri Lanka to the International Criminal Court.

As pressure continues to mount, questions remain as to whether Britain will live up to its responsibilities and hold Sri Lanka accountable – or if the government will continue to whitewash this genocidal history.