Sri Lanka : A Prima Facie Case for Genocide

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A Prima Facie Case for Genocide

In an interview with the London Daily Telegraph on July 11, 1983, then-President Jayewardene of Sri Lanka stated:

I am not worried about the opinion of the Jaffna people now… Now we cannot think of them. Not about their lives or of their opinion about us… The more you put pressure in the north, the happier the Sinhala people will be here… really, if I starve the Tamils out, the Sinhala people will be happy.

Jayawardene was speaking in the midst of what was arguably an ethnic-cleansing campaign directed against Tamils. Following 35 years of democratic and parliamentary efforts, the first attacks by an armed Tamil group against Sri Lankan soldiers (who had attacked Tamils many times over the decades) had just taken place. In retaliation, mobs of violent Sinhalese men—who somehow got access to voters’ lists that identified private residences and business addresses belonging to Tamils—were in the process of killing 3,000, leaving 150,000 without homes.

Between 1983 and 2009, the government and the LTTE fought a brutal conflict that left 100,000 confirmed dead: mostly Tamils. The United Nations estimated that 40,000 were killed during the final days of the war. According to the Tamil Catholic clergy, another 146,679 are recorded to have gone missing. Most victims were Tamil.

1.Legislative shoring

Ceylon, later to become Sri Lanka, was one of the first signatories to the Genocide Convention. Article II of the Convention reads:

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Let’s look at each in turn.

2.Killing members of the group

President Jayawardene’s interview from July 1983 strongly indicates a possible genocidal intent: “Now we cannot think of them. Not about their lives”.

Similarly, bombing raids that targeted for instance, the Sencholai Orphanage in 2006, killed non-combatant Tamils: in this case, orphaned schoolgirls. The Tamil National Alliance, elected Tamil representatives at the time, used this language in a press release:

[The attack is] not merely atrocious and inhuman – it clearly has a genocidal intent…The heavy aerial bombardment on the premises clearly indicates that the attack was premeditated, deliberate and vicious.

The Channel Four BBC documentary No-Fire Zone shows that, in the final days of the conflict, the Army told non-combatants to gather in specific areas to keep themselves safe. Sri Lankan army then shelled those exact areas, resulting in at least 40,000 dead, within the space of weeks, according to UN estimates. And the UN Secretary-General later apologized for his organization’s inaction during this time.

3. Causing serious mental or bodily harm to members of the group

Several post-conflict cases exist of sexual violence against Tamil men and women, inflicted on detainees often held without charge, and frequently on Tamil women simply going about their daily lives.

On November 8, earlier this very month, 50 Tamil refugees in Europe reported to the Associated Press that sexual violence had been used against them, while in custody, to extract confessions.

Sexual violence causes both mental and bodily harm.

4.Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part

At the end of the conflict, the Sri Lankan government placed several hundred thousand Tamils in internment camps, citing security grounds. 300,000 were held in the infamous Manik Farm camp alone. Not many have had their land returned to them. Instead, Sri Lankan army settlements, populated by Sinhalese soldiers, have sprung up on their properties.

Some of these families have been demonstrating for nearly a year now, for the return of their land. Some land has been returned, most has not. Without access to land, these impoverished Tamil families cannot fish, nor can they farm.

Land-grabbing is a deliberate policy that arguably destroys the ability of Tamil families to provide for themselves, thus creating conditions of life that contribute to the physical destruction of the group.

5.Imposing measures to prevent births in the group

In 2013, the Sri Lankan journal Groundviews reported that coercive methods were being used to convince Tamil women to accept long-lasting birth-control implants. These included threats to deny further medical services, and manipulation of access to medical information regarding the implants.

This form of coercion to use birth control has prevented births within the Tamil group.

6.Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group

Direct population transfer of this kind has probably not taken place in Sri Lanka. However, in January 2013, it was recorded that Sinhalese soldiers were reporting to schools, in full uniform, and claiming authority to teach Tamil children. In Tamil areas, the Tamil language is spoken first, and English second. These soldier-teachers taught in Sinhalese. The unstated intent seems to have been to destroy the cultural identity of these schoolchildren.

So, in each of the five possible manifestations of genocide that the Convention lists, there is at least one case in recent memory, but often innumerable cases, where investigation into a possibly genocidal act is both justified and desirable.

While several European and North American countries have applauded the Sirisena government, elected in 2015, for its change in tone from that of the previous administration, it is important to point out that many of these potential violations have occurred under its watch as well. Yet, Sirisena insists on upholding the culture of impunity on the island. The day after the 50 men reported the use of sexual violence in Sri Lankan custody, the president spoke on the record to army officers about his intent to shield them from war tribunals.


In the first steps toward healing, the likelihood that such a genocide has occurred must be acknowledged. Those accused of responsibility for committing such acts must be tried according to international law. Whether the facts support the allegations or not is a matter for an impartial, international tribunal to decide.

This process of instituting justice and ending impunity must take place, before the healing of the nations can begin.


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