The war in Sri Lanka is over but the search for peace continues

Canada has undertaken some welcome diplomatic activism in support of reconciliation and accountability in Sri Lanka – a critically important follow-up to the long and deadly civil war that ended in May 2009.

Sri Lanka’s 26 year war with its separatist Tamil community ended in an extraordinarily bloody battle in 2009,[i] challenging the prevailing pattern of how wars end.

The overwhelming majority of wars end at the negotiating table,[ii] but in 2009 the Sri Lankan Government, rejecting all negotiations, defied history and launched a final assault that claimed thousands of civilian lives but brought the war to a decisive end. Estimates of the number of people killed in the final two months of fighting in April-May of 2009 range from 7,000 to 40,000, as almost 300,000 civilians had been stranded and caught in the crossfire in the final combat zone. Over the war’s two and a half decades close to 100,000 people were killed.

But the war’s end has not meant an end to the conflict, and it certainly hasn’t produced sustainable peace. The rebel and secessionist Tamil Tigers (the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) were militarily defeated and the main successor Tamil political organization, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), has ended Tamil secessionist demands in favor of decentralized governance under a federal structure. Nevertheless, discrimination against the ethnic Tamil minority (about 18 percent of the population) continues, with a disproportionate share of the victims of human rights violations being Tamils. The community’s grievances remain largely unaddressed.[iii]

While the Government of Sri Lanka did appoint a Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission, its report[iv] was criticized in the most recent meeting of the Human Rights Council (through a resolution co-sponsored by Canada and 40 other states) as having failed to adequately address the serious allegations of violations of international law, especially in the closing months of the war.[v] The resolution, supported by India but not by Russia and China, called on the Government of Sri Lanka to take action to ensure justice, equity, accountability and reconciliation for all Sri Lankans.

Opposition forces in Sri Lanka, as well as a range of international observers, paint a picture of entrenched political/ethnic conflict, rising tensions, and fears of resumed political violence. Government suppression of critical media, the banning of public demonstrations and harassment and detention of its political opponents, extra judicial killings, disappearances, torture, unfair elections, and the failure to address the deep social and ethnic antagonisms coming out of the war are cited by critics of the regime of President Mahinda Rajapaksa (though in some cases the rate of these abuses is said to be declining).[vi]

The UN Secretary-General’s report on children and the war in Sri Lanka documents the recruitment of children by armed groups, abductions, killings, attacks on schools and hospitals, sexual violence, and the denial of humanitarian access to children.[vii]

In that context, Foreign Affairs Minister Baird announced two weeks ago that he had sent a Parliamentary delegation (MPs Chris Alexander and Rick Dykstra, along with Senator Vern White) to Sri Lanka to pursue independent investigation of allegations that both sides of the conflict were in serious violation of international humanitarian law and human rights.[viii]

Earlier, MPs Paul Calandra and Patrick Brown were denied entry visas to block their proposed visit. MP Bob Rae did receive a visa for a 2009 visit, but was then blocked from entering the country when he arrived in Colombo.[ix]

The current visit and the earlier tries are an important recognition that decisive victories on the battlefield are not only rare in and of themselves, but it is even rarer that such “victories” actually resolve the conflict. The more common outcome is a political dynamic in which a triumphalist victor marginalizes and increasingly abuses the vanquished – none of it portending political stability.

As Mr. Rae put it on his expulsion from the country in 2009, “there is a difference between a war ended by agreement and a war ended by death and destruction. If there is no magnanimity in victory, there is no victory. It is hard not to cry at what has been lost, how much life has been destroyed. And what must still be done to bring justice to the peace that is being proclaimed so loudly.”[x]

Foreign Minister Baird is to be commended for engaging Sri Lanka and promoting serious attention to the far from resolved conflict in Sri Lanka. We await further reports on the mission.


[i] Armed Conflicts Report, 2011 (Project Ploughshares). Casualty figures are also taken from Armed Conflicts Report, 2010.

[ii] The Project Ploughshares has tabulated annual Armed Conflicts since 1987 ( A review of how wars ended during that period indicates that about 34 percent simply dissolved without any formal negotiations and without any decisive action on the battlefield; 14 percent ended by the military victory of one side and the remaining 52 percent ended through formal negotiations. A Barcelona University study covering roughly the same period produced the same results. It looked at 82 armed conflicts since the 1990s, 52 of which had ended by the end of 2009. Of these, seven, or 14 per cent were settled through a military victory, 28 (54 per cent) ended through formal peace agreements, and 17 (33 per cent) were dormant but without a formal resolution. [Vicenc Fisas, 2010 Yearbook on Peace Processes, School for a Culture of Peace, Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona, 2010, pp. 13-14.]

[iii] US State Department Country Reports on Human Rights, 2010.

[iv] Report of the Commission of Inquiry on Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation, November 2011.

[v] Human Rights Council concludes nineteenth session, Human Rights Council Roundup, 23 March 2012.

[vi] US State Department Country Reports on Human Rights, 2010.

Bruce Vaughn, Sri Lanka: Background and US Relations, Congressional Research Service, 16 June 2011 (RL317o7).

“Sad Political Situation in Sri Lanka,: Sri Lanka Guardian, Geneva. 23 March 2010.

[vii] Report of the Secretary-General on children and armed conflict in Sri Lanka, 21 December 2011, United Nations Security Council (S/2011/793).

[viii] “Baird Sends Delegation of Parliamentarians to Sri Lanka,” 21 March 2012. He said “Parliamentary secretaries Chris Alexander and Rick Dykstra, along with Senator Vern White, will stop in various parts of the country to independently evaluate the situation on the ground.”

[ix] Campbell Clark, “Canada to send Three-Member Delegation to Sri Lanka on Fact Finding Mission,” 20 March 2012, The Globe and Mail,

[x] Allan Woods, “Bob Rae’s Sri Lanka nightmare,”  The Toronto Star, 11 June 2009.–bob-rae-s-sri-lanka-nightmare

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