Sri Lankan Tamils and Human Rights, By Martyn Day MP

Forty years ago, in July 1983, a mass anti-Tamil pogrom broke out in Sri Lanka, during which an estimated 3000 Tamil people died and 150,000 were made homeless. The pogrom saw Tamil homes and businesses targeted, with buildings looted and burned. The violence was widespread. The pogrom has become known to history as Black July.

Black July, however, does not sit in isolation. Indeed, the story of the Sri Lankan Tamils is a long and tragic one, with generations of Tamil people suffering discrimination, persecution, violence and genocide. The roots of this go right back to the end of the colonial era, with measures such as the Ceylon Citizenship Act and the Parliamentary Elections Amendment Act leaving many Tamils stateless and disenfranchised in the 1940s. In the decades following independence in 1948, thousands of Tamils were deported to India, whilst those remaining on the island faced an appalling catalogue of massacres and atrocities, beginning in 1956 with the Inginiyagala massacre and continuing until recent times.

Black July had a devastating impact on the Tamil community, causing massive displacement of those forced to flee their homes, and injury and psychological trauma, in addition to the loss of life. The scars of this pogrom, and indeed the broader cycles of violence, undoubtedly remain and are deepened by the lack of meaningful accountability and justice which endures.

Many of the institutions and laws that enabled the violence remain in place today and are still responsible for human rights violations. Concerns remain about Sri Lanka’s police and armed forces, with allegations of ongoing abuses of their power by surveilling and harassing human rights activists. The Prevention of Terrorism Act, meanwhile, has enabled the detention of political prisoners and state opponents for long periods. Although it may now be repealed, there are fears that its proposed replacement, the Anti-Terrorism Bill, may be worse.

Domestic attempts at accountability for Black July appear to have failed. In 2002, the Presidential Truth Commission on Ethnic Violence published its report criticising the Government for failing to hold perpetrators to account and for failing to appeal for restraint during Black July. The report recognised the pogrom as a violation of Tamil human rights and recommended compensation for the victims. However, its recommendations have never been properly implemented and not a single perpetrator has ever been prosecuted.

The Sri Lankan Government are now implementing another truth and reconciliation commission. However, concerns remain that it will provide no route to accountability or proper witness protection mechanism, and that it will not cater to the victims’ needs or adhere to international standards.

In the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office report on human rights and democracy in 2022, the UK Government notes its concerns about human rights in Sri Lanka, and the lack of credible progress on transitional justice. The Government promises that it will continue to advocate for improved protection of human rights in Sri Lanka.

However, the Government could and should go further. On 5th December 2023 I led a very consensual debate in Westminster Hall, which demonstrated a strength of feeling about this issue, across the usual political divides. The UK must take more direct action, particularly in sanctioning key perpetrators of human rights abuses and crimes against the Tamil people, and officially recognising the atrocities committed as genocide. Undoubtedly, the UK has opportunities to use its influence, whether this is in discussions about trade, or as a UN member state, working with other states to achieve a mechanism to bring the perpetrators to justice and achieve a permanent political solution.

Ultimately, there must be a right to self-determination for the Tamils. Everyone should be able to live without fear and according to their customs and traditions. If the UK, and indeed the international community, are serious about safeguarding the Tamils in Sri Lanka, the legacy of disenfranchisement, deportation and discrimination must be replaced by the principles of peace and democracy.

Martyn Day MP

Martyn Day is the Scottish National Party MP for Linlithgow and East Falkirk, and was elected in May 2015.