S R I L A N K A C A M P A I G N
Gaza, 2009

History Doesn’t Repeat Itself, but It Often Rhymes

February 23, 2024 Sri Lanka Campaign Comments Off

Introduction

Those of us who are closely watching the unfolding atrocity in Gaza in 2023/24 will no doubt be painfully reminded of Sri Lanka during the last phase of the civil war in 2009. While the Israel-Palestine war and the Sri Lankan civil war are distinct conflicts with unique historical, political, and cultural contexts, comparing them can give us some sobering insights into geopolitics and indeed many states’ hypocrisy often at play in international relations and humanitarian issues.

National governments have always resisted the idea that justice transcends both borders and their own competences. Upholding the principle of universality is made even harder by the perception that justice is not meted out even-handedly. Ranil Wickremesinghe’s recent statements calling out the West’s double standards in waiting so long to call for a ceasefire in Gaza while condemning the Sri Lankan government’s actions in 2009, demonstrate the additional challenges human rights defenders will face on the issue of accountability in Sri Lanka ahead of the critical United Nations Human Rights Council session in September 2024, where the renewal of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights Sri Lanka Project (OSLAP) will be on the table. “Why is it one rule applies to us, and another rule applies to them? …Next September come with clean hands and we will also answer you”, Ranil Wickremesinghe said, giving a foretaste of the basis on which the Sri Lankan government will try to challenge a renewal of the OSLAP mandate.  

Without any intention of conflating the cases, it is worth comparing key international actors’ positions, and indeed the close relationship between the governments of Israel and Sri Lanka and how this influenced the situations back in 2009 and now.

Birds of a Feather…

Background

The Palestinian and Tamil peoples’ calls for self-determination have long and complicated histories stretching back to the British colonial period. Sri Lanka gained independence from Britain in February 1948, three months prior to the establishment of the State of Israel in British Mandatory Palestine.

During the Nakba and 1948 Palestinian War, Israel’s violent displacement and dispossession forced approximately 750,000 Palestinians to flee their homes. Newly abandoned towns were Hebraicized; the name ‘Palestine’ itself was removed from maps and books.[1] By the end of the war in 1949, Israel held around 78% of former Mandatory Palestine. Until 1966, Palestinians lived under martial law, and have long continued to watch the growth of Israeli settlements, enduring various massacres and wars in the intervening years. Total conflict fatalities between 1948 and 2021 are estimated at over 30,000.

Palestinians currently live under apartheid conditions, and Gaza has repeatedly been described as an open-air prison. The current war has caused the highest Palestinian casualties in decades, with numbers rising by the day; as of mid-February 2024 over 28,000 Palestinians have been killed since October.

Whilst differing from Israeli apartheid, the Sri Lankan state established its own structures of discrimination post-independence, significantly curtailing the rights of Tamils. This began with the mass disenfranchisement of Malaiyaha Tamils in 1948, leaving 700,000 people effectively stateless through the Citizenship Act, which was followed by a gradual deportation of hundreds of thousands of Malaiyaha Tamils to India. The 1956 anti-Tamil and 1958 anti-Malaiyaha Tamil pogroms, alongside discriminatory government legislation, led to the growth of Tamil separatism. Tamil-speaking people faced multiple pogroms and attacks on their rights and freedoms, as well as persistent Sinhala settlement of traditionally Tamil and Muslim land – partly modelled on Israeli settlements in the West Bank. These escalations culminated in the 1983 Black July pogrom when around 3,000 people were killed, and hundreds of thousands displaced. This moment marked the beginning of a civil war which would consume the island for almost three decades.

An estimated 70,000 people were killed and one million were internally displaced in Sri Lanka between 1983 and 2002 when a ceasefire was called. In 2006, the ceasefire agreement collapsed and the final phase of the war began; by its conclusion on 18th May 2009, at least a further 40,000 people were killed, and some estimate that well over 100,000 died. There are currently 60,000 to 100,000 unresolved cases of enforced disappearances since the 1980s.

Rebel Groups and the response of their Governments

The LTTE emerged in the 1970s as a militant organisation, while Hamas was formed in 1987 during the First Intifada. Both professed to represent the interests of their respective communities against state-led oppression; both sought to repress other organisations who aspired to represent those same communities; both operated as the de facto governing authorities in their respective regions; and both groups controlled territory and provided the services and functions of a nation state.

The emergence of resistance groups prepared to use violence such as the LTTE and Hamas (and others, including the African National Congress) forced the world to consider the lengths to which non-state actors would go to  challenge the ongoing denial of their own civil, political, and human rights, including by using force. Both the LTTE and Hamas  were designated as terrorist organisations by the United States on 8th October 1997.

In response to these rebel groups, the Sri Lankan and Israeli governments increasingly aligned in their approach and tactics over the years, despite initially lukewarm diplomatic ties between the two countries.  In 2008, Prime Minister Wickremanayake, on a four-day visit to Israel, stated that Sri Lanka had a lot of commonalities with Israel as both nations dealt with terrorism. 

By 2009 Israel had become a key weapons supplier to the Sri Lankan military, and it continues to maintain this relationship. This political and material support for Sri Lanka has prompted calls to investigate Israeli complicity in Sri Lankan atrocities. Israeli-made UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), repeatedly tested on civilian and military targets in Palestine, “played a critical role in the war.”

In a show of support for Israel in the current conflict, Sri Lanka agreed in November to send 10,000 farm workers to Israel to replace the 20,000 Palestinian agricultural workers who have been expelled since the 7th October Hamas attacks, and is preparing to join the US-led operation in the Red Sea against Houthi rebels in an expansion of the current Israel-Palestine war. On 15th February 2024, the Sri Lankan government signed a direct air service agreement with Israel.

Defending War Crimes – Human Shields & Proportionality

Obligations of parties to a conflict in the conduct of hostilities are governed by International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and the principles of humanity, military necessity, distinction, proportionality, and precaution.

The obligation to maintain the distinction between combatants and civilians is a cornerstone of IHL but one of the disturbing trends emerging as the genocide in Gaza unfolds, is Israel’s conflation of Hamas and Palestinian civilians. The framing of Palestinians as ‘Hamas’, ‘Hamas-sympathizers’ or ‘human shields’ transforms civilian deaths into legitimate casualties of war.

We saw the same characterizations in Sri Lanka when the Government increasingly used the Tamil word ‘Maavirar’ (or Maaveerar, meaning ‘great heroes’) to refer to those who remained in Vanni. This word was commonly used by the LTTE to describe those who were associated with it and sacrificed someone for the cause. However, in 2008 the Government started to use it with increasing frequency.[2] It was repeatedly used to justify thousands of civilian deaths (by claiming that they were not civilians, but LTTE operatives), as well as that the LTTE were using ‘human shields’ in the last phase of the war. Civilians were considered mere obstacles and ‘unavoidable’ fatalities in the pursuit of ending terrorism or were so aligned with the terrorists themselves as not to matter. The notion that casualties resulting from the use of “involuntary human shields” are “at least somewhat diminished in the proportionality analysis” was posited by Sri Lanka against allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Human shields have become a key element in proportionality calculations, and civilians trapped in conflict zones have increasingly been framed as such to shift responsibility for any deaths from those who kill them, to those who exploited them. While the principle of proportionality is designed to weigh the anticipated military advantage against civilian harm, proportionality calculations can themselves become dehumanising – part of a legal exercise that can have the effect of legitimizing war crimes.

Weaponizing the Law – Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) & Administrative Detention

The draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) has been used by the Government of Sri Lanka to target, harass and silence minorities, political opponents, activists and journalists since 1979, despite its flawed provisions and repeated calls for its repeal. The PTA authorises the Sri Lankan government to arbitrarily detain citizens without warrants for up to eighteen months, creating a breeding ground for numerous human rights violations without accountability, including the widespread use of torture. Its proposed replacement, the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) would permit the continued use of draconian measures and has been met with widespread criticism.

The Israeli military have used Administrative Detention Orders since the beginning of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory (OPT) in 1967 to hold prisoners without charge, without access to their lawyers and families, indefinitely. Palestinians are regularly charged in Israeli military courts that do not guarantee them the right to a fair trial and in violation of the strict parameters established by international law. Since the 7th October Hamas attack, there has been a significant increase in arbitrary arrests and administrative detentions as well as widespread reports of torture and degrading treatment of prisoners in both Gaza and the West Bank.

Sri Lankan and Israeli governments have shown an unambiguous willingness to use repressive legislation introduced under emergency measures but kept in place over many decades.  They have systematically used the PTA and Administrative Detention as a tool to persecute Tamils and Palestinians, as well as journalists and human rights defenders, rather than as an extraordinary and selectively used preventative measure. Police and security forces in both states routinely ignore international regulations and procedures intended to protect the rights of individuals who have been arrested in a blatant display of government overreach.

The ‘Sri Lanka Model’ in Gaza and the Vanni

Vanni 2009

Since the end of the war in 2009, the Sri Lankan government has sought to present the Northern Offensive as the model for defeating ‘terrorism’. The approach they used to defeat the LTTE, employing a massive assault with artillery, air power and ground troops, with complete disregard for civilians (and deliberately targeting them) has been globally promoted as a successful counter-insurgency operation.

In 2011, Sri Lanka invited international officials to the ‘Defeating Terrorism – Sri Lanka Experience’ seminar in Colombo, co-sponsored by ally and arms supplier, China,[3] to “showcase how the country’s strategy to defeat the Tamil Tigers offers a new model for defeating insurgencies.” In a triumphalist gesture, the three-day conference was held on the second anniversary of the end of the war.

SLC, Human Rights Watch and others were vocal in our opposition at the time, as the conference sought to legitimise the unlawful killing of thousands of civilians and it was feared that the ‘Sri Lanka Model’ would be adopted by other authoritarian regimes. Despite calls for a boycott of the event, and a push by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights for an international probe into allegations of war crimes committed by the Sri Lankan government only a month prior, 42 of the 53 invited countries attended. Tellingly, they included Israel.

Israel seems to be following the ‘Sri Lankan Model’ of dealing with internal conflict: “unrestrained military action, refusal to negotiate, disregard for humanitarian issues,”attempting to block all media reporting, cutting off civilians from the outside world and then shelling them remorselessly as the international community looks on – or looks away.

In November 2023 an irresponsible article appeared in the Middle East Forum, advocating the ‘Sri Lanka Model’ to defeat Hamas, going so far as to advise Israel to ignore calls for international war crimes investigations, emulating the tactics of the Rajapaksa brothers.  This serves as a warning about how global norms can be eroded when people view Sri Lanka’s military and communication strategy as a ‘model’ for other insurgency situations.

The Playbook: ‘No Fire Zones’, ‘Safe Zones’ and Civilian Targets

In September 2008, the Sri Lankan Army advanced into the Vanni from multiple directions, trapping large numbers of civilians. Internally displaced people (IDPs) were forced into an ever-shrinking area, reliant on dwindling humanitarian assistance for food and shelter. Despite its designation as a ‘No Fire Zone’ (NFZ) in January 2009, the area was subject to repeated artillery and aerial attacks.[4] The government ordered the UN and other international aid agencies to withdraw from the region and humanitarian aid was blocked.

In the same month, the Sri Lankan army shelled Vallipunam hospital, located in the first NFZ, indiscriminately killing patients. Before the war’s conclusion, every hospital in the Vanni, whether permanent or makeshift, would be hit by artillery,[5] and all three NFZs shelled. The UN Panel of Experts and the 2015 OHCHR Investigation of Sri Lanka (OISL) found credible allegations of serious violations of international human rights law, including indiscriminate government shelling of areas where large numbers of civilians were trapped and the systematic shelling of NFZs, even hospitals and humanitarian operations within the NFZs, despite detailed knowledge of their location.[6]

Mirroring the state violence perpetrated by the Sri Lankan government, we are watching Israel employ the same tactics in Gaza. In the months since October 2023, Israeli forces have bombed ‘Safe Zones’ – areas where they ordered people to take shelter, heightening fears among the 2 million Palestinians trapped in the territory that nowhere is safe.

The UN and other humanitarian aid groups have been unable to respond to the intolerable suffering in the besieged city of Gaza and the Israeli government has been accused of weaponising aid, with deliveries tied to its political and military agendas.

The Israeli military has repeatedly bombed multiple hospitals and medical facilities in Gaza, including the Nasser Medical Complex within the ‘Safe Zone’ in Khan Younis, southern Gaza. Al-Shifa, Gaza’s largest hospital, was specifically targeted by Government forces amid claims that it was a Hamas control centre and its director was arrested, reminiscent of the Sri Lankan government’s treatment of the NFZ doctors and hospitals.

While perversely using the language of protection to appease the international community, both the Sri Lankan and Israeli government have shown damning disregard for civilian lives in the pursuit of their military goals.

Atrocity Denial the World Over

Funding war crimes

The Sri Lankan armed forces would not have found the success they did in 2009 without a constant supply of arms and financial support from overseas. They were able to commit ever increasing amounts to the war effort; this strain on the nation’s fiscal resources eventually led Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government to seek $1 billion of loans from China in 2008. The government also enjoyed lines of credit for oil and arms purchases from Israel, Iran, Libya, Russia and Pakistan which continued after 2009.

The United States and European Union, despite declaring the LTTE a terrorist organisation, were hesitant about supplying weapons to Sri Lanka despite multiple requests, citing human rights concerns. However, the United States supplied non-deadly systems in 2006 and urged the Sri Lankan government to press forward with the annihilation of the LTTE.

Between 2000 and 2007, Sri Lanka acquired several warships from Israel, India, and the United States, alongside aircraft and military equipment from Israel, China, and Ukraine.[7] In response to the increasing involvement of China and Pakistan, India also changed its long-held policy on the Sri Lankan war and offered a $100 million credit line for non-deadly defence system purchases.

Israel, which in the first months of its onslaught on Gaza enjoyed the unwavering support of the United States, received over $300 billion from 1946 to 2022 in foreign aid, most of which is allocated to military spending.[8] In July 2022, President Biden and Prime Minister Yair Lapid signed a joint declaration extending a 10-year, $38 billion defence package to Israel. Ninety-two percent of Israel’s weapons imports came from the US, followed by shipments from Germany and Italy. Israel is the world’s 14th largest importer of arms, taking 1.9% of the global share in arms imports between 2017 and 2021.[9] While the UK is a relatively small exporter to Israel, it nonetheless accounted for £442 million in arms sales between 2015 and 2022. As news of the genocide in Gaza has been heard around the world, the US and other Western nations have continued to finance the Israeli war machine.

International Political Cover

During the last months of the Sri Lankan war in 2009, there was no formal meeting of the Security Council or other key UN bodies as China, Russia and the non-aligned movement pressed the Council to keep Sri Lanka off its official agenda. David Lewis at the International Crisis Group, saw this outcome as ​“the beginning of a new international consensus about conflict management, in which sovereignty and non-interference norms are reasserted.” Recently, Sri Lanka’s partners like China as well as Russia, Iran and North Korea have defended it from human rights scrutiny and calls of accountability at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Bangladesh, Cuba, Somalia and Eritrea have also voted against resolutions on Sri Lanka at the UNHRC. Meanwhile, whilst Western nations have continued to take a strong position at the UNHRC against human rights abuses in Sri Lanka, few have taken substantial action which would allow for real accountability. The UK and Australia have refused to arrest accused war criminals despite having the opportunity to do so, and the Global North has generally failed to back up strong rhetoric with necessary action.

Just as key powers and allies of the Global South gave Sri Lanka diplomatic cover, key Global North leaders (notably the US and UK) are giving Israel cover at the UN Security Council. Throughout the Israel-Palestine conflict, the US has used its Security Council veto power at least 53 times against resolutions condemning Israel. The UK, central as it was to the creation of the state of Israel with the issuance of the pro-Zionist Balfour Declaration in 1917, was historically always mindful of Arab backlash. The perception now, however, is that the UK has turned a blind eye to Israel’s expansionist aspirations and Palestinian suffering in recent years to stay in line with US policies. By 2020, UK-Israel relations had progressed to agreement on military co-operation. Alongside a veto by the United States, the UK abstained in the vote on the 8th December 2023 resolution demanding an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza. Many of Israel’s Arab neighbours have also maintained ties to Israel in recent months, despite strong pro-Palestinian popular sentiment across the region.

Furthermore, the largely ignored ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the case brought by South Africa accusing Israel of genocide, by governments including the US and UK, demonstrates the extent to which Israel’s actions in Gaza are shielded from international condemnation. South Africa itself, for all its efforts to apply international law through the ICJ to stop the killings in Gaza, has its own plans to undermine international accountability efforts by introducing a highly watered-down domestic ‘reconciliation plan.’

Responsibility for the atrocities committed by Israel and Sri Lanka must be borne at least in part by their funders and supporters. The combined financial and political support offered to these states has not only enabled mass human suffering; it has prevented any accountability and engendered a culture of total impunity among both nation’s political elites. It has created and reinforced a belief amongst the Israeli and Sri Lankan leadership that their actions will have no substantial consequences, almost guaranteeing that atrocities will continue in both nations.

Meanwhile, the governments that have voiced their opposition to the atrocities committed by either of these states have generally failed to provide international leadership in these cases. Western countries have done little to promote lasting change in Sri Lanka, whilst most nations of the Global South have been unwilling or unable to take genuine action against the assault on Gaza. Without consistent international leadership on human rights, accountability and atrocity prevention, there is nothing to prevent this continued cycle of global violence.

The Future of Accountability

The international community’s inconsistent record of upholding IHL and international human rights law globally has allowed states such as Sri Lanka and Israel to repeatedly violate international law and helped entrench a culture of impunity. While the UN, through its various organs, has tried to call out Israel and Sri Lanka on their historic and ongoing human rights violations and pushed for accountability, member states have repeatedly failed to support their efforts. A most egregious example came the day after the ICJ ruling on South Africa’s case against Israel when major Western countries[10] withdrew funding for United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Despite the UNHRC’s calls to the international community to support accountability in Sri Lanka by pursuing sanctions against those credibly alleged to have perpetrated gross international human rights violations or serious humanitarian law violations, very few perpetrators have been targeted, and none by the UK.

Disappointment and disillusionment with the West’s response to the conflict in Gaza is growing, with “Western hypocrisy” having serious geopolitical implications and risking undermining the functioning and effectiveness of intergovernmental bodies like the UN. The inconsistencies between the US’s, EU’s, UK’s and others’[11] response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, their reaction to other global humanitarian crises, and their perceived and real “double standards” on human rights, is eroding the bloc’s legitimacy, including amongst Tamils in Sri Lanka who have long looked to Western democracies for support.

South Africa’s accusation against Israel of committing genocide in Gaza before the ICJ, China’s current diplomatic efforts on Gaza and in the wider Middle-East, and Brazil’s peace efforts on Ukraine, indicate the emergence of the Global South and its challenge to the order installed by the West. This may bode well for those seeking justice in Sri Lanka and Israel in the long-term, but in the meantime, pressure must be maintained on both the West and emerging powers to reinstate confidence in international accountability for past and existing violations such as those committed in Sri Lanka and Gaza. This is critical to achieving justice for victims of grave war crimes, many of whom continue to see no end in sight to their suffering.

NB. For brevity, we have inevitably had to limit our article to key observations in comparing the situation in Sri Lanka to Israel-Palestine. We recognize that there are many more comparisons that can be drawn and analysed.


[1] ‘The Palestinian Nakba and Its Continuous Repercussions’, Manna, Adel, 2013, Israel Studies 18 (2), pp.86–99

[2] ‘Report of the Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka’, 31 March 2011, p. 39

[3] ‘China and conflict-affected states – Between principle and pragmatism’, Wheeler, Thomas, Jan 2012, Safer World, p.11 https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/57a08a88e5274a31e0000658/FAB-Sri-Lanka.pdf

[4] ‘Report of the Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka’, 31 March 2011, p. 23

[5] ‘Report of the Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka’, 31 March 2011, p. 24

[6] ‘Report of the Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka’, 31 March 2011, p. ii

[7] ‘International Arms Transfers,’ Wezeman, Siemon T., Dr Bromley, Mark, and Wezeman, Pieter D., ‘SIPRI Yearbook 2009: Armaments, Disarmaments, and International Security,’ 2009, p316

[8] e.g. the United States committed over $3.3 billion in foreign assistance to Israel in 2022, 99.7% of which went to the Israeli military

[9] ‘Trends in International Arms Transfers, 2021’, Wezeman, Pieter D., Kuimova, Alexandra and Wezeman, Siemon T., SIPRI Fact Sheet, March 2022, SIPRI

[10] USA, Germany (direct funding), EU (bloc funding), Sweden (direct funding), Japan, France (direct funding), Switzerland, Canada, UK, The Netherlands, Australia, Italy (direct funding), Austria (direct funding), Finland (direct funding), New Zealand, Iceland, Romania (direct funding) and Estonia (direct funding)

[11] including Switzerland, Australia and New Zealand