(Washington, DC: July 25, 2016) This week, the 33rd anniversary of “Black July,” is marked by Eelam Tamils across the world. In July 1983, thousands of Tamils were killed by state-backed Sinhalese mobs in a series of violent pogroms and riots. The deliberate, pre-planned and state-sanctioned violence devastated the Tamil people across the island, sparking a mass displacement that persists today. Black July is commonly cited as catalyzing the outbreak of war in Sri Lanka between various Tamil liberation movements and the government of Sri Lanka.
For one week beginning on the night of July 24, 1983, Sinhalese mobs attacked Tamil civilians, homes, and businesses in a campaign characterized by raping, killing, burning, and looting. The government facilitated the violence by providing voter registration lists identifying Tamils by ethnicity and incited the Sinhalese population to persecute their Tamil neighbors. The economic cost of the riots to the Tamil community was $300 million, but the cost to the mental state of those Tamils who survived the pogrom is immeasurable.
The complicity of the government of Sri Lanka in these pogroms is clear. During the first days of the violence, local police officers and military stood by, at best doing nothing and at worst even joining the rioters. The Prime Minister at the time, J. R. Jayewardene, expressed the state’s disinterest in acting on behalf of the Tamils two weeks before the riots: “I am not worried about the opinion of the Jaffna (Tamil) 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, Sinhala people will be happy.”
Years after the end of the civil war in May 2009, anti-Tamil mobs still claim the lives of innocent Tamil civilians. Tamil areas continue to be militarized, and notorious “white van” abductions and torture still occur under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act as recent as May this year. For Sri Lanka to make post-war progress, it is essential for the government to acknowledge, cease, and provide remedies and reparations for the ongoing atrocities against Tamils—atrocities that have escalated since Black July in 1983. Instead of proactively taking steps to end decades of impunity for anti-Tamil attacks, the government of Sri Lanka opposes certain necessary reconciliation and justice measures for Tamil victims, such as involving international judges in prosecutions. It has yet to take any constructive actions to address wartime accountability or end the culture of impunity. This inaction reflects the government’s strategy on human rights and justice. In fact, critics have noted that the government believes that buying time and postponing effective action will eventually lead to the erasure of the justice and accountability issue from the international agenda. We cannot let this happen.
PEARL urges the international community to act and hold accountable perpetrators of international crimes, including former and current high-level government officials. International actors must be integrally involved in the investigation and prosecution of wartime atrocities; Sri Lanka’s call for a domestic-only mechanism is unacceptable and will not satisfy victims’ needs and desires. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights already recommended a hybrid special court to investigate war crimes after finding “Sri Lanka’s domestic legal framework to be inadequate to deal with international crimes of this magnitude.” International and Tamil civil society groups have echoed his finding and recommendation.
The best way for the international community to honor the lives lost during and since Black July is by listening to Tamils and ensuring effective and credible accountability processes. After thirty-three years of war-related suffering, Tamils’ cries for justice must be heard.
For further information, please contact Mario Arulthas at firstname.lastname@example.org.