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UK arms exports to Sri Lanka (2012-2022)

Country Overview

Sri Lanka is an island state located in South Asia. The country has a multiethnic and multilingual population. The majority of the population are Sinhalese Buddhists, but there are also significant populations of Tamils, Muslims, and Christians.

Sri Lanka witnessed a devastating civil war that was fought until 2009.  In 2015, there was a change in government, with the election of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe who pledged to undertake significant political and economic reforms, including tackling corruption, strengthening democratic institutions, and improving human rights.  However, progress towards these goals was slow and uneven. The country’s economy is primarily based on agriculture and tourism, climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic have heavily impacted the country’s economy. Furthermore, rising ethnoreligious tensions and the government’s failure to address them effectively lead to more political instability. 

Sri Lanka is a member of the ATT. It signed the treaty on June 3, 2013, and ratified it on June 12, 2018.

How many licenses for the sale of arms to Sri Lanka did the UK government issue between 2012 and 2022?

 In total, from 2012 to 2021, 171 limited standard, and 112 unlimited open licenses were approved by the UK to Sri Lanka. 

What is the total value of those exports in GBP?

The value of arms licenses granted by the UK Government to Sri Lanka increased dramatically in 2013, reaching £37.4 million, just shy of half of the total sales in ten years, which totalled £88 million.

Source: Campaign Against Arms Trade, 2023

What are the top 10 types of arms export licenses Britain is selling to Sri Lanka?

UK arms export to Sri Lanka consists mainly of conventional military equipment, such as bullets, guns, and armour.

Top 10 military items exported from the UK to Sri Lanka between 2012-2022Total number of licenses
small arms ammunition135
military helmets 132
body armour131
components for body armour116
assault rifles106
components for assault rifles93
weapon sights90
components for rifles56
Top 3 military export items from the UK to Sri Lanka between 2012-2022 by valueValue in GBP
ML1 ‒ Small arms£51m
ML10 ‒ Aircraft, helicopters, drones£11m
ML3 ‒ Ammunition£7.3m

Source: Campaign Against Arms Trade, 2023

Why should British citizens be concerned about arms sales?

From 1983 to 2009, Sri Lanka’s devastating civil war between the government and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) resulted in numerous cases of abuse by both sides. The country’s government continues to face serious accountability challenges following the political reconciliation in the aftermath of the conflict. Although the conflict ended in 2009, the roots of the conflict remained unresolved. The country is still in an ongoing crisis, the government continues to be accused of corruption and human rights abuses and ethnic tensions between the country are on the rise. The government continues to contribute to this separation by targeting, abducting and torturing Tamils under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

What has the British government said about these concerns? 

The Representative of the United Kingdom to the UN expressed severe concerns about the possibility of the recurrence of violations, after the 20th Constitutional Amendment in 2020. This latter gave the President of Sri Lanka complete power over the appointment of judges to higher bodies of the judiciary with a consequent deterioration of judicial independence.

During the HRC UK statement for the Interactive Dialogue on the report of the OHCHR on Sri Lanka on 20 September 2022, the UK Human Rights Ambassador, Rita French, delivered a statement on the worsening situation in Sri Lanka. She addressed Sri Lanka’s people who had exercised their rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association and freedom of expression to protest the economic situation in the country. She said: “We are dismayed that in response, violence was used against protesters. We are deeply concerned about the arrest and ongoing detention of protestors under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and continue to call for reform of the Act.

We are also concerned about reports of continued militarisation and intimidation impacting communities in the north and east, including families of the disappeared. We regret the limited progress made on accountability and justice as requested in HRC resolution 46/1.”

What evidence is there of human rights abuses that the Government of Sri Lanka has committed since 2012? 

Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act gives police broad powers to arrest and detain suspects in custody. The law is commonly invoked by officials to justify prolonged detention without trial. In 2021 HRW reported, of many prisoners, particularly from minority communities, who remain in pretrial detention over various years under the PTA, or are serving long terms following convictions based on confessions obtained during torture.

In 2014 Torture and other ill-treatment of persons in custody by the security forces continued to be a widespread problem, to the extent that several European countries and UNHCR revised their guidelines on assessing asylum claims as concerns of torture and risk upon their return rose.

An official fact-finding mission in 2017, concluded that the Government of Sri Lanka did not make sufficient progress in fulfilling its commitments to transitional justice and related reform processes.

At the UN Human Rights Council in February 2020, Sri Lanka announced that it was withdrawing from its commitments to provide justice and accountability for war crimes committed during and since the civil war between the government and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. All whilst surveillance and intimidation targeting human rights defenders, lawyers and journalists escalated under the Rajapaksa administration.

The same accusations against the administration of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa continued in the following years. Security forces suppressed peaceful protests whilst harassing government critical voices and the families of victims of past abuses. Amnesty International reported on similar cases, including of Kumaravadivel Guruparan, a Human rights lawyer, who was forced from his position as a senior lecturer and head of the University of Jaffna after pressure was brought by the Sri Lankan military. 

The same report revealed several extra-judicial killings by the police, including the death of three men, which were linked to disproportionate and abusive enforcement of measures to control Covid-19. Other killings were linked to the country’s abusive anti-drugs policy and two more subjects were shot dead in police custody.

Despite this catalogue of harm, the UK still deems it acceptable to sell weapons and arms to Sri Lanka.