A critical view on British colonial atrocities in Sri Lanka through International Law
Posted on January 22nd, 2018

Punsara Amarasinghe PhD Candidate in International Law Higher School of Economics Moscow.

It may not be an exaggeration to describe modern international law as a cloak of legality thrown over the colonized people by imperial powers. In analyzing the roots of international law this factor becomes a salient feature with regard to how those so called European powers maliciously implemented the sovereignty  and statehood whereas more than two third of Asian ,African , Latin American states were fallen to the scum of the civilization in their yardstick. The saga of colonialism is deeply interwoven with creation of modern international law and it rather remains as a forgotten or forsaken issue in legal academia. Being a nation invaded by three European powers and suffered from the gruesome colonial subjugation Sri Lanka too had its encounters with European invaders to protect its integrity against all odds. In fact both 1818 and 1848 rebels against British arose as resistance movements to overthrow British rule and finally suppressed by British colonial rule in the most abominable manner as they practiced in every other colony. Especially in suppressing 1818 Uva Wellassa rebellion British governor Robert Brwonrigg’s policy was utterly destructive and dozens of natives were massacred and leaders of the rebellion such as Keppetipola Dissawe, Madugalla and Ellepola Adikaram were hanged for treason.

Remaining question to this day is whether British has a liability over those atrocities committed in the past due to the unrecognized status of Sri Lanka as a sovereign state at the time those atrocities were perpetrated by British.  British imperial international law in 19th century was reluctant to grant sovereign equality to the states they came across in their colonial expedition and often compelled those states for unequal treaties. In the case of Sri Lanka the correspondence between colonial office in London and British governor Brownrigg shows how British wanted to take the advantage of the internal instability of Kandyan kingdom to cede the territory which they considered vitally important for British hegemony in island. The despicable strategy adopted by British in every oasis territory they infiltrated was to set terms and conditions with native chieftains and later abandoned them after accomplishing the task of acquisition of the land. No exception was given to Sri Lanka as they gradually breached the promises they agreed in Kandyan convention. Especially by Article 5 of the Convention British had agreed upon the protection of Buddhism and worship of deities. But soon after they ceded the Kandyan kingdom the Missionaries of Anglican church appeared in the hill country. Apart from that the promises given to Sinhalese aristocrats were not fulfilled which caused a greater agitation among the Kandyan aristocrats and reached its culmination it in 1818 by taking arms against British.

The way British to suppress the revolt was a macabre as it was a ruthless method to exterminate those were not part of the revolt. The letters exchanged between British governor Brownrigg and commonader of English troops Maj. Gen. Hay MacDowel show how brutally Brownrigg wanted to irradiate the uprising. Slaughter every man, woman and child, burning the paddy fields of Uwa Wellasa was the common policy executed under the orders of Brownrigg during the revolt.

In addressing the colonial atrocities committed by British in Sri Lanka the most complicated question arising in academic sphere is the proving the state responsibility of British over those crimes since the atrocities were perpetrated by colonial officers in the past and at that time legitimacy of Sri Lanka did not exist. This argument was used by Germany in 2003 when a group of Namibians filed a complaint against Germany in the District Court of the District of Columbia alleging violations of international law, crimes against humanity, genocide, slavery, and forced labor before, during, and after the German-Herero War (1904-07).Moreover Germany insisted genocides committed by colonial governments in the nineteenth century did not violate international law at that time. In legal point of view the all forms of genocide were first criminalized and made punishable by the 1948 U.N. Convention on Genocide. This is the sheer reality of existing international law and under this loophole British atrocities committed in past were done for the best interests in the colony. However number of former colonies of British Empire has recently begun to scratch the colonial past of their states. In 2003 Kenyan government appointed truth inquiry commission on the colonial crimes of British conducted their inquiry around the country through memories of the descendants and ultimately declared The British colonial administration in Kenya was responsible for unspeakable and horrific violations of human rights .  In India Supreme Court was bold enough to admit the severe consequences of British colonial rule upon country in 2007 Coelho case. Ironically not a single inquiry or truth finding commission has been appointed by any government in this country thus far. It is a simple fact beyond dispute the horrors of those British crimes in Sri Lanka in its inglorious colonial pasts are heinous crimes in modern international law regardless of the time and applicability factors.  In International Law Jus Cogens” is a term developed by international community of states as a norm from which no derogation is permitted. Indeed the crimes against humanity, genocide and torture are regarded as Jus Cogens and British atrocities in Sri Lankan are theoretically fallen under Jus Cogens. Even from the international treaty laws point of view such as four Geneva conventions and 1948 U.N Convention genocide what British perpetrated in Sri Lanka in Uwa Wellasa rebellion in 1818 and aftermath is a clear depiction of crimes against humanity albeit it’s technical impossibility to prove before the existing standards of modern international law. As I mentioned in the first paragraph the coinage of modern international law is imbued with the story of colonialism and its present actors such as UN or judicial bodies like International Criminal Court have kept the dark memories of colonialism aloof while engaging more about the human rights issues and internal political unrests of de colonized states. As African American legal scholar Derrick Bell pointed out in his thesis on critical race theory, the white supremacy has been predominant in International law and such a context colonialism stands as a peripheral reality.

Interesting question relevant to Sri Lanka is whether any of the government after independence committed to the cause of finding the truth of draconian British crimes in colonial era. Unfortunately answer is no since none of the governments in post independent Sri Lanka paid no concern over fact findings on how British brutally suppressed the liberation movements in the island. Appointing a national inquiry commission to investigate British crimes during their administration will not bound British to pay reparation to us. But its revelation can humiliate the modern Englishmen who are thinking themselves as protectors of human rights and freedom. It can rectify the distorted history taught to our children by saying independence of Sri Lanka was won without dropping a single blood drop. Above all appointing a national commission to investigate those crimes is an hallowed way to pay homage for national heroes died and exiled in 1818 Uwa Wellasa rebellion when its two hundred anniversary is going to be marked in this year

2 Responses to “A critical view on British colonial atrocities in Sri Lanka through International Law”

  1. Nihal Perera Says:

    The mass atrocities committed in SL by the colonial Britain was well-known, especially in 1818. The problem is our own ignorant Sinhalese who do not know their country’s history. Some of them still are trying to glorify the colonial rule, especially those Kalu Suddas, who are willing to lick the boots of their white masters.

    European invaders looted our country for over 400 years, and built empires, especially Britain, from the wealth they robbed from their colonies. It’s about time the world expose atrocities and misery caused by these defunct empires like Britain.

  2. Nimal Says:

    Since I haven’t got the time to sit and write,must say that I am proud to be a Kalu Sudda.
    what happened in 1818 is inevitable part of the world history where nations were transformed into the world were are now. It should be obvious that one can’t make an omelette with out breaking an egg.
    I am glad that 1818 and 1848 never succeeded or we will all be in the medieval times with few rascals ruling us, rascals who couldn’t care two hoots for the people, if we lived or died and this situation was world wide. Prior to colonial times did our people live long,have hospitals,schools,police stations, court houses and the list is endless?
    Worldwide revolution became after the beginning of 1800,the reason why Lenin came to witness the new found changes in UK,not forgetting Car Mark lived and died in UK.
    One of my old schools, the first to be ever built was in Kotte built in 1822,only 4 years after the clean up in Uva where there was a revisionist plot to maintain the old status quo.I am glad it failed and as Buddhism preach that life goes in cycles where the prosperity we enjoyed during the colonial times are been reversed by our roguish politicians and it seem to be common in the failed states in the third world and the good natured people want the help of the first world to limit the pilferage by our leaders in the third world. Many African business people are fed of their leaders and are coming here to seek help to fight corrupt hold of the politicians who are holding their lives to ransom.
    They sincerely wish if the colonials come back to save their country. Look at the fate of Congo where that Kabila fellow is holding on to power where the people live in dire poverty where the country is sitting on so much natural wealth.
    So don’t blame people who did so much for us and going back in history is utterly non productive and has no relevance to day.Move forward I say .There was an old song I loved ‘amathaka karala parni katha yamu yamu jathika divnuwata,srilka apage angathe karakra karakara…..

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