Sri Lanka, Human Rights and Ethical Tourism

By Amra Lee

This article is part of our June Issue, focusing on Human Rights and History.

By Amra Lee

Human Rights Council Resolution

On 27 March this year the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) adopted a resolution on Sri Lanka. The Resolution mandates the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to undertake a comprehensive investigation into a long list of serious human rights violations and potential war crimes that reportedly took place during the final phase of the twenty-six year civil war. In late 2012 the UN Internal Review Panel Report found the Sri Lankan government’s own Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission deeply flawed, failed to meet international standards and failed to credibly investigate allegations of war crimes by the government’s security forces.

The Australian Government was notably silent during the official debate surrounding the adoption of the UN HRC Resolution. Twenty-three countries as diverse as Brazil, Germany, South Korea and the United States, voted for the resolution. A major concern of those in favour of the Resolution is the lack of evidence that the Sri Lankan government is serious about addressing either the causes or consequences of the war that ended in 2009. There are also ongoing reports of human rights concerns including disappearances, squashing of dissent and harassment of independent media and the judiciary.  These continued human rights violations have undermined hopes of generating a meaningful process geared to justice and eventual reconciliation between the majority Sinhala population and minority groups.


At the same time, tourism to Sri Lanka is booming. President Rajapaksa and his brothers who currently hold senior government positions and played key roles during the final phases of the war, are also behind the agenda to grow the economy while playing down the country’s recent violent past and ongoing human rights concerns.

According to a 2012 interview with Fred Carver from the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice tourism is the fourth highest source of revenue for the country and was set to double over the following four years. More and more tourism is a winner for the government.  War-weary citizens are eager to see some economic benefits and most tourists are oblivious to the history of the war and beaches of Mullaitivu where tens of thousands died.

My own trip

While planning my recent trip to Sri Lanka I encountered gentle and not so gentle reproaches from friends and former colleagues familiar with the brutality of war zones. The general message was ‘don’t let gross human rights violations get in the way of a good time’. As a humanitarian, it is difficult not to be conscious of rights violations that put lives in danger.  It is equally difficult to switch off and tune in to the types of problems that dominate urbanized, rich first world living.  Having long wanted to visit Sri Lanka I concluded that my best option was to proceed with an open mind and utilize the trip to form my own opinions through some albeit limited in-country experience.

Overall, I found extremely hospitable people, eager to please tourists and see the benefits of tourism dollars, and eager to move on and put twenty-six years of war behind them. However, having travelled a pretty standard tourist route, flying into Colombo, travelling up to Kandy and then down south it is not surprising that these were the words I would hear. If I had pursued less well-travelled routes to the north and east of the island, I might have heard a different story. Or perhaps not, given the fear instilled by the continued persecution of human rights activists and those who speak out against the government: “Such is the fear in the north that you will find it very difficult to get people to talk about this openly – and if they do they will be at risk of reprisals once you leave.”

Militarised tourism

One of the most disturbing parts of the Government’s tourism agenda is the militarised tourism that is underway in the north. This is where significant human rights violations took place during the final stages of the war. A resort is even planned for Mullaitivu,former stronghold of the Tamil Tigers and stretch of beach where thousands of civilians were besieged and bombarded during the end days of the war.

I spent a few days in the far south at a joint Sri Lankan – Expatriate run “gated” retreat. It was teaming with young couples from abroad enjoying their secluded beach holiday. During my brief stay I found myself struck dumb during a conversation with one British expatriate. He had been living and working at the resort for 6 months and was not aware of any of the most basic details of the conflict that ravaged the country for twenty-six years. While the retreat was effective in insulating holiday seekers from the outside world, I could not help but feel complicit in their lets ‘sweep it under the carpet’ approach.

So what does ethical tourism look like?

Boycotts are a blunt tool. Both their potential and limited verifiable impact was recently reviewed in ‘The mess and noise of boycotts’. The author concluded that while boycotts may potentially cause harm if misused, passivity and silence are far more dangerous.My key concerns with travel boycotts is the potential for lack of eyes and ears on the ground and the economic impacts on those dependent on tourism for their livelihoods. It is also a difficult line to draw, as it may be easier to boycott countries in the midst of violent conflict and immediately after, particularly for security reasons, and less so in seemingly peaceful more stable countries where rights violations are less visible or more easily media-managed. Ultimately, whether individuals choose to boycott travelling to a country on human rights grounds will be a personal one. One such decision concerns the recent sentencing of Australian journalist Peter Greste to seven years in prison in Egypt where some have called for a tourism boycott. The main issue is to ensure we are all making an informed choice where we travel and avoid inadvertently supporting human rights abusers.

Some practical advice for planning your next holiday: do your research, a simple google is a good starting point, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International provide country level analysis and reporting on human rights issues. You may be surprised to see their reporting on your own country. Where governments and/or other groups are credibly reported to be involved in human rights abuses you can avoid travelling airlines, using tour operators and staying in hotels with formal or informal economic ties to the rights abusers and their close associates. In the case of Sri Lanka, the government owns two airlines, eleven hotels and resorts, a ferry service, a 180-acre farm, three cricket stadiums, a golf course, and two whale-watching businesses according to the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice. There are also several Sri Lankan companies with direct linkages to the President including Sri Lanka Air that is chaired by the President’s brother in law Nishantha Wickramsinghe. In the case of Egypt, the national airline Egypt Air is one hundred per cent government owned.

Homestays are an alternative to large hotel chains and are a great opportunity to interact with local people and provide economic support to individuals and their communities. In some countries government’s tightly regulate tourist accommodation and movements but if you dig a little deeper you will almost always find a way to positively contribute to local economies and communities.  Even if that means sharing your stories when you return home, inspiring others planning a holiday to follow your principled lead, and increasing awareness of human rights issues in the country visited.

Take the time to read up on the country and its recent history before you go, listen to people who want to tell you their story when travelling but always, always avoid putting people at risk by asking any politically sensitive questions or encouraging people to share their stories in public where there may be risk of reprisals afterwards.

With more and more Australians and others around the world wanting to be informed on ethical issues such as the origin of their coffee bean or the labour standards of their clothes – why should the same level of rigour not apply to where you choose to spend your holidays or tourist dollars?

*While the above article has focussed on Sri Lanka, the general principles apply to all potential travel destinations. Please see below for some further reading on Sri Lanka:

*Thanks also to Norah Niland for her assistance with this article and for those interested in reading more background on the conflict and protection concerns please see her paper Humanitarian Protection in the Midst of Civil War: Lessons from Sri Lanka.

Amra Lee is a humanitarian protection specialist who holds a Masters in Applied Anthropology and Participatory Development (Conflict), Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice and Bachelor of Arts (Development)/Laws from the Australian National University.