Submission to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

Embeddedby Minority Rights Group International (MRG), the International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR) and Women Development Innovators (WDI), May 11, 2017


Sri Lanka: Issues of land and sea grabbing on minorities brought to UN

In order to reflect the current situation of minorities in Sri Lanka, IMADR, Minority Rights Group International (MRG) and Women Development Innovators (WDI) made a joint submission to the Committee. The joint submission illustrates the impacts of land and sea grabbing on minority fishing communities, ranging from forced displacement and militarisation, the loss of livelihoods, poverty and to the lack of compensations from the government.

Read the joint report 


III. Patterns of Land and Sea Grabbing in Sri Lanka

6. The Tamil population of the Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka currently faces a changing physical and demographic landscape. The communities that existed in the past have been dispersed due to a number of different factors. The first challenge comes from the Sri Lankan military, which works in tandem with commercial enterprises that have an interest in acquiring and profiting from land in the North and East of the country. 21 Since the end of the civil war, the military has used The Land Acquisition Act of 1950 and the Strategic Development Projects Act of 2008 to bring land under their control, and away from the local Tamil population. 22 The Land Acquisition Act allows the Government of Sri Lanka to seize lands that will be used for a “public purpose” 23 while the Strategic Developments Project Act subsidises development projects that are deemed to bring economic and social benefit to the country.24 However, the boundaries of the definition of “public purpose” have become blurred in light of recent commercial developments of the land.25 The Sri Lankan Government issued a circular in 2013 that specified ways in which land could become “lost” and could subsequently be used for development activities.26 However, the “lost” category in the circular is ambiguous and leaves open the possibility of land becoming “lost” due to development activities.27 In, Sri Lanka, these vast tracts of land are often turned into high security zones (HSZs), and access to the land is limited to military personnel.28 Even high-ranking Government officials must obtain permission from the Minister of Defence to gain access to these high security zones.29 Furthermore, much of the land inside these enclosures is used for commercial activities. Satellite observation of the area has revealed that the army even participates in commercial activities like cultivating the fertile soil.30 In other cases the land is seized and developed or sold to private businesses for development. This development mainly encompasses updates in infrastructure and the construction of new residential buildings and hotels. 31 Although this construction might benefit some sectors of the Sri Lankan economy, it displaces the local Tamils from their homes without the provision of adequate housing and employment elsewhere.

7. Allocations of land are mainly made for tourism and agricultural purposes, although land has also been allocated for salt production, mining, irrigation projects, energy and aquaculture. 32 The greatest number of projects have been initiated in the tourism industry.33 The building of hotels is particularly damaging to the fishing communities because of the distribution of land along the coastline towards this type of development.34 As a result, fishermen are forced to relocate and lose their access to the sea, preventing them from storing their equipment and from engaging in fishing activities.35 Although the hotels themselves have not always been profitable, the Government profits in all cases from the renting or selling of land taken from the local population.36  The seizure of land has typically involved several steps. First, the military establishes a military base or outpost in an area that the Government plans to seize. 37 Subsequently, the areas around the outpost are occupied by the military, and the local people are displaced from their homes and land. 38 Large swaths of land are then fenced off from the public and turned into HSZs, at which point there is a lack of transparency in the Government’s use of the land, with no outsiders allowed inside. 39

8. A second challenge results from other minorities permanently settling on land previously owned by minorities who were displaced as a result of the war. Some of these settlements were formed spontaneously while others are formed by the Government, which has allocated land and housing grants to other internally displaced persons (IDPs).40 These IDP transplants are sometimes placed into communities different from their own, which can in some cases lead to further tension. 41

9. Additionally, fishermen face increasing competition from both Indian trawling boats from the Tamil Nadu region and Sinhalese fishers from the south of Sri Lanka.42 While Indian fishers have built up mechanised fleets, the Sri Lankan fishers have not been able to develop their fishing equipment. 43 The incursion of Indian trawling boats has made it more difficult for Sri Lankan fishers to partake in their traditional occupation because of the risk of damage to their nets by trawling boats.44 Sea cucumber diving, an activity prohibited by both the Indian and Sri Lankan Governments but carried out by people who migrated to the north from other parts of Sri Lanka, 45 is a further threat to the traditional fishing industry. Since the use of dynamite and bright underwater lights scares away fish, it interferes with the activities of local fishermen…

VIII. Recommendations

31. The authors of this submission respectfully request the Committee to inform the Sri Lankan Government of its obligations to those whose land rights have been violated, and to recommend to the Government that they facilitate and support the rights of minorities to return to their lands immediately or be provided adequate compensation.

32. To this end, MRG, IMADR and WDI specifically recommend that the Sri Lankan Government:

  • conducts all land acquisitions and development projects with absolute transparency and adopt a consultation procedure so that the meaningful participation of minorities is obtained prior to the taking of land.
  • recognises the activities of women as productive and allow women to have an active role in the decision-making within their communities so that their livelihoods are protected.
  • integrates the displaced communities in the new development ventures by providing jobs and purchasing seafood directly from fishermen rather than through middlemen.
  • puts in place a land policy based on environmental impact studies before allocating land for use in various development projects.
  • provide adequate compensation for the loss of land during and after the civil war based on a comprehensive survey on the situation of land and property based on consultations with minority groups. Compensation should take various forms, including the restitution of land to legal owners as soon as possible, provision of land documentation, offering dispute resolution to address competing claims, providing support where land has been damaged, amongst others.


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