May 2, 2022No Comments

Sri Lankan Turmoil

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By Austin Parcels & Alberto Trame


Since 2019, Sri Lanka has been experiencing its worst economic crisis. Unprecedented levels of inflation, the near depletion of foreign exchange reserves, the rising prices of basic commodities, daily blackouts lasting ten to thirteen hours, and shortages of medical supplies plague the already poor nation. Sri Lanka’s population of almost 22 million people now waits in nearly endless lines for basic amenities. Schools have been suspended because of the lack of equipment and businesses shut down because of the lack of petrol needed for commuters and the transportation of goods.

Declared the "worst economic crisis for Sri Lanka in 73 years" by the Sri Lankan Government, the country now finds itself embroiled in protests and steadily increasing violence. Protesters place blame on president Gotabaya Rajapaksa's government, whom they accuse of mismanaging the economy. The Rajapaksa are Sri Lanka's most influential family, a political dynasty, prominent in several senior roles in the Sri Lankan State. Protesters demand that Rajapaksa and his family step down, hoping to pave the way for new democratic leaders.

Understanding Sri Lanka's turmoil and the regional fallout are vital to understanding the current state of South Asian security and diplomacy. There are several reasons for Sri Lanka's current unrest, ranging from president Rajapaksa's tax cuts, Sri Lanka's significant foreign debt, the ongoing agricultural crisis, and the tourism fallout over the 2019 Easter bombings and COVID-19. Finally, Sri Lanka's second-largest market for tea exports, Russia, has been ostracized by the international community in the wake of their invasion of Ukraine. Sri Lanka depends heavily on tea exports, with 17% of its economy relying on it completely.

Sri Lanka and China

The first security concern comes in the form of Chinese regional ambition. While Sri Lanka is not massively indebted to China (only about 10% of the Sri Lankan debt stock is owed to China), the Rajapaksa government has stated it will appeal to China to ease its debt burden. Given China's history of debt-trap diplomacy, and its continued influence on political and economic spheres of affairs throughout the continent, cosying up to China could spell danger for Sri Lanka and the region.

Sri Lanka has already given up a port to the Chinese ambition. Under pressure from China regarding debts, Sri Lanka coughed up the Hambantota Port and 15,000 acres of land surrounding it. China now controls a piece of territory just off the shores of its main regional rival, India. China's ambition in Sri Lanka does not stop there. China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has invested $1.4 billion in the Colombo Port City project, the largest ever foreign investment in Sri Lanka's history.

China has utilized the BRI as a form of neo-colonialism, using it to debt-trap poorer countries while exploiting those same countries for their raw resources and control over the infrastructure. With the presence of China in Sri Lanka already, and the current economic crisis, the Chinese are poised to take advantage of the situation by further exploiting the poorer island nation.

Sri Lankan Islamist Extremism

Easter Sunday, three years ago, three churches and three luxury hotels in Colombo were targeted in a series of coordinated Islamist terrorist attacks carried out by the National Tawahujja Jama'ath (NTJ). The attack killed 269 people, injuring at least 500 others. NTJ is believed to have connections to the Islamic State (ISIL). Terrorism in Sri Lanka has existed for some time. Organisations such as the Tamil Tigers and various Marxist-Leninist parties have carried out attacks in the past. Islamist terrorism began to rise in the 2010s, with a steep rise in attacks against the country's small Roman Catholic minority. These attacks eventually culminated in the 2019 Sri Lanka Easter bombings.

Sri Lanka's Islamic population, called Moors, is not large, accounting for roughly 9.7% of the population, and they have historically faced significant persecution by the Buddhist majority. Following the defeat of the Tamil Tigers in 2009, there has been a steep rise in anti-Islamic sentiment in Sri Lanka. Bhavani Fonseka, a human rights lawyer, spoke to the BBC about the issues, saying "in the post-war period, Muslims have become the new enemy." Muslim Sri Lankans, who already face discrimination from the government and who have a sudden rise in extremism within their community, are now staring down the barrel of the ongoing economic crisis.

Studies have shown that there is a connection between poverty, economic minority discrimination, and domestic terrorism. The ongoing economic crisis will exacerbate the divide between the Muslim and Christian minorities and the Buddhist majority. With the crisis worsening, Sri Lanka can expect a dramatic rise in Islamic terrorist attacks from well-trained, ISIL-affiliated organisations like the NTJ.

This rise in terrorism is not just a domestic issue either. Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines have seen their shared maritime border exploited by Islamist terrorists seeking to supplement conflict zones in Southeast Asia with foreign fighters. The Philippines' large Islamist problem has crossed the maritime borders and is beginning to affect its neighbours. Sri Lanka shares a maritime border with Maldives and India, two countries that could face the fallout of rising Islamic terrorism within Sri Lanka. As the economic crisis continues, and Sri Lanka finds itself unable to support its military and police structures, terrorists and criminals will leak through the porous borders.


In an increasingly globalized and interconnected world, the economic downward spiral of a small country can still have a great effect on the world at large. For South Asia, Sri Lanka's crisis can be a catalyst for significant shifts in the area's power structure, a rise in terrorism, and the opportunity for powerful countries to gain a further foothold in the region. This article has highlighted some of the ways Sri Lanka's ongoing crisis could do significant damage to South Asia, but there are undoubtedly other issues, such as international criminal organisations, which were not addressed. If you'd like to learn more about security concerns in South Asia and elsewhere, click here to view more of ITSS Verona's articles.

This article also mentioned the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which is an economic infrastructure development strategy adopted by the Chinese Government in 2013. It has been considered a centrepiece of Xi Jinping's foreign policy, but many opponents of the strategy consider it a way for China to practice debt-trap diplomacy and neo-colonialism. If you'd like to learn more about the BRI and China's foreign policy, check out this ITSS member series article.

April 25, 2022No Comments

The missing nexus of human security: Gaps in queer protections in conflicts

Authors: Esther Brito, Réka Szabó

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Efforts to improve human security in situations of violence have increasingly recognized the differential experiences and vulnerabilities of specific communities – like women or the elderly. In this line, advances have also been made in exploring the intersectionality of these contexts – that is, the fact that those belonging to multiple marginalized groups endure compounded risks. We are now at a point where we explore identity in conflict with more nuance than ever before. Yet, one collective still often remains excluded from our analysis – the LGBTQI+ or Queer community.

Despite efforts at inclusion and nuance in international security, like the Women, Peace, and Security Agenda, we still implicitly marginalize or exclude the queer community from policy or alleviation measures, offering little differential protection or recognition. As such, in the words of Academic Jamie Hagen, “those vulnerable to insecurity and violence because of their sexual orientation or gender identity remain largely neglected by the international peace and security community”.  

Queer human security and protection in conflict: where we fall short

From Chechen leaders, to Zimbabwe’s President or Turkey’s Erdogan, world leaders often don’t only decline to offer protections to LGBTQI+ people – they actively deny their existence. Be it within their borders or entirely, the majority of world leaders still deny basic recognition and rights to the queer community, paving the way for discrimination, abuses, and killings.

As a result, LGBTQI+ experiences are often implicitly or explicitly excluded from policy, research, and services addressing identity-based violence and mass atrocity. A recent paper by Protection Approaches has explored the multiple ways queer experiences of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide remain under-explored and unaddressed.

As we have stated, this is often due to pervasive political, legal, and social discrimination. However, another prominent effect is that, due to the community’s exclusion from research and debate, there is a stark lack of data pertaining to the lives of queer populations. Even when attempts at inclusion are made, we have little experience in how to ethically and effectively gather data on the community. Firstly, as violence is often viewed through a dichotomous lens with regard to gender, there is little space or recognition for communities that do not conform to this binary.  Secondly, even if research focuses on LGBTQI+ minorities, challenges remain when attempting to ethically explore identity outside primarily western categorizations of gender and sexuality – which need to be adapted to different cultural realities – as well as in deciding which collectives to include and how to do so without putting them in danger.  Lastly, researchers face the potential lack of availability of basic data on abuses – as many people do not report violence due to the fear of stigmatization or reprisals. As a result of these converging dynamics, queer populations suffer a double attack: victimization and erasure.

Being Queer in war: lived experiences of LGBTQI+ populations in modern conflict

The reality is that LGBTQI+ persons suffer disproportionate violence during armed conflict. The continued abuse and discrimination the community is subject to in peacetime only aggravates within this context, with the worsening of social chaos and the erosion of the rule of law. Indeed, the violence extends beyond self-identification, as even those being only suspected of belonging to the community face reprisals. While progress has indeed been made in terms of the recognition of LGBTQ+ populations under human rights law and existing abuses are increasingly being documented by media, human rights bodies, and civil society, queer populations remain among the least protected of all communities in armed conflict.

I was on my way home [from work] when five or six men (…) stopped me. They kicked and punched and slapped me all over my head and body. They (…) threw me in a garbage bin. I lay down (…) and they pulled out a razor blade and a screwdriver and poked and cut me all over (…). They sliced me up and poured around five liters of gasoline all over my body and face and set me alight…. The neighbors rescued me”.

  • Khadija, 31-year-old Iraqi transgender woman (August 5, 2021).

Beyond this, queer populations often contend with a severe lack of accountability and a sense of impunity, with states and armed groups tending to be involved in their abuses. Unlike other collectives, queer individuals not only have little or no recourse in law, they often can’t even find social or NGO support.

With discriminatory targeting driven by gender and sexuality worsening in much of the world, some scholars have come to consider these persecutions as amounting to crimes against humanity– as they are systematic, planned, and exercised against primarily civilian populations.



Notable examples of systematic abuses to LGBTQI+ populations continue to arise. Queer Afghans have been targets of increasingly severe attacks since 2021, in the wake of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. While same-sex relations were criminalized even before the Taliban took control, the situation has notably worsened.  According to a report by Human Rights Watch and OutRight Action International, LGBT Afghans have been threatened, sexually assaulted, attacked, and often been forced to flee as refugees. In some cases, family members themselves that support the Taliban have become threats to their safety. Nevertheless, obtaining testimonies remains complicated and there is no accurate estimate of the scale of attacks currently targeting LGBT people in the country.

While Afghanistan may be one of the cases that has received the most coverage, similar abuses have been reported in Iraq, Syria, Colombia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, among others. In Syria, the Assad regime has continued to progressively exacerbate its persecution and abuse of LGBTQI+ persons, or those considered to be so. This has been exemplified by reports of sexual violence – including rape, forced stripping, and cavity examinations – threats, severe assault, extortion, kidnapping, and killings by both the state and rebel militias. Even localized conflicts may severely affect the attitude of entire states toward the queer community – in Ukraine, Russian-influenced anti-homosexuality policies and attitudes proliferated since 2014, with the advent of conflict in the Donbas, and negatively affected the lives of LGBTQI+ persons in Kyiv​. In this line, we need to consider not only wars, but other severe conflicts as sources of victimization. For example, LGBTQI+ persons – especially trans women – have been recognized as more vulnerable to violence both by armed militias and organized crime across Central America. As such, queer populations stand at the intersection of exacerbated vulnerability and reduced social or institutional support, especially in situations of conflict or protracted human security crises.


While LGBTQI+ people are not the only collective facing increased risks to their human security, the lack of attention paid to their protection, as well as their exclusion from most policy and research efforts on international security, have led their needs and vulnerabilities to be marginalized in humanitarian responses and social assistance during violent conflict.

There is an urgency to recognize the dire situation of queer populations in modern conflict and develop a policy architecture that is able to ensure their protection at an international level. As it stands, the recognition of LGBTQI+ experiences is often absent from even from the most seismic of security crises, and unless that changes we will continue to fail in efforts to holistically protect human rights.

February 28, 20221 Comment

The Civilian Impacts of the Conflicts in Eastern Ukraine

Authors: Esther Brito Ruiz, Ludovica Brambilla, Reka Szabo

Note: due to the rapidly developing situation in Ukraine, we clarify that the information included in this article is actualized up until the date of the 23rd of February, and primarily covers the human security scenario prior to the evolving Russian invasion.

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The escalation of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, triggered in the spring of 2021 with the beginning of a progressive massing of thousands of Russian military and equipment near the border with Ukraine, marked the early months of 2022. As of the last few days, the ongoing invasion of Ukraine has triggered a geopolitical crisis dividing major international players and raising concerns for the security balance of Eastern Europe. 

These developments raise questions on the impact of the conflict's dynamics on civilians, who have been suffering the consequences of instability for years. This article will set aside political and military analysis to disclose how the crisis has been playing out at the local level in Eastern Ukraine, particularly, its effect on the civilian populations of the non-government-controlled areas (NGCA) of Donetsk and Luhansk prior to the invasion. A comprehensive review is beyond the scope of this piece, but we present some core human security dynamics sometimes excluded from mainstream coverage,  many of which were further exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Civilian casualties and threats to fundamental rights

Since 2014, civilians in the Donbas have been directly affected by the Russo-Ukrainian conflict and have often been victims of war crimesby both Russian-backed separatist armed groups and Ukrainian forces. The region is characterized by one of the highest concentrations of armed actors in the world - as such, unexploded ordnance (UXO) and explosive remnants of war (ERW) are as much a cause of civilian casualties as active hostilities. Between 2014 and 2019 for example, “over 1,000 individuals were known to be killed by land mines or other explosives”. Estimates of the conflict in July 2021 already registered at least 3,393 deaths within civilian populations and more than 7,000 injured.

Moreover, arms fire and shelling have also caused serious damage to civilian housing and infrastructure, endangering the population by limiting access to water, food, schools, and health services. The Covid-19 pandemic further deteriorated the situation and intensified the need for humanitarian in the region. In fact, even before the escalation of the conflict in 2022, it was calculated that at least 3,4 million people needed humanitarian aid in Eastern Ukraine as the result of the six years of conflict, coupled with the effects of the health crisis. These individuals and families suffer from physical and mental issues related to violence and from the indirect effects of the conflict and pandemic on the economy and their living standards.

The situation regarding political rights and civil liberties is well depicted by the 2020 and 2021 Freedom House reports. The 2021 report on government-controlled Ukraine explores how attempts to maintain democracy are hindered by resistance to crucial reforms, endemic corruption and limited freedom of expression due to an increasing number of attacks against activists and journalists.

The situation drastically worsens in the Eastern Donbas, where authority is in the hands of the People’s Republic of Donestk and Luhansk. These administrations rose to power in 2018 through what are considered to have been deeply fraudulent elections. Associational rights are severely compromised, even organizations politically allied to the ruling leadership are banned. The control over the population’s right to freedom of thought is implemented through a complex system of influence by Russia and adomination of public local institutions and media by people close to the separatist leadership.  Furthermore, it has been noted that pro-Ukrainian advocates face non-transparent trials and long prison sentences. In this line, detainees often appear to face torture and psychological abuse.  Members of minorities are effectively victims of unpunished persecutions and the justice system seems to lack any mechanism to prevent and punish the crimes reported during the conflicts.

Displacement, travel restrictions & forced migration

Covid-19 has complicated a situation already dramatic for internally displaced persons (IDP).  Since 2014, a “contact line” separates areas controlled by the Ukrainian government and those under Russian influence, dividing families and communities that have been dangerously crossing the border. These people often reside in poor settlements close by, where Ukraine’s social services struggle to provide assistance. As of 2020, the conflict had caused around 734,000 IDPs

In the last two years, arbitrary pandemic-related travel restrictions have been severely limiting access to healthcare, basic services, and income -  further separating families. The closing of crossing points in March 2020 affected thousands of civilians that would usually cross the line to receive their pensions and humanitarian assistance.

The ongoing invasion is likely to cause unprecedented, forced displacement, and since only two entry points are currently open along the contact line, it is likely that IDPs will seek refuge in neighboring countries. In their forecast on this matter at the beginning of February, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) picks up the Ukrainian Minister of Defense’s prognosis of 3 to five million possible refugees in case of a Russian invasion and notes that: “though it’s unclear where these figures were derived from, his prediction that a major war in Ukraine would plunge the whole of Europe into crisis seems entirely plausible”.

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Threats to education and students

The toll of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine on children has been extremely high in the last years. Hundreds of schools were damaged during the fights, which made proper education impossible. In Russian-controlled territories, not only physical threats are present. The identities of Ukrainian children are endangered as well. In the Donbas region, children do not have Ukrainian classes anymore and the language can be learnt solely as a subject for an hour per week. Textbooks in Russian were transported to the schools by the Russian ‘humanitarian’ convoys, and teachers have to use the Russian grading system

History also has to be taught in a way favoring the Russian side and depicting the occupation of Crimea and the Donetsk and Luhansk regions as a legitimate move by Russia. Because of the linguistic differences, Ukrainian students have difficulties when it comes to admissions in any higher education systems, either in Russia or in Ukraine. In the latter case, the different way of learning history also makes it more challenging for Ukrainians from the occupied territories to perform well in state tests. Furthermore, border crossing, in order to be able to participate in such tests or enroll at universities in the Ukrainian territory, can be restricted and dangerous

The progression of gendered violence and discrimination against the LGBT+ community (H2) 

Since the beginning of 2021, Ukrainian civil society groups have denounced a noted increase in attacks against LGBT+ and women’s rights activists. Attacks and threats have mainly been carried out by far-right groups, but opposition from religious organizations has also been on the rise. This is part of a broader regression of LGBT+ and women’s rights across Eastern Europe but has been tied in Ukraine to nationalization discourse in line with Russian political ideas. 

On one hand, domestic violence in Ukraine has remained “widespread, under-reported, and ineffectively addressed”, and has been worsening as the conflict in eastern Ukraine advances. Systemic flaws in protection mechanisms have been exacerbated by political and social tensions, and Amnesty International event referred to it as an epidemic of domestic and sexual violence against women. There is a potential for increased gender-based violence to derive from the mobilization of military personnel in the area and few protections in place to mitigate the rising abuse. 

On the other hand, the LGBT+ community in Ukraine - especially nearing the Russian and Bielorussian borders - has been in high alert. Attacks against young transgender individuals have been reported with noted violence. These crimes tend to recieve little support from police, and perpetrators face few or no charges. At a broader level, draft laws to include sexual orientation and gender identity elements more firmly in hate crime law have been pushed back against. 

Activists fear that continued Russian aggressions and the progression of the invasion will lead the situation to further deteriorate, with LGBT+ and women’s rights regressing further. 


As the situation in Ukraine continues to escalate, we can expect worsening conditions for human security across the country. Continued mass displacements, evolving conditions of gender and homophobic violence, and the interruption of basic freedoms and education will undoubtedly have severe impacts on the lives and future of the Ukrainian people.