, Volume 64, Issue 4, pp 287–295 | Cite as

Destabilizing the identity–territory nexus: Rights-based discourse in Sri Lanka’s new political geography

  • Margo Kleinfeld


This paper describes the changing discourses of territory in Sri Lanka and their utility in conflict relations. The primordial homeland has been at the center of Sri Lanka’s armed struggle, in which both Sinhalese and Tamil nationalisms have used claims of ancient and ethnically determined territories to justify their right to self-determination, territorial sovereignty, and armed struggle. This identity–territory nexus based on historical argument has been destabilized in Sri Lanka, however. Scholarly findings suggest that historical linkages between ethnicity and territory in Sri Lanka are highly problematic and are no longer effectual means for adjudicating territorial desires in Sri Lanka and producing stable homelands. I argue that rights-based territorial discourses have emerged to enhance the old historical justifications for territorial authority. New narratives based upon fulfilling or denying human rights have been put to work linking authority to territory based upon moral fitness and unfitness, political legitimacy and illegitimacy, and ultimately, upon which political actor deserves to rule the territorially bound population under its control. The first part of the paper examines historical narratives linking national homelands to identity as well as scholarly work that deconstructs this linkage. In part two, external sovereignty and political legitimacy are discussed as the starting point for understanding how rights-based discourses justify territorial claims. In part three, accusations related to human rights violations are described as an important vehicle for shaming political adversaries, undermining their legitimacy, and making and unmaking territorial claims in Sri Lanka.


armed conflict child soldiers human rights sovereignty Sri Lanka terrorism 


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Copyright information

© Springer 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Geography and GeologyUniversity of Wisconsin – WhitewaterWhitewaterUSA

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