Sri Lanka: UN Report Describes Alarming Rights Situation

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Tamil National Alliance lawmaker Shanakiyan Rasamanickam urges repeal of the abusive Prevention of Terrorism Act, Colombo, Sri Lanka, February 15, 2022.
© 2022 AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena

(Geneva) – The report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on Sri Lanka shows the rights situation in alarming decline and contradicts government claims of improvement, Human Rights Watch said today. The report, issued on February 25, 2022, documents discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities and security forces’ targeting of civil society groups, while accountability for past abuses has been blocked.

UN member states should carry out High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet’s recommendations, including by imposing targeted sanctions on alleged Sri Lankan rights violators, pursuing justice for international crimes committed in Sri Lanka through universal jurisdiction, providing asylum for Sri Lankans at risk of persecution, and supporting the UN Accountability Project mandated by the Human Rights Council in 2021. The UN should apply human rights due diligence standards in its engagement with the Sri Lankan security forces, and review Sri Lanka’s contributions to UN peacekeeping operations.

“The Sri Lankan government has responded to international scrutiny of its rights record with a false and misleading public relations offensive,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “UN member countries should redouble their efforts to press the Sri Lankan government to make real progress on rights.”

Sri Lanka’s devastating civil war, from 1983 to 2009, between the government and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) resulted in numerous abuses by both sides. The UN documented large-scale war crimes by government forces and the LTTE in the final months of the war. Instead of providing accountability for abuses, the current government, led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, is pursuing policies that are hostile to the Tamil and Muslim communities, while using the security forces to intimidate and suppress human rights activists and the families of victims of enforced disappearance. Abuses, including torture, arbitrary detention, and extrajudicial killings, have continued.

The High Commissioner noted in her report that the current government “has continued to demonstrate its unwillingness to recognise those serious international crimes and pursue accountability,” and instead has appointed “some military officials who may have been implicated in alleged war crimes into the highest levels of Government.” Those who held command responsibility for alleged violations include President Rajapaksa, Defense Secretary Kamal Gunaratne, and the army chief, Gen. Shavendra Silva.

The UN report highlights the case of former Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda, who was charged in connection with the enforced disappearance of 11 people in 2008 and 2009 until the attorney general dropped the charges in August 2021. In December, President Rajapaksa appointed him a provincial governor.

The High Commissioner described a growing militarization of civilian government functions, including law enforcement. She highlighted the large number of military checkpoints in the Tamil majority Northern Province, where there are “complaints of discriminatory treatment or harassment… particularly for women.” In the Eastern Province, the UN recorded 45 land disputes involving government officials and members of minority communities between January and November 2021. Bachelet found that minority communities fear that a government program to identify and construct Buddhist sites is “being used to change the demographic landscape of the [eastern] region.”

In addition to Tamils and Muslims, Christians also face abuses and discrimination. Bachelet wrote that the victims of the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings, in which a militant Islamist group targeted churches and hotels, killing over 260 people, “continue to call urgently for truth, justice, reparation for victims and a full account of the circumstances that permitted those attacks, in particular the role of the security establishment.” On February 18, a former senior police investigator filed a petition in the Supreme Court alleging that military intelligence officers had sought to protect the bombers prior to the attacks.

The authorities have continued to target civil society groups, including human rights defenders and the families of victims of past violations who are campaigning for justice, Bachelet found. Activists are “regularly visited in their offices or homes or called by the police for inquiries,” while, in the north and east, “[o]rganisations report being unable to work without surveillance” and have to “get approval from the [government] district secretariat for any activity.”

Bachelet also detailed how the authorities have repeatedly sought to prevent members of the Tamil community from commemorating those who died in the civil war, while “[r]eports indicate that at least 70 people have been arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) for sharing social media posts commemorating victims of the war.”

The PTA has been used for decades to enable prolonged arbitrary detention and torture. A recent Human Rights Watch report documented that the Rajapaksa administration has used the law to target Tamils and Muslims, as well as civil society figures, including lawyers, journalists, and opposition politicians. On February 10, amid growing international pressure, including from the European Union, the Sri Lankan government submitted amendments to the law.

In her report, High Commissioner Bachelet found that the “proposed amendments do not comply fully with Sri Lanka’s international human rights obligations and leave intact some of the most problematic provisions of the PTA,” and said that the government should address the “five key benchmarks identified by seven Special Procedures [UN experts] mandates… as ‘necessary prerequisites’ to ensure the PTA is amended to be compliant with international law obligations.”

On March 2, UN rights experts said the proposed amendments fell short of Sri Lanka’s international human rights obligations. They said there should be an immediate moratorium on the use of the law and that “[t]he actions of the Sri Lankan Government call into question its commitment to reform.”

Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris has told diplomats that the Office of Missing Persons, which was set up in 2017 to establish what happened to victims of enforced disappearance, and the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, are part of a domestic effort to provide “accountability” and “meaningful reconciliation.”

However, the UN High Commissioner found that the policy of the Office of Missing Persons “seems to be aimed at reducing the case load and closing files rather than a comprehensive approach to establish the truth and ensure justice and redress to families.” In October, the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions found that the status of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka should be downgraded, due to its lack of independence from the government.

“The Sri Lankan government is actively targeting minorities and civil society groups, while it protects alleged rights violators and undermines the rule of law,” Ganguly said. “Victims of abuses and vulnerable groups are depending on the United Nations and Sri Lanka’s international partners to keep up the pressure, to help protect what remains of civil society space, and to push for justice and accountability.”

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