ICJ: Criminal Justice Reform Needed

ICJby International Commission of Jurists, Switzerland, March 30, 2017

Sri Lanka: criminal justice reform needed to overcome challenges to accountability for human rights violations

Sri Lanka’s criminal justice system must undergo serious reform in line with international human rights standards in order to provide justice for victims of human rights abuses, the ICJ said in a discussion paper released today.

In a discussion paper titled Challenges to Accountability for Human Rights Violations in Sri Lanka: A Synopsis of Findings from a Meeting Lawyers and Human Rights Defenders in Colombo, November 2016, the ICJ has identified priorities for action raised by Sri Lankan lawyers and human rights defenders during a workshop on accountability for human rights violations and abuses held in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in November 2016.

“After decades of undue political interference with judicial institutions by authoritarian regimes, the Sri Lankan criminal justice system as a whole has been weakened and is simply not equipped with the capacity or will to adequately pursue accountability for gross human rights cases,” said Nikhil Narayan, South Asia Senior International Legal Adviser for the ICJ.

“It is crucial that Sri Lanka embarks on real systemic reform of the criminal justice system, both legal and administrative, to strengthen its ability to deal with human rights violations and reverse the deteriorating public faith and credibility in the justice sector,” he added.

The issues raised by participants during the workshop in November 2016 echoed many of those identified in the ICJ’s prior studies, reflecting the ongoing and unaddressed systemic challenges that practitioners continue to face today, despite the change of government and perception that the adjudication of human rights cases is seamless.

This discussion paper highlights several key concerns raised by the participants, all of whom are human rights lawyers and defenders. These include:

  • the public’s lack of faith in the criminal justice system anchored to the lack of will and ability to investigate, prosecute, and adjudicate human rights violations;
  • the gaps in the legal framework to address serious human rights violations;
  • questions as to the independence of State actors involved in the judicial system;
  • undue delays in pending cases, the lack of functional independence and impartiality of the Attorney General’s Office; and,
  • the poor processes and non-transparency in recent legal reform initiatives.

“Our workshop provided a stark reminder that, despite the end of the war nearly a decade ago, the same structural deficiencies in the criminal justice system that existed during the conflict continue to obstruct real justice and accountability for human rights abuses, both conflict-era and ongoing,” Narayan said.

“Particularly now, at a time when the Sri Lankan State at all levels is trying to convince both the domestic and international audience that the existing criminal justice system is sufficiently capable of adjudicating cases of gross human rights abuses stemming from the conflict as part of the transitional justice process, human rights lawyers and defenders in Sri Lanka have issued a counter-point to these claims,” he added.

The discussion paper concludes with the identification and prioritization of key strategies for criminal justice reform that could help address these challenges, including:

  • Clarifying the role of the Attorney General’s Office, including strengthening its functional independence and impartiality;
  • Strengthening the independence and impartiality of the judiciary;
  • Strengthening the functional independence of the police;
  • Incorporating gross human rights violations amounting to crimes under international law as specific offences in Sri Lankan law in line with international standards;
  • Strengthening the functional independence and impartiality of independent constitutional commissions such as the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka and the National Police Commission, among others;
  • Encouraging and supporting the Bar Association of Sri Lanka in taking a stronger public advocacy role on human rights and rule of law; and,
  • Greater public awareness-raising of law reform initiatives.


Nikhil Narayan, South Asia Senior International Legal Adviser, e:


The November 2016 workshop was the first of two colloquia to discuss ongoing challenges faced in promoting greater accountability for human rights violations and abuses through the Sri Lankan criminal justice system.

The second colloquium was held with Sri Lankan high court judges in Colombo in January 2017. The outcome of the judges’ colloquium will be published in a discussion paper next month.

The ICJ has previously published several reports, including in 2010 and 2012, documenting the deep politicization and capacity deficit of the Sri Lankan judiciary and criminal justice system in dealing with gross human rights violations and abuses.

Sri Lanka-FCO Accountability 1-Advocacy-Analysis brief-2017-ENG (full paper in PDF)

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