Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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The Sri Lankan Case

Rhetoric, Reality and Next Steps?

by Centre for Policy Alternatives, Colombo, March 2012

There are discrepancies in issuing public documents and notices, which are issued only in Sinhala. The inability and/or unwillingness to have notices and official documents in Tamil has been challenged in court as  a violation language rights as provided by Article 22 of  the Constitution.

The last few weeks have witnessed increased activity by the Government of Sri Lanka in announcing various measures recently taken and to be taken to strengthen human rights, peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka including the implementation of some interim and final recommendations of its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission(LLRC) issued in September 2010 and November 2011, respectively. Any genuine effort to address human rights, governance, a political solution and reconciliation is welcome. Yet the suddenness of such statements raises questions of timing and the genuine will of the Government. They should be seen against the backdrop of the impending resolution on Sri Lanka at the 19 th Session of the  United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). The heightened activity raises the question as to whether these measures are yet another ploy to distract its critics from the absence of a real plan of implementation for the LLRC  recommendations. This short note looks at GOSL rhetoric and demonstrates the fundamental flaws in the structure of government in addressing human rights violations and accountability issues, the failures of past domestic processes and the need for immediate action by the international community.

Government’s Rhetoric and Ground Realities  

At the outset, several achievements by the Government since the end of the war must be noted. Government figures indicate over 300,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) returning to their districts of origin, removal of emergency regulations, some reduction of High Security Zones (HSZs), ‘rehabilitation’ and release of over 10,000 former LTTE ex-combatants and the reconstruction of infrastructure in the war ravaged North and East. On the policy front, the formulation of the National Human Rights Action Plan (NHRAP) is indicative of the Government’s stand on specific human rights issues. In addition, the establishment of the LLRC by the present Government in May 2010 as an answer to the international call for accountability and reconciliation also marked a positive step in identifying the challenges to reconciliation and peace in post-war Sri Lanka. While the list is impressive, ground realities show a different story. The following are some brief points to demonstrate that while on paper the above developments can paint a picture of positive  change, serious problems persist:

  • Violations continue unabated across Sri Lanka, including disappearances, extrajudicial killings, torture and threats to freedom of speech, expression and assembly. [1] Peaceful protests have been met with brutal force resulting in deaths of protesters and threats to human rights defenders and media who have been critical of violations and Government practices. [2]  

  • Thousands of persons are still unable to return to their homes and continue to live in displacement. Some of those who have been able to return to their districts of origin - thereby reducing official IDP figures - are unable to return to their own homes and continue to live in displacement. [3] Military occupation of private property, presence of land mines, secondary occupation and the acquisition of land for development purposes, disregarding the established legal framework, are some of the  reasons for continued displacement.

  • While emergency regulations are no longer in existence, the Government lost no time in introducing similar measures under the draconian Prevention of  Terrorism Act (PTA). [4] These regulations can be promulgated by the  Executive at any time and without reference to  Parliament or any oversight mechanism.

  • The military and police continue to occupy large tracts of private land in the North and East, including the appropriation of land for ‘ad-hoc’ HSZs, with no legal rationale provided for such large scale occupation. [5]  

  • The security of ex-combatants released is questionable when thousands continue to be under surveillance and need  to report regularly to the military and police. [6]

  • The role of the military in civilian administration continues, including in assuming a dominant role in day-to-day tasks at the village-level such as the registration and photographing of civilians, approving the holding of  functions at the community-level, approving beneficiary lists and  coordinating NGO activities in the area. [7] The extent of militarisation is also evident with the presence of retired military officials in governance structures such as the two Governors for the North and East respectively, and the Government Agent for Trincomalee district (in the Eastern Province) - all of whom are key officials in the administration of these areas.

  • The National Anthem of Sri Lanka continues to be sung in Sinhala including at official events in the predominantly Tamil speaking North and East. [8] Those contesting this practice have been threatened.
  • There are discrepancies in issuing public documents and notices, which are issued only in Sinhala. The inability and/or unwillingness to have notices and official documents in Tamil has been challenged in court as  a violation language rights as provided by Article 22 of  the Constitution. [9] 

  • The NHRAP contains some useful recommendations and timelines for implementation, but raises questions of process as well as success in implementation. Several civil society individuals who were part of the consultations for the NHRAP indicated that their suggestions were not incorporated, contrary to the claim of an inclusive process put forward by the Government. [10] There are also questions as to whether any significant improvements can be achieved when for example the Ministry of Defence has been identified as the lead agency in implementing the specific provisions related to torture.

  • The LLRC came out with a useful list of recommendations on human rights,governance and reconciliation, but its findings particularly on accountability are weak and there are omissions in other areas. Although committees have been setup to explore and implement both the interim and final recommendations, questions of genuine political will and commitment persist. More than 18 months after the interim recommendations were issued and 4 months after the presentation of the LLRC report, there has been no demonstrable action on the ground.

  • A court of inquiry was established on 2 January 2012 by the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) to ‘inquire into observations made by the LLRC in its report on alleged civilian casualties during the final phase of the humanitarian operation and probe as regards Channel 4 video footage…’. [11] There is no public information available on the terms of reference of such an inquiry, on who is to be investigated, the charges and the legal framework to be used. Further, the court of inquiry was appointed by the present SLA commander, an actor directly involved in the military victory of 2009 and thereby possibly either involved in or complicit in violations documented. Such a process as it stands cannot be considered independent.

  • While there has been progress regarding economic development including the construction of roads, hospitals, schools in the North and East with the support of key donors, thousands of persons in these areas continue to live in displacement and are unable to use their  own land for livelihood purposes due to military occupation and security surveillance.

Footnotes

[1] The situation in Sri Lanka – an unsigned statement from Sri Lankan civil society, February 2012- http://www.scribd.com/fullscreen/82184215-The-Situation-in-Sri-Lanka?access_key=key-3szuxcd2ta360nmtijl

[2] Fisherman killed in Chilaw  protest, 15 February 2012, http://www.dailymirror.lk/news/16832-fisherman-killed-in-chilaw-protest.html ; Fishermen leader in hiding after  threats, 26 February, 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk/sinhala/news/story/2012/02/printable/120226_herman_hiding.shtml

[3] Land in the Northern Province: Post-War Politics, Policy and Practices  - Bhavani Fonseka & Mirak Raheem, CPA,December 2011.

[4] CPA Statement on the new Regulations under the Prevention of Terrorism Act,  26 September 2011

[5] Land in the Northern Province: Post-War Politics, Policy and Practices  - Bhavani Fonseka & Mirak Raheem, CPA,December 2011; Land in the Eastern Province: Politics, Policy and Conflict  - Bhavani Fonseka & Mirak Raheem,CPA, May 2010.

[6] Information received from local groups working in the North, January 2012

[7] Land in the Northern Province: Post-War Politics, Policy and Practices  - Bhavani Fonseka & Mirak Raheem, CPA,December 2011

[8]Based on information received from interviews in the North, February 2012

[9] One of the violations challenged in fundamental rights petitions filed related to the Navaanthuraiincidents in Jaffna in  August 2011. (SCFR 384/2011 and others)

[10] Feedback received from discussions with civil society in December 2011 and January 2012.

[11] The appointment was only made public by a statement issued on 16 February  2012