The Universal Declaration of Human Rights 
And Sri Lanka.

[10 December 1945]



“Do you want to be governed from London or do you want, as Ceylonese, to help govern Ceylon? ... On behalf of the Congress and on my behalf, I give the minority communities the sincere assurance that no harm need you fear at our hands in a free Lanka.”

- Don Stephen Senanayake.
Sinhala leader at the State Council of Ceylon (Sri Lanka); November 1945,
who 3 years later went on to disenfranchise a million Tamil inhabitants of the island.


The tenth day of December 1948 was a historic day. It was a day of one of the greatest human achievements, indeed a landmark in human history. This was the day the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Fifty-three years later, on the 10th of December 2001, it is well for Sri Lankans to look back and reflect on what Sri Lanka has done for human rights of its citizens.

What have they achieved?

The most significant is that Sri Lanka has achieved the ignoble distinction of being ranked number two among countries with the worst human rights record, next only to Iraq. As a matter of fact, Sri Lanka being such a small country, on a per capita basis, it deserves first place.

Over ninety thousand deaths, mass graves and disappearances, rapes and torture, massive displacement of people and flagrant deprivations of basic human needs – all in the name of a war for ethnic and religious superiority.

How did they get to be this way?


1948 [4th February] is also significant for Sri Lanka as the year it gained independence from colonial rule. So, it is fitting that we start the history of human rights in Sri Lanka in that year.

Within a few months of the twin events of 1948, independence and the historic UN declaration, Sri Lanka enacted two laws to disenfranchise over a million of its (Tamil) citizens; the first direct violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Sri Lanka. The Article 15 of the UN Declaration states:

Article 15

1.  Everyone has the right to a nationality.

2.  No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.

Over one million Tamils were deprived of their hitherto enjoyed citizenship rights. They lost all their civic rights, including their right to vote.

This action, that was racially motivated to reduce Tamil representation in parliament, also violated Article 2, which states:

Article 2

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

From then on, it was a straight downhill ride for Sri Lanka. Emboldened by the lack of protest from the international community (except for some feeble efforts by India), Sri Lanka, with a government dominated by one racial group (Sinhalese), went on to enact a series of racially motivated laws, statutes and regulations, to oppress the numerically smaller ethnic groups.

The resultant protest by the oppressed Tamils, with its natural progression from parliamentary to extra-parliamentary, and from peaceful demonstrations to armed revolt, evoked not measures to redress grievances but further oppressive laws, which further violated the UN Declaration.

The worst cut of all was the Prevention of Terrorism Act. This 1979 Act, which has been condemned as an ‘ugly blot on the statute books of any civilized country’ by the International Commission of Jurists, violates many of the articles of the Universal Declaration. For a side-by-side comparison, see Table below. What is shown in the table are just a few examples of how the Sri Lankan PTA violates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The International Commission of Jurists in two separate reports condemned this Act in no uncertain terms.

“The South African Terrorism Act has been called ‘a piece of legislation which must shock the conscience of a lawyer.’ Many provisions of the Sri Lankan Prevention of Terrorism Act are equally contrary to accepted principles of the Rule of Law.”

- Virginia Leary: Ethnic Conflict and Violence in Sri Lanka - Report of a Mission to Sri Lanka on behalf of the International Commission of Jurists, July/August 1981


“These provisions (in the Prevention of Terrorism Act) are quite extraordinarily wide. No legislation conferring even a remotely comparable powers is in force in any other free democracy operating under the Rule of Law, however troubled it may by politically motivated violence. Indeed there is only one known precedent for the power to impose restriction orders under section 11 of the Sri Lankan PTA, and that - as Professor Leary rightly pointed out in her report - is the comparable legislation currently in force in South Africa… such a provision is an ugly blot on the statute book of any civilised country.

- Paul Sieghart: Sri Lanka: A Mounting Tragedy of Errors 
- Report of International Commission of Jurists; 1984


However, these stepwise oppressions, and especially the Prevention of Terrorism Act and its application, evoked no voice of disapproval from the so called International Community, or the UN, or any its members who signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Numerous appeals by elected representatives of the Tamils to a number of international bodies have gone unheeded [Example an appeal to the British Commonwealth].

What is worse, the international community when it did finally move, responded only to the effect (the actions of the oppressed) and not the causes. Regrettably, more and more countries are continuing to act against the oppressed Tamil people in Sri Lanka in the name of fighting Terrorism!


There can be no doubt that the Prevention of Terrorism Act was primarily designed and implemented as an instrument of war against the Tamils in that island. Its effect on the Tamil people has been devastating. Tamil people, and only the Tamil people, are subject to arbitrary searches, arrests, and incarceration in unauthorized places of detention, torture, sexual abuse, murder and burials without inquests in Sri Lanka, under this ‘law.’

At present over three thousand Tamil political prisoners are languishing in Sri Lankan jails for prolonged periods without charges or trials, under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Prisoners under this act have been butchered on several occasions within the prison grounds and all remaining prisoners are in danger of such violence in the future.

As a first step, it is the duty of all countries that are signatories to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to condemn the human rights record of Sri Lanka and its Prevention of Terrorism Act, and campaign for its repeal.

It is also imperative that any and all Sri Lankan nationals who care about human rights to commit themselves to work unrelentingly for the repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act - an enactment which is ‘an ugly blot on the statute book of any civilized country.’




Universal Declaration of Human Rights and
Sri Lankan Prevention of Terrorism Act

A side-by-side comparison


Universal Declaration of  Human Rights

Prevention of Terrorism Act

Article 8: Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law



10. An order made under section 9 shall be final and shall not be called in question in any court or tribunal by way of writ or otherwise.

Article 9: No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.



6. (1) Any police officer not below the rank of Superintendent or any other police officer not below the rank of Sub-Inspector authorised in writing by him in that behalf may, without a warrant and with or without assistance and notwithstanding anything in any other law to the contrary - (a) arrest any person; (b) enter and search any premises; (c) stop and search any individual or any vehicle, vessel, train or aircraft; and (d) seize any document or thing, connected with or concerned in or reasonably suspected of being connected with or concerned in any unlawful activity.

Article 10: Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.

9. (1) Where the Minister has reason to believe or suspect that any person is connected with or concerned in any unlawful activity, the Minister may order that such person be detained…

10. An order made under section 9 shall be final and shall not be called in question in any court or tribunal by way of writ or otherwise.


Article 11: 1. Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.


16. (2) The burden of proving that any statement referred to in subsection (1) is irrelevant under section 24 of the Evidence Ordinance shall be on the person asserting it to be irrelevant.

Article 11: 2. No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offence was committed.


PART VII - 22. Any person who has committed any offence under section 296 or section 297 or section 300 of the Penal Code prior to the date of coming into operation of Part VI of this Act… would have constituted an offence under this Act … (and) be triable without a preliminary inquiry, on an indictment...

Article 13

1. Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each State.
2. Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.


PTA: 11. (1) Where the Minister has reason to believe or suspect that any person is connected with or concerned in the commission of any unlawful activity referred to in subsection (1) of section 9, he may make an order in writing imposing on such person such prohibitions or restrictions as may be specified in such order in respect of -

(a) his movement outside such place of residence as may be specified; or

(b) the places of residence and of employment of such person; or

(c) his travel within or outside Sri Lanka;…


Article 19

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.



2. (1) Any person who -

(h) by words either spoken or intended to be read or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise causes or intends to cause commission of acts … shall be guilty of an offence under this Act.



Sangam Research [10 December 2001]