“President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and senior appointees linked to wartime abuses are wasting no time dismantling the human rights gains of recent years,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director. “The EU, which offers Sri Lanka preferential trading terms in return for human rights guarantees, should demand the repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act.”
The PTA, introduced in 1978 as a temporary measure, has resulted in countless arbitrary detentions and facilitated torture of detainees. In 2017, the UN special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism found that the law “has fostered the endemic and systematic use of torture. Entire communities have been stigmatized and targeted for harassment and arbitrary arrest and detention.”
In 2015, then-President Maithripala Sirisena joined a unanimous resolution at the UN Human Rights Council that committed Sri Lanka to a series of measures to uphold human rights that included replacing the PTA with counterterrorism legislation that respects international legal standards. Many of these undertakings were never met, but in early 2019 the government and UNHRC renewed the commitment.
In 2018, an alternative counterterrorism law, the Counter-Terrorism Act, was submitted to parliament. Despite shortcomings, the draft act would have replaced many of the most abused provisions of the PTA, but it was never passed into law. The new Rajapaksa government has declared its intention to keep the PTA in force. The cabinet spokesman, Minister Bandula Gunawardana, said: “The PTA is back in the statute book, empowering the police and armed forces to face any threat posed to national security from any quarter.”
In 2010, the EU withdrew Sri Lanka’s Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+), its preferential trading arrangement, due to “significant shortcomings in the country’s implementation of three UN human rights conventions.” The arrangement gives Sri Lanka largely tariff-free access in exchange for undertakings to ratify and put into effect international human rights conventions. During the Sirisena government, the EU restored the preferential trading arrangement.
However, the scheme includes a monitoring component to ensure that human rights obligations are effectively met. At the annual meeting of the EU and Sri Lanka in February 2019, the joint communique stated that “the EU reiterated the need to repeal and replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) in order to bring counterterrorism legislation in line with international standards.”
Gotabaya Rajapaksa was defense secretary from 2005 to 2015, under the administration of his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was appointed prime minister in November. The UN, Human Rights Watch, and other human rights groups, and the media, found that under Mahinda Rajapaksa’s administration, the Sri Lankan army shelled civilians and hospitals, and raped and executed prisoners during the final months of the civil war against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The UN found repeatedly in its reports that some military abuses during the conflict amounted to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The previous Rajapaksa government was also implicated in numerous human rights violations, including arbitrary arrests, torture, enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings. In a number of cases, including the 2008 abduction of Keith Noyahr, the 2009 murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge, and the 2010 enforced disappearance of Prageeth Eknaligoda, evidence produced in court implicated military intelligence officers under the authority of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, as the defense secretary. There has been no final verdict in any of these cases.
Human Rights Watch recognizes Sri Lanka’s international legal obligation to protect everyone on its territory. However, any counterterrorism measures should reflect international best practice and uphold basic principles of the rule of law.
“For decades, Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act provided a legal fig leaf for grotesque human rights abuses and the suppression of peaceful dissent,” Ganguly said. “The new Rajapaksa government’s embrace of this abusive law is just one of many signs that the rights of Sri Lankans are at grave risk.”