Monitoring ten issues of concern in Sri Lanka in 2021
by Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace & Justice, February 2022
Monitoring issues of concern
In March 2021, the UN Human Rights Council passed Resolution 46/1: Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka. The resolution identified ten emerging legal and political trends it described as representing “a clear early warning sign of a deteriorating situation of human rights in Sri Lanka”:
- Accelerating militarization of civilian government functions;
- Erosion of the independence of the judiciary and key institutions responsible for the promotion and protection of human rights;
- Ongoing impunity and political obstruction of accountability for crimes and human rights violations in “emblematic cases”;
- Policies that adversely affect the right to freedom of religion or belief;
- Increased marginalization of persons belonging to the Tamil and Muslim communities;
- Surveillance and intimidation of civil society;
- Restrictions on media freedom and shrinking democratic space;
- Restrictions on public memorialization of victims of war;
- Arbitrary detentions;
- Alleged torture and other cruel, inhuman degrading treatment or punishment, and sexual and gender-based violence.
Our latest report report examines these trends over the past year and highlights the key developments. Despite its frequent claims to the contrary, the government of Sri Lanka has continued its trajectory towards authoritarian, militarised, and increasingly racist governance.
Resolution 46/1 followed the Government of Sri Lanka’s decision to withdraw from sponsorship of the consensus process at the Human Rights Council established in 2015 with resolution 30/1 (and renewed under the rollover resolutions 34/1 and 40/1). Under this consensus process some extremely limited progress was made towards addressing Sri Lanka’s culture of impunity and strengthening respect for human rights and the rule of law. However, much of this progress was reversed soon after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected in November 2019.
A troubling trajectory
Less than a year after Resolution 46/1 was passed by the UN Human Rights Council, Sri Lanka remains on a deeply troubling trajectory.
The government’s continued lack of respect for human rights and the rule of law has affected people across the island over the last 12 months. Following the heavily criticised pardon of former army officer Sunil Ratnayake in 2020, the President pardoned a second convicted murderer, his long-time ally Duminda Silva, whose conviction for shooting a fellow parliamentarian was confirmed by the Supreme Court as recently as 2018. Other allies of the President have apparently been shielded from the law, with the Attorney General dropping charges against high profile suspects in two emblematic cases. Key corruption cases, including one against the President’s brother and Finance Minister, Basil Rajapaksa, have collapsed.
Prospects for domestic accountability in emblematic cases are almost non-existent, with key investigators transferred, arrested, and silenced, and witnesses facing intimidation.
Following the passage of the 20th Amendment in 2020, which gave the President complete control over senior judicial appointments and appointments to independent institutions, a raft of inappropriate appointments have confirmed the lack of independence of key bodies such as the Human Rights Commission (HRCSL), the Right to Information Commission (RTI), and the Office of Missing Persons (OMP). As a result, the international body responsible for monitoring national human rights institutions has recommended downgrading the HRCSL from A to B status.
The military continues to have a visible and oversized role in civilian governance. The defence budget will account for 15% of government expenditure in 2022, an increase of 14% on 2021. Army Commander Shavendra Silva, who has been leading Sri Lanka’s COVID-19 response, also sits on several ad hoc Presidential Task Forces and has recently been tasked with leading the country’s green agriculture strategy. Meanwhile, the Tamil-majority Northern Province continues to be heavily militarised, with sixteen of twenty army divisions stationed in an area that accounts for only 5% of Sri Lanka’s population.
At the same time, civic space remains heavily restricted. Surveillance and intimidation of civil society organisations, victim-survivor communities, and human rights defenders has increased since 2019, but remains most prevalent in the North and East. Many activists now ‘self-censor’ for their safety. Numerous journalists and critics of the government have been interrogated or jailed by police. The government has used pandemic restrictions as a pretence to ban protests and restrict memorial gatherings. Education activists and students were arrested and detained after participating in protests, while ten Tamils were detained after gathering to remember those who died in the war.
Many of these arbitrary arrests of activists, particularly Tamils in the North and East, have been made using the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), despite repeated government promises it would repeal or reform the PTA. Several hundred Muslims arrested in the wake of the 2019 Easter attacks remain in detention in Sri Lanka’s overcrowded prisons, many held under the PTA. A majority of PTA detainees report being tortured, threatened, and forced to sign false confessions. The proposed introduction of so-called ‘de-radicalisation’ regulations, clearly targeted at Muslims, would allow the state to detain individuals for up to two years without judicial oversight. While the regulations are currently suspended pending a court challenge, the intention behind the regulations is clear and indicate that government promises to reform the PTA in line with international human rights obligations are hollow.
The government has been increasingly bold in asserting its Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist agenda, appointing a controversial and racist Buddhist monk who has a history of inciting violence against Muslims as the head of a Task Force on the One Country, One Law concept – largely seen as an exclusionary and racist project by civil society. Government proposals to ban the burqa, niqab, and face veil, and to close around 1,000 madrassas, contribute to a narrative that the Muslim community is a threat to national security. Another Task Force on archaeology in the Eastern Province has exclusively supported Buddhist claims to contested sites.
As 2022 begins, Sri Lanka faces a looming economic crisis, caused by decades of economic mismanagement, overspending, and corruption, and worsened by the impact of the pandemic. Government policies intended to ease the crisis and safeguard Sri Lanka’s dwindling foreign reserves, such as the ban on chemical fertiliser imports, have backfired, leading to rising prices for basic food items and the risk of a rice shortage in coming months. People are queuing for hours to buy fuel, while medicine shortages are also expected. Anger at government incompetence has been growing for months, with strong criticism levelled at the President and his allies on social media and in the streets. As in the past, the Rajapaksas have played to majoritarian and nationalist sympathies in an attempt to shore up support, raising the spectre of terrorism and scapegoating non-Sinhalese communities. Given the trajectory over the last year, with a widening circle of repression beginning to affect Sinhalese critics and protestors, many fear the government could eventually opt for a violent crackdown on all forms of dissent.
What is certain is that ordinary people in Sri Lanka from all communities are suffering as the economic crisis bites. However, a sustainable solution to the economic crisis cannot ignore or postpone the need to restore human rights and respect for the rule of law to the centre of Sri Lanka’s government. Indeed, as the roots of Sri Lanka’s economic crisis lie in part in the lack of independent institutions able to prevent corruption and hold decision-makers accountable for fraud and mismanagement, Sri Lanka’s economic and political well-being both depend on re-establishing the rule of law and practices of accountability.
Next steps for the international community
In the run up to the Human Rights Council session in March 2022, when Sri Lanka comes under scrutiny once more, the government of Sri Lanka has already launched a charm offensive intended to deflect criticism of its record on human rights and the rule of law. These last-minute conciliatory gestures must not, however, be allowed to obscure the reality of ongoing impunity and government disregard for human rights and the rule of law.
For instance, the government’s recently announced proposals to amend the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), a law which conflicts with Sri Lanka’s international human rights obligations, have proved woefully inadequate. After months of promises of meaningful reform, the proposed changes will have little practical effect, and fail to address the major problems identified by Sri Lankan civil society and UN experts. In the meantime, the government continues to arrest people under the PTA and has sought to extend the law with the appalling “de-radicalisation” regulations which would allow detention for up to two years without judicial oversight or other safeguards. Human rights defenders and Tamil and Muslim communities who have been most affected by the PTA continue to call for its repeal, and for a complete and immediate moratorium on its use in the meantime.
Increasing international scrutiny has won some small yet important reversals from the current government. Following months of sustained international pressure, the government was forced in February 2021 to reverse its forced cremation policy, under which individuals thought to have died of Covid-19 were denied the right to be buried, despite the lack of medical or scientific justification. Since then, burials have been allowed in a single small plot in Eastern Sri Lanka, guarded by armed soldiers. Criticism of the PTA has also led to limited gains, with a small number of convicted prisoners pardoned and a few detainees released on bail with the consent of the Attorney General at the end of 2021. Stronger and more sustained international action is now needed to push back on the restriction of civic space and slow down the authoritarian slide.
However, the international community must use all available bilateral and multilateral mechanisms to support efforts to address the deep-rooted institutional problems at the core of the government’s failure to respect human rights and the rule of law. Sri Lanka’s current trajectory has been enabled by the long-running culture of impunity, with successive governments failing to tackle human rights violations and corruption committed by state actors. Instead, generations of political elites have protected each other. Opportunities to address these issues have been squandered, with governments playing for time with little intention of fulfilling their promises. With substantive consideration of Sri Lanka on the agenda of the Human Rights Council twice during 2022, it is essential that member states not be taken in by false promises. States concerned with a stable and prosperous Sri Lanka must remain engaged with and supportive of the UN process, but should also take their own independent actions, such as halting engagement with abusive security forces and applying targeted sanctions against individuals and organisations credibly accused of international crimes.
The Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice urges member states to:
Support the full implementation of Human Rights Council Resolution 46/1 and continue to raise concerns about Sri Lanka’s current trajectory at the Council.
Denounce the crackdown on civil society and call on the government to immediately halt attempts to intimidate and harass activists, journalists, and victim groups, especially the families of the disappeared and those in detention.
Provide support to activists who continue to speak out, including through diplomatic attendance at relevant court hearings and visits to those held in arbitrary detention, diplomatic efforts on behalf of those at risk, and visible engagement with civil society organisations, activists, and protesters to support their right to freedom of expression.
Implement the recommendations of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on alternative accountability options, including by:
- Imposing targeted sanctions on “credibly alleged perpetrators of grave human rights violations and abuses;” and
- Using the principles of extraterritorial or universal jurisdiction to “investigate and prosecute international crimes committed by all parties in Sri Lanka through judicial proceedings in domestic jurisdictions.”
Immediately review all forms of bilateral engagement with Sri Lanka, including in the spheres of aid, trade, and security cooperation. States should:
- Halt engagement with Sri Lanka’s armed forces and police until there is meaningful security sector reform, including the removal of individuals credibly accused of human rights violations including enforced disappearances, sexual violence, and torture; and
- Ensure that Sri Lankan officials accused of grave human rights violations are deprived of political and material support.