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End of SL Human Rights Commission?

Outgoing Commissioner Radhika Coomaraswamy, the Asian Human Rights Commission and Amnesty International express concern about the expiration of the terms of office of the Sri Lankan Human Rights Commission on April 3, 2006

Human Rights Commission will cease to function from April
Asian Human Rights Commission, March 30, 2006

In a news item published in The Island on March 29, 2006 outgoing chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, Radhika Coomaraswamy, confirmed that the terms of office of the Commission members would expire on April 3, 2006.

Radhika CoomaraswamyLike the other commissions created under the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka will be without commissioners because the Constitutional Council, which has the power to appoint the commission members, is defunct due to a failure to appoint Constitutional Council members. Like the National Police Commission, Public Service Commission, Judicial Service Commission and the Election Commission, the Human Rights Commission will be without independent leadership and will come under the direct control of the government. The very purpose of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka was to create an independent body to monitor the state agencies in their performance of human rights, to investigate violations of rights by using its own mechanisms, to recommend corrective action for individual rights violations, and to make recommendations for the improvement of human rights within the country.

From April 3 there will be no legally empowered body to perform these tasks.

There are a large number of cases before the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka which are pending in lieu of inquiries. These cases relate to torture, disappearances, extrajudicial killings, undocumented migrant workers and other human rights violations. In recent months, retired judges and other persons of seniority have been recruited to ensure that inquiries are conducted with greater competence and independence. Dr Coomaraswamy, in her interview, has stated that the funding bodies have informed the Commission that they will not provide finances for its activities until the new commissioners are appointed. The work of many of the departments of the Commission is dependent on funding from outside sources and if this funding is stopped, there will be serious problems regarding the employment contracts of the employees and consultants of the Commission.

Dr Coomaraswamy is also reported to have warned President Rajapakse "that Sri Lanka will find it increasingly difficult to defend itself before international treaty bodies if the country does not speedily reactivate the Commission once its members leave on April 3."

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) is of the opinion that the real problem facing the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, as well as other commissions that are now without commissioners, is the government’s deliberate attempts to place the commissions under its direct control and to discourage the monitoring of government agencies in any form.

This is a concerted attempt to introduce a degree of authoritarianism such as that incorporated by the 1978 Constitution. The origin of the Human Rights Commission can be traced to the enormous local and international pressure surrounding the gross human rights abuses of the 1980s, when the executive president was created by the 1978 Constitution to prevent independent control. The creation of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka in the early 1990s and the passing of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution in 2001 were attempts to introduce some semblance of accountability into the system. However, these have now been removed. The AHRC reiterates that the result of this action will be to greatly increase the prevalence of corruption, to enhance the capacity of human rights abusers by creating an environment of impunity and to make the lives of ordinary people increasingly difficult. We urge the public to take up this matter, despite any disappointment regarding the performance of the Human Rights Commission, because the removal of the services that the Commission provides, no matter how limited, will only make the situation worse.

In recent years the Human Rights Commission has embarked on ambitious ventures to promote a serious stance on the prevention of torture. In recent months the Commission's senior officers conducted inquiries into torture cases and made recommendations to the Attorney General for the prosecution of officers under the CAT Act (Act No. 22 of 1994). This move resulted in a lot of resentment and Dr Coomaraswamy was quoted last year in REDRESS, an international magazine, as saying "the police don't like us [Human Rights Commission]". It is clear that certain sections of the government do not favour investigations into the policing system either by the Human Rights Commission or the National Police Commission.

It is only strong public intervention aimed at the reactivation of the Constitutional Council that will restore the minimum mechanisms available within the Sri Lankan system, to protect basic rights.


Sri Lanka: Urgent action needed to ensure future of Human Rights Commission

Amnesty International Press Release

AI Index: ASA 37/009/2006 (Public)
News Service No: 086
31 March 2006

With just days to go before the mandate of Sri Lanka's national Human Rights Commission is due to expire, Amnesty International calls for immediate action to preserve the country's key institution responsible for the protection of human rights.

"Given the serious and widespread abuses of human rights that affect Sri Lankans across the country, a fully functional, independent national human rights commission is essential," said Kavita Menon, South Asia researcher at Amnesty International. “Victims of human rights abuses in Sri Lanka have too little recourse to justice and redress as it is.”

The Commission carries out investigations into cases of torture, 'disappearances', political killings and other human rights violations. It also acts to promote and protect human rights. The important work of the Commission is likely to be severely disrupted as the current term of the Commissioners ends on Monday 3 April, with no new members selected to take their place.

Outgoing Commission chairperson Radhika Coomaraswamy, who last month was appointed as the UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, has warned that without urgent action by the government, “there will be a real crisis”.

Appointments to the Human Rights Commission are to be made by the President on the recommendation of the Constitutional Council, which itself lapsed in March 2005 and has not been reconstituted due to political disagreements among parliamentary parties.

“With human rights under grave threat each and every day, the government should ensure the continued functioning of the Human Rights Commission as a priority,” said Kavita Menon. “In the longer term, the Commission must be strengthened further, including by providing it with adequate funds, and expanding its powers to carry out independent investigations and bring cases directly to the courts.”

The Human Rights Commission (HRC) of Sri Lanka was established under the Human Rights Commission Act of 1996. It started its work in 1997 as an independent statutory body to investigate reports of human rights violations. It has ten regional offices and five commissioners.

The HRC set up a Torture Prevention and Monitoring Unit in 2004 and a Database on Disappearances Unit in January 2005. On 5 January 2006 the HRC appointed a team headed by a Special Rapporteur to advise the HRC on the measures to protect the human rights of civilians in the context of the use of emergency powers and of alleged violations of the ceasefire agreement between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

The Constitutional Council is to consist of the Prime Minister, the Speaker of the Parliament, the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, and seven other appointees who are to be “persons of eminence and integrity who have distinguished themselves in public life and who are not members of any political party.” Its prime function is to appoint members of various statutory commissions such as the Human Rights Commission, the National Police Commission, the Election Commission, and the Permanent Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption.

Two writs lodged with the Sri Lankan Court of Appeal on 10 February seeking the reconstitution of the Constitutional Council are still pending.

Amnesty International has compiled a number of recommendations for National Human Rights Institutions which can be found in the document Amnesty International’s recommendations on National Human Rights Institutions at

For more information please call Amnesty International's press office in London, UK, on +44 20 7413 5566
Amnesty International, 1 Easton St., London WC1X 0DW. web: