Last Updated: Friday, 25 July 2014, 12:52 GMT

Freedom in the World 2003 - Sri Lanka

Publisher Freedom House
Publication Date 19 December 2002
Cite as Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2003 - Sri Lanka, 19 December 2002, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/473c54572e.html [accessed 25 July 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Polity: Presidential-parliamentary democracy
Population: 18,900,000
GNI/Capita: $3,530
Life Expectancy: 72
Religious Groups: Buddhist (70 percent), Hindu (15 percent), Christian (8 percent), Muslim (7 percent)
Ethnic Groups: Sinhalese (74 percent), Tamil (18 percent), other (8 percent)
Capital: Colombo

Political Rights Score: 3
Civil Liberties Score: 4
Status: Partly Free


Overview

After winning parliamentary elections held in December 2001 on a pro-peace platform, the United National Front coalition government, led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe, negotiated a ceasefire with the Tamil Tiger separatist rebels in February 2002. Talks held in September were judged a success when the Tigers gave up their demand for a separate state, and the two sides continued to negotiate the outlines of a political settlement while addressing issues of disarmament, reconstruction, and the rehabilitation of displaced civilians. The almost complete cessation of armed conflict led to improvements in the human rights climate in the north and east of the country during the year.

Since independence from Britain in 1948, political power in this island nation has alternated between the conservative United National Party (UNP) and the leftist Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). While the country has made impressive gains in literacy, basic health care, and other social needs, its economic development has been stunted and its social fabric tested by a long-standing civil war that has killed an estimated 64,000 people. The conflict initially pitted several Tamil guerrilla groups against the government, which is dominated by the Sinhalese majority. The war, although triggered by anti-Tamil riots in 1983 that claimed hundreds of lives, came in the context of long-standing Tamil claims of discrimination in education and employment opportunities. By 1986, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, or Tamil Tigers), which called for an independent Tamil homeland in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, had eliminated most rival Tamil guerrilla groups and was in control of much of the northern Jaffna Peninsula. At the same time, the government was also fighting an insurgency in the south by the leftist People's Liberation Front (JVP). The JVP insurgency, and the brutal methods used by the army to quell it in 1990, killed 60,000 people. As the civil war continued, a LTTE suicide bomber assassinated President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993.

In 1994, Chandrika Kumaratunga ended nearly two decades of UNP rule by leading an SLFP-dominated coalition to victory in parliamentary elections and then winning the presidential election. Early in her term, Kumaratunga tried to negotiate a peace agreement with the LTTE. Following a renewal of hostilities by the LTTE, she pursued a military solution while attempting to devolve power to eight semiautonomous regional councils, including one covering the contested north and east, where Tamils would be the majority. Kumaratunga won early presidential elections in 1999, but her coalition failed to win a majority in parliamentary elections held in October 2000. After her government faced a series of no-confidence motions throughout 2001, she dissolved parliament and scheduled snap elections for December. In polling marred by violence and intimidation, the UNP and its allies won 114 out of a possible 225 seats. UNP leader Ranil Wickremasinghe became prime minister, although Kumaratunga remains in office as president. In March, the ruling coalition consolidated its win with a landslide victory in local elections.

In response to a cease-fire offer by the LTTE in December 2001, the new government declared a truce with the rebels, lifted an economic embargo imposed on rebel-held territory, and restarted Norwegian-brokered peace talks. A permanent bilateral ceasefire accord with provisions for international monitoring was signed in February 2002. Shortly before the first round of formal peace talks took place in Thailand in September, the government lifted its ban on the LTTE. In late September, army and rebel representatives met to exchange prisoners of war in another sign of growing confidence in the peace process. Further progress on issues of rehabilitation and military de-escalation was made at negotiations held in October, and by December, the government and Tigers had agreed to share political power in a federal system.

However, progress on ending the civil war has been constrained by growing tensions and political bickering between the president and the UNP-led government. President Kumaratunga made repeated statements throughout the year undermining the peace process, and her power to arbitrarily dismiss parliament casts doubt over the present government's ability to negotiate with the Tigers. In October, the Supreme Court rejected a cabinet proposal that would have stripped the president of her power to dissolve parliament, determining that such legislation would require a two-thirds majority in parliament as well as a national referendum in order to become law.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Sri Lankans can change their government through elections based on universal adult suffrage. The 1978 constitution vested strong executive powers in a president who is directly elected for a six-year term and can dissolve parliament. The 225-member parliament is also directly elected for a 6-year term, through a mix of single-seat, simple-plurality districts and proportional representation. While elections are generally free, they are marred by irregularities, violence, and intimidation. The independent Center for Monitoring Election Violence recorded 2,734 incidents of election-related violence during the December 2001 parliamentary election campaign, including 47 murders and more than 1,500 assaults, threats, and other abuses.

Although the constitution provides for freedom of expression, the government has restricted this right in practice, particularly with regard to coverage of the civil war. However, authorities lifted censorship of military-related news in June 2001. The LTTE tightly restricts the media in areas under its control, according to the U.S. State Department's human rights report. In June, an act of parliament removed criminal defamation legislation from the statute books. The government controls the largest newspaper chain, two major television stations, and a radio station; and political coverage in the state-owned media favors the ruling party. While private media criticize governmental policies, journalists practice some self-censorship. Reporters, particularly those who cover human rights issues or police misconduct, continued to face harassment and threats from the police, security forces, government supporters, and the LTTE. In February, a court sentenced two air force officers to prison terms for an attack on a journalist that occurred four years ago. However, the murder of a BBC reporter in October 2000 by unidentified gunmen remains unsolved.

Religious freedom is respected, although the constitution gives special status to Buddhism and there is some discrimination and occasional violence against religious minorities. The LTTE discriminates against Muslims and has attacked Buddhist sites in the past. The U.S. State Department's 2002 Report on International Religious Freedom noted that as part of the ceasefire accord, government security forces had begun the process of vacating Hindu religious properties in the north and east of the country.

Freedom of assembly is generally respected, although both main political parties occasionally disrupt each other's rallies and political events. In July 2001, after students at Jaffna University boycotted classes to protest the arrest of one of their leaders, authorities closed the entire university in a bid to end protests against the security forces. Except in conflict-affected areas, human rights and social welfare nongovernmental organizations generally operate freely.

Trade unions are independent and engage in collective bargaining. Except for civil servants, most workers can hold strikes. However, under the 1989 Essential Services Act, the president can declare a strike in any industry illegal. President Chandrika Kumaratunga has used the act to end several strikes. Employers on tea plantations routinely violate the rights of the mainly Tamil workforce.

While the judiciary is independent, the rule of law is weak. This has allowed security forces to commit abuses with near impunity, often facilitated by sweeping security laws such as the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Successive governments kept all or parts of Sri Lanka under a near continuous state of emergency from 1979 to July 2001. Regulations allowed authorities to hold suspects in preventive detention for up to one year without charge, with a limited right to judicial review.

Human rights groups allege that the security laws contain inadequate safeguards for detainees and facilitate long-standing practices of torture and "disappearances." Despite the cessation of hostilities, some of these regulations remain in place and hundreds of detainees continue to be held without trial, according to a report issued by Human Rights Watch. In November, Amnesty International reiterated its concern about torture "reported both in the context of the armed conflict and in routine police investigations," while a report issued in October by the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission alleged that police use of torture was widespread and threatened the rule of law. While there has been little progress in reducing acts of torture, there has been a decline in the number of reported disappearances.

Soldiers, police, and state-organized civilian militias have also committed extrajudicial executions and rapes of LTTE supporters held in custody, as well as of Tamil civilians. A report issued by Amnesty International in January noted a rise in allegations of custodial rape in 2001. However, Amnesty International welcomed a landmark decision by the Supreme Court that granted monetary compensation to a Tamil woman who had been raped by members of the police and security forces in Colombo in June 2001. Although travel restrictions on civilians in the north and east have been lifted as a result of the ceasefire, Tamils continue to face some harassment and other abuses by soldiers and police.

The LTTE directly controls some territory in the northern Vanni jungle and maintains de facto control over many areas in the Eastern Province. The Tigers run a parallel government in the areas under their control, which include their own police and judiciary. The rebels continued to be responsible for summary executions of civilians, disappearances, arbitrary abductions and detentions, torture and the forcible conscription of children. Press reports indicated that the LTTE continued to recruit teenage children in 2002 despite promises to end the practice, while a report issued by the University Teachers for Human Rights group in July alleged that the cease-fire had allowed the Tigers to forcibly conscript children from previously inaccessible government-controlled areas. However, shortly before the first round of peace talks in September, the Tigers released 85 child recruits, according to UNICEF. The Tigers raise money through extortion, kidnapping, theft, and the seizure of Muslim homes, land, and businesses, and have used threats and attacks to close schools, courts, and government agencies in their self-styled Tamil homeland.

The cease-fire negotiated in February held throughout 2002, despite some incidents of violence and complaints of violations on both sides. In July, the 44-member Norwegian-led Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission (SLMM) released information regarding complaints of ceasefire violations received between February and June. Of a total of 380 complaints, 270 were made against the Tigers while 110 were against the government; the Tigers were most frequently accused of kidnapping, abduction, and extortion, while government forces were accused of harassment, occupation of civilian land, and restrictions on movement.

Sporadic violence between the three major ethnic groups remains a concern. Clashes between Hindu and Muslim Tamils that spread across eastern Sri Lanka in June caused 11 deaths and injured more than 50 people. However, in an effort to address continuing tensions between the LTTE and the Muslims, an accord was signed in February between the Tigers and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress party that explicitly recognized the right of the roughly 65,000 internally displaced Muslim Tamils to return to the north as part of the peace process. In October, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported that more than 213,000 people displaced by the civil war (out of a total of roughly 800,000) had returned to their homes in the north and the east.

Women are underrepresented in politics and the civil service. Female employees in the private sector face some sexual harassment as well as discrimination in salary and promotion opportunities. Rape and domestic violence against women remain serious problems, and authorities weakly enforce existing laws.

Trend Arrow

Sri Lanka received an upward trend arrow due to a lasting bilateral cease-fire and continuing peace talks between the government and the Tamil Tiger guerrillas.

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