Last Updated: Friday, 19 December 2014, 13:25 GMT

Sri Lanka: Address Rights Rollback at Review

Publisher Human Rights Watch
Publication Date 30 October 2012
Cite as Human Rights Watch, Sri Lanka: Address Rights Rollback at Review, 30 October 2012, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/509793ae2.html [accessed 20 December 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.

United Nations members should urge Sri Lanka to act on accountability for abuses at its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) on November 1, 2012, Human Rights Watch said today. Sri Lanka must also be reminded of its international obligations to protect free expression and to stop intimidation of civil society and the media during its UPR at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

The UN scrutinizes the human rights record of each member state every four years, and this review allows governments to examine Sri Lanka's rights record and make recommendations for improvements. Sri Lanka's last UPR, in 2008, occurred during the conflict between the government and the secessionist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which ended in May 2009.

"Governments should use the UPR to question Sri Lanka's deteriorating human rights situation and make recommendations for meaningful change," said Brad Adams, Asia director. "Of particular concern is the government's ongoing failure to hold anyone to account for numerous deadly abuses by both sides during Sri Lanka's long war."

In its 2012 submission for the review, the Sri Lankan government claims that it has taken measures to implement the recommendations made during the 2008 UPR to "investigate all allegations of extra-judicial, summary or arbitrary killings." However, there is no evidence that any such investigations have occurred. The government also said it would strengthen grievance mechanisms and pursue investigations of attacks against media and civil society. Instead, those abuses have continued, with senior officials publicly threatening those who advocate for government accountability. The government has also failed to censure any official implicated in such acts of intimidation.

A detailed Human Rights Watch response to Sri Lanka's 2012 UPR submission is attached.

In its 2008 UPR, the government said it would strengthen the National Human Rights Commission, which had been downgraded by the international body that regulates national human rights institutions. Instead, the government enacted an amendment to the constitution that stripped the commission of its independence and brought it under executive control.

UN member countries should express grave concern about these failures and approach Sri Lankan's 2012 UPR submission with skepticism.

"The government's rosy self-appraisal makes a mockery of the situation in Sri Lanka, as well as its failure to deliver on commitments from 2008," Adams said. "Its default response to criticism of its rights record – that its efforts are 'ongoing' – is neither truthful nor adequate." 

 

Summary of HRW's Main Issues of Concern

1. Restrictions on the media
In its report for the 2012 UPR, the Sri Lankan government reports that it is seeking to strengthen grievance mechanisms and pursue investigations into alleged attacks on media personnel and institutions. But the reality is that the right to free expression has been under increasing assault since Sri Lanka's last UPR in 2008. The editor of a Jaffna-based newspaper was beaten with iron bars by a group of unidentified youths in late July 2011. That same month, a team of Radio Netherlands journalists was harassed by police and later robbed and attacked at gunpoint by men in a white van. In 2009 the editor of the Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickrematunge, was shot and killed in broad daylight not far from a police station. In August 2011, his brother received a threatening phone call from President Rajapaksa in response to articles in the Sunday Leader about high-level corruption.

In July 2012, Frederica Jancz, editor of the Sunday Leader after Wickrematunge's death, reported that Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the president's brother, had threatened her after she questioned him about his allegedly diverting a state airliner abroad to pick up a puppy. Gotabhaya subsequently admitted without apology to having threatened her. In September 2012, Jancz resigned from her job, claiming that the new owner of the newspaper had directed her to stop publishing articles critical of the president and his family.

The enforced disappearance of political satirist Prageeth Ekneligoda in January 2010, two days before presidential polls, remains unresolved. The former attorney general, Mohan Peiris, stated in hearings before the UN Committee Against Torture in Geneva that he had intelligence that Ekneligoda had not disappeared but had gone abroad. When summoned before a court in Colombo in May 2012, Peiris conceded that there was no basis for this claim.

In June 2012, the Criminal Investigation Department raided the offices of the Sri Lanka Mirror, a news website, and Sri Lanka X News, a website of the opposition United National Party. The authorities confiscated computers and documents, and arrested nine people on the grounds that the websites were "propagating false and unethical news on Sri Lanka." They were charged under article 120 of the Penal Code, which imposes up to two years in prison for those who "excite or attempt to excite feelings of disaffection to the president or to the government." The day after their arrest the nine were released on bail.

In November 2011, the government-owned Daily News announced that the government would issue guidelines and a code of conduct for the country's media. The Media Ministry called on all news websites to register. At least five websites critical of the government were subsequently blocked inside the country.

We urge your delegation to express concern at restrictions on the media, attacks against journalists and impunity for crimes committed against them and to recommend that the government of Sri Lanka:

·         Lift unnecessary registration requirements for media and news outlets.

·         Stop blocking websites critical of the government.

·         Investigate the deaths and enforced disappearances of journalists, including the killing of Lasantha Wickremetunga and the disappearance of Prageeth Eklenigoda.


2. Intimidation of Human Rights Defenders
Civil society and human rights groups throughout Sri Lanka continue to report increased surveillance and clampdowns on activities and their free speech rights. After the March 2012 Human Rights Council resolution on Sri Lanka, government-controlled media and government officials publicly named and threatened human rights defenders who had advocated support of the resolution. A cabinet minister threatened to "break the limbs" of the defenders. In response to an international outcry, the government then toned down its rhetoric, but the harassment of civil society groups and human rights defenders, particularly those in the country's north and east, continues. Local activists have expressed deep concerns about their security, but even greater concerns for those they assist. This is especially the case in rural areas where people's lives are more easily monitored. Human rights and humanitarian workers in the north and east report being unable to work without surveillance and have to inform the military and obtain approval for any activity, including digging a well or conducting livelihood training sessions. Human rights defenders have told Human Rights Watch that they are reluctant to document human rights abuses for fear that the documentation will be confiscated by the military and thus compromise the security of those reporting violations, particularly in cases of sexual violence.

We urge your delegation to recommend that the government of Sri Lanka:

·         End all intimidation, harassment, and threats against human rights defenders and other civil society activists.

·         Launch impartial investigations into past and ongoing complaints of intimidation.

·  &bbsp;      State publicly that government officials who act to intimidate human rights defenders and other civil society activists will be subject to disciplinary measures, including dismissal.


3. Anti-terror laws and their application
The Sri Lankan parliament, at the request of President Rajapaksa, allowed emergency regulations, which had been in place for long periods since 1971, to expire on August 31, 2011. Despite the lifting of emergency regulations, existing and new laws and regulations, such as the 1979 Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), permit detention without charge for up to 18 months on vague grounds, thereby leaving an abusive detention regime in place. In practice, those held under the PTA have languished in prisons for well beyond 18 months.

We urge your delegation to recommend that the government of Sri Lanka:

·         Repeal all provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act that violate basic due process rights, including the rights to be promptly charged and to receive a fair trial.

·         Ensure that all legislation related to counter-terrorism is in conformity with international human rights law and is consistent with the recommendations of the UN special rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights.


4. Torture
The Sri Lankan military and police have long routinely used torture and other ill-treatment against those suspected of criminal activities or alleged members of the LTTE. The UN special rapporteur on torture has reported that torture has been systematically used by the security forces against all communities, including majority Sinhalese. Since the end of the conflict, people deemed to be linked to the LTTE, including ethnic Tamils who have been politically active abroad, have been subjected to torture and other ill-treatment. Investigations by Human Rights Watch have found that some rejected Tamil asylum seekers from the United Kingdom and other countries have been subjected to arbitrary arrest and torture or other ill-treatment upon their return to Sri Lanka, allegations corroborated by medical documentation.

We urge your delegation to recommend that the government of Sri Lanka:

·         Allow the ICRC and other independent bodies to freely monitor places of detention.

·         To stop the practice of having secret places of detention.

·         To address all allegations of torture and to ensure accountability for perpetrators and redress for victims.

 

5. Enforced Disappearances

Impunity prevails in relation to the tens of thousands of enforced disappearances that took place in Sri Lanka from the inception of the war in 1983 until the end. The government has not made public the findings of commissions investigating the enforced disappearances or information on those "disappeared." Absent this information, thousands of families have never been able to ascertain the fate of their loved ones. In addition to longstanding, unresolved cases of disappearances, the government of Sri Lanka has not responded to allegations of enforced disappearances in the last stages of the conflict. As thousands of civilians tried to flee the fighting, government forces registered and screened them, separating suspected LTTE members from the others. While family members have been able to locate some of the detainees in prisons or in so-called rehabilitation centers, some are still missing. In spite of public assurances, the government has not published a comprehensive list of detainees and places of detention.

Reports of abductions of political activists and others by unidentified assailants driving "white vans" have continued. In December 2011, two human rights activists, Lalith Kumar Weeraraj and Kugan Muruganathan, were abducted while en route to a planned protest rally in Jaffna and remain missing. Weeraraj's father stated that his son had received anonymous phone calls prior to the protest telling him that he would be eliminated if he continued his political involvement.

Government commissions of inquiry have looked into disappearances with no results. The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) expressed alarm at the large number of disappearances reported to it and recommended that the government investigate these reports, but there has been no indication of serious inquiries or resulting action.

We urge your delegation to recommend that the government of Sri Lanka:

·         Create an independent commission to account for all disappeared persons and to investigate and prosecute cases of enforced disappearances.

·         Publish all names of security detainees and places of detention.

·         Sign and ratify the International Convention against Enforced Disappearance and enact national legislation that gives force to its provisions.


6. Accountability for war crimes and other human rights violations
The government of Sri Lanka summarily rejected the findings of the detailed report of the UN Secretary General's Panel of Experts, completed in March 2011. The Panel found credible allegations that as many as 40,000 civilians died during the final weeks of the conflict with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), that government forces conducted widespread shelling of No Fire Zones and systematically shelled hospitals, and that the government systematically denied humanitarian assistance to civilians trapped in conflict areas. The Panel also found credible allegations that the LTTE killed civilians attempting to flee the conflict zone, and intentionally used civilians as human buffers. The government has refused to investigate the report's allegations.

The report of the government's LLRC, published in December 2011, largely absolved the military for its conduct in the bloody final months of the war with the LTTE, which ended in May 2009. Although the LLRC found that government shelling resulted in civilian casualties, an allegation that the government had been strenuously denying, it did not even consider the obvious conclusion that this shelling and other repeated attacks on civilian areas and hospitals were indiscriminate attacks prohibited by the laws of war. The commission's findings stand in stark contrast to those of the UN Panel of Experts, the UN special envoy on extrajudicial executions, and nongovernmental organizations, including Human Rights Watch.

In its report for the UPR review of 2012, the government misrepresents its military engagement in the last months of war as a humanitarian rescue operation. In the face of voluminous evidence of abuses, it continues to deny all such allegations. The government makes much of the establishment of a military court of inquiry into allegations of civilian casualties, which was set up in response to a recommendation in the LLRC report. However, Human Rights Watch is not aware of any actions undertaken by the military courts of inquiry. The government's action plan simply states that these inquiries will be completed within the next two years, making it appear to be an attempt at window dressing and further stalling.

In its 2012 UPR report the government states that its efforts to implement the  recommendation made to it in 2008 to "Investigate and prosecute all allegations of extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary killings and bring perpetrators to justice in accordance with international standards" are ongoing. However, there is no evidence that the government has made any serious effort to implement this commitment in any of the key human rights cases recorded in the last decade.

The government's 2012 UPR report states that the cases relating to the killings of 17 Action Contre la Faim (ACF) aid workers in Muttur on August 4, 2006, and 5 students in Trincomalee on January 2, 2006 "were referred to the Attorney General to ascertain whether a prima facie case exists to launch prosecutions." Any proposed government investigations into these cases are long overdue.

The killings of the ACF aid workers followed a battle between Sri Lankan government forces and the LTTE for control of Mutur. The bodies of 15 of the aid workers, both men and women, were discovered on August 6 lying face down in their office compound with bullet wounds to the head and neck fired at point - blank range. Two bodies of ACF workers who apparently had tried to escape were found in a vehicle nearby. The group had been providing assistance for survivors of the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. In July 2009 the Presidential Commission of Inquiry, created in November 2006 to investigate 16 major cases of human rights abuse, exonerated the army and navy in the ACF killings but failed to identify the perpetrators. The commission made it difficult for witnesses to testify and made no effort to remedy a botched police investigation. Its full report to President Rajapaksa has never been published.

In the case of the five students killed in Trincomalee, the government has not made any effort to implement the commitment expressed in its 2012 UPR report to investigate and prosecute allegations of violations. The findings of Presidential Commission of Inquiry in this case have not been made public.

Investigations by independent and impartial Sri Lankan human rights groups provide strong evidence of government involvement in these cases. The government's assertion six years after the killings that its attorney general should ascertain whether a prima facie case exists to justify prosecutions is not a serious response and shows a callous indifference to the suffering of the families of the aid workers and the students.

Given Sri Lanka's long history of commissions that have not delivered on accountability and the government's failure to investigate and prosecute allegations of human rights violations and war crimes, we urge your delegation to recommend that the government of Sri Lanka:

·         Support the establishment of an independent international mechanism, as recommended by the Secretary - General's Panel of Experts, to investigate allegations of laws of war and human rights violations committed by both sides during the conflict with the LTTE.

·         Make public the findings of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry and other past government commissions into allegations of serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law committed during the course of the conflict.


7. Internally Displaced Persons
In September, the Sri Lankan government announced that it was closing Menik Farm, which at its height had a population of nearly 300,000 Tamils displaced by the armed conflict. While most of these internally displaced persons (IDPs) have been resettled, many have still not been resettled back to their places of origin or into permanent accommodation. According to humanitarian agencies an unknown number of IDPs, including at least 90,000 who fled their homes before the end of the conflict, continue to live with host families or are in temporary accommodation.

At least 300 persons from among the last group to be resettled in September 2012 were not allowed to return to their homes in Mullaitivu for purported security reasons. According to UNHCR, they were relocated to state - owned land, but were not told if they would receive compensation if their land was not returned.

We urge your delegation to recommend that the government of Sri Lanka:

·         Allow all internally displaced persons to return to their places of origin where possible and, where the government retains possession of the land, to make the reasons public and provide adequate compensation for resettlement elsewhere.


8. National Human Rights Commission
In 2008, the Sri Lankan government accepted recommendations to strengthen and ensure the independence of its National Human Rights Commission. Since then, it has stripped the commission of its authority and independence. The 18th amendment to the Constitution, passed in September 2010, brings the commission under presidential control and empowers the president to appoint its members. Commission officers have expressed frustration to Human Rights Watch over their inability to freely and without interference carry out their functions.

We urge your delegation to recommend that the government of Sri Lanka:

·         Restore the independence of the National Human Rights Commission by removing it from presidential control and creating an independent mechanism to make appointments.


9. Special procedures
In its 2012 UPR report the Sri Lankan government states that it works closely with the UN Special Procedures. Yet the government has failed to respond to the requests for visits by six special procedures. For instance, the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances has made five requests (2006, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2011), all of which remain pending.

We urge your delegation to recommend that the government of Sri Lanka:

·         Respond favorably to the requests of all special procedures that wish to visit the country, including the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, Special Rapporteur on freedom of association and assembly and the Independent Expert on minority issues.

Copyright notice: © Copyright, Human Rights Watch

Search Refworld

Countries