UN Report on Sri Lanka’s Human Rights record gave a scathing remark on the country’s Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). The operation of the act has halted the reforms in the country only to make countless individuals the victims of gross miscarriages of justice.
The Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka is an island nation in the Indian Ocean. Known until 1972 as Ceylon, the country has a rich cultural and historical background. The island saw the rise and fall of several kingdoms since 200 BCE before it was turned into a British colony in 1802. The country gained independence in 1948.
For 26 years, from 1983 to 2009, Sri Lanka was inundated by civil war while the government was engaged in conflict with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a Tamil separatist terrorist organisation. Mahinda Rajapaksa is the president who saw the end of the civil war. He was thrown from power in the 2015 presidential elections by Sirisena, backed by the United National Party (UNP).
In February 2018, Sri Lanka’s local government elections gained attention. The elections did not see the violent run-up generally characteristic of Sri Lankan polls. However, the results took observers by surprise when the ruling coalition was defeated by Rajapaksa-backed SSLP (Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna). This result was a blow to the ruling government, which was already rife with infighting.
In 2014, the country saw the Aluthgama riots due to conflict between Buddhist and Muslim groups. These clashes were largely fuelled by hard-line Sinhalese Buddhist organisations such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS). In March this year, the Sri Lankan government declared a state of emergency for 10 days due to religious clashes in the district of Kandy.
The Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) of 1978 was made a permanent Sri Lankan law in 1982. It provides the police with broad power to search, arrest and detain suspects. However, this law gave the state authority to carry out grave human right violations against Tamils in Sri Lanka.
A UN report on Sri Lanka's human rights records was published on Monday following a visit by Ben Emmerson QC, the UN rapporteur on countering terrorism. “None of the measures so far adopted to fulfil Sri Lanka’s transitional justice commitments are adequate to ensure real progress,” the report said.
Mr. Emmerson concluded on the basis of his visit that progress towards reconciliation and a fair judicial system had virtually ground to a halt. He said “The Tamil community is stigmatised and feels disenfranchised, while the trust of many minority communities that the government is able to deal with all forms of nationalism equally, is eroding.”
Ben Emmerson said he had heard “distressing testimonies of very brutal and cruel methods of torture, including beatings with sticks, the use of stress positions, asphyxiation using plastic bags drenched in kerosene, pulling out of fingernails, insertion of needles beneath the fingernails, use of various forms of water torture, suspension of individuals for several hours by their thumbs, and mutilation of genitals”.
One of the major factors for the gross human rights violations in the aftermath of the Sri Lankan civil war is due to the PTA. Although the number of arrests under the PTA has reduced, the law is still in use and needs to be repealed as the government had promised in 2015. The definition of terror in the PTA and proposed replacement legislation was too broad, vague and all encompassing, suggesting the PTA in effect allowed for indefinite detention.
Corruption, nepotism, cronyism has soared in Sri Lanka under Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s government. He is overseeing an economy with debt to GDP of 82%. Under his watch, politicians have raised their salaries and personal allowances, while taxing daily necessities and savings of retirees. Organized crime-related murders have risen and there have been record heroin and cocaine detections in the first half.
Despite the promises of the current government to bring prosperity to Sri Lanka , the country heavily depends on remittances of more than 2 million Sri Lankans who are working overseas for its survival. Remittances are the biggest source of their foreign exchange. The regime continues to borrow for vanity projects,especially undertaken by China, while foreign investment is at an all time low and the Sri Lankan rupee weakened heavily against the USD to about Rs.160.
The Sri Lankan government insists it does not condone torture and is committed to ensuring all allegations are investigated, including by the independent Human Rights Commission. It says no evidence of any such allegations have been passed to the commission.
Our assessment is that Sri Lanka can move forward in its path for reform post the civil war only if the government repeals its controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act. We believe that with reference to the UN report, the international community must take further action in Sri Lanka to ensure that individuals are protected from the law. We feel that the Sri Lankan government must establish institutions that will help uplift its vulnerable economy.