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NewsUPR Sri Lanka 2012: Progress limited; Impunity sustained; Rule of Law chellenge- SL NGOsd

UPR Sri Lanka 2012: Progress limited; Impunity sustained; Rule of Law chellenge- SL NGOsd

by
Police with unconventional wepones!!

” During the period under review Sri Lanka has been through dramatic changes, most notably the end of the twenty-year old civil war in May 2009. Over this period the Government of Sri Lanka took a number of steps to address the ethnic conflict, governance and development problems in the country, including the establishment of the Lessons Learnt Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) and National Human Rights Action Plan (NHRAP). However, on key issues there has been limited progress and the continuation of human rights violations and other developments which challenge the rule of law and sustain the culture of impunity, highlight the need for serious efforts to ensure a sustainable transition from post war to post conflict and the strengthening of good governance in Sri Lanka.

This is a joint submission by civil society actors in Sri Lanka including 38 civil society organizations and 27 civil society activists. For the UPR in 2008, a civil society coalition involving many of these same groups made a joint submission.   

During the period under review Sri Lanka has been through dramatic changes, most notably the end of the twenty-year old civil war in May 2009. Over this period the Government of Sri Lanka took a number of steps to address the ethnic conflict, governance and development problems in the country, including the establishment of the Lessons Learnt Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) and National Human Rights Action Plan (NHRAP). However, on key issues there has been limited progress and the continuation of human rights violations and other developments which challenge the rule of law and sustain the culture of impunity, highlight the need for serious efforts to ensure a sustainable transition from post war to post conflict and the strengthening of good governance in Sri Lanka.

1) Rule of Law: In parallel to the improvement of the overall security situation, when compared to the period of the war, there have been serious challenges to the rule of law, including increased centralisation and politicisation of key state institutions. While the Government provided a commitment to take steps to ensure the independence of key oversight mechanisms, including the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), as per the Seventeenth Amendment, the Government introduced the Eighteenth Amendment in 2010 which grants greater powers to the Executive including of appointment to these oversight mechanisms and State institutions such as the judiciary and the Attorney Generals Department. The Judiciary faces challenges including the disregard of judicial orders and threats to judicial officers, including by a Government Minister in August 2012. The effectiveness and independence of the NHRC continues to be a problem. 

With the end of the war, there were expectations that the state of emergency and related draconian security laws would be withdrawn. While the Emergency Regulations (ER) were allowed to lapse the Government introduced some of the provision from the ER into the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which remains active and has less safeguards than the ER. There continue to be problems in challenging new legislation given limitations in the existing legislative process, as it lacks transparency and adequate safeguards, while the Government chooses to classify prospective legislation as an ‘Urgent Bill’ making it more difficult to challenge.   

2) Human Rights Policy and Investigations: A key commitment made by the Government to respond to the human rights crisis in Sri Lanka was the establishment of a National Human Rights Action Plan (NHRAP) which it assured would commence in 2009. In December 2011, the Government officially released the NHRAP. The plan proposes key actions to address critical issues and puts forward timelines for implementation but there clear concerns including the omission of issues, highlighting a key lacuna in the plan in dealing with problems on the ground. The recommendation to include sexual orientation and identity within the scope of Article 12 of the Constitution was taken out of the final draft of the plan, while on the subject of detention the plan does suggest a series of measures to provide safeguards for detainees, however the fundamental question of putting forward a list of all detention centres has not been undertaken and families of the missing still find it extremely difficult to obtain a formal assurance from the State that missing individuals are not in state custody.

Other key promised legislation such as a Victim and Witness Protection Bill and the Bill of Rights for IDPs as committed to by the Government in 2008 have yet to be passed through Parliament. The lack of progress on these bills, especially given the Government’s majority in parliament raises questions of political will. The incumbent Government appointed a series of commissions to examine serious human rights violations, including the Commission of Inquiry 2006, but the reports have not been made public and there has been no substantive follow-up on the findings of these reports. That in 2012 the Government is reiterating the need to implement  recommendations of past commissions (such as the Presidential Commission of Inquiry established by the incumbent Government in 2006), including investigations and prosecutions in key cases such as the killing of the 17 ACF workers in August 2006 highlights the lack of progress made in the last few years.

3) War, Accountability and Reconciliation: During the war, there were a series of egregious human rights and international humanitarian law violations committed against the civilian population by the Government, the LTTE and other armed groups. These violations include attacks on civilian targets in the war zone, the use of human shields, extra-judicial killings of civilians, forcible recruitment of adults and children and enforced disappearances. Despite the Government’s assurances to the UN Secretary General in May 2009 that the issue of accountability will be addressed, there has been no independent initiative, indictment or prosecution in the three and a half years since the end of the war. It needs to be noted that the lack of accountability has been a critical problem for Sri Lanka for over three decades of large-scale violence in the north and south of the country.

The Government appointed the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) in May 2010 which submitted its final report in December 2011. The Report puts forward a series of recommendations to address key human rights and governance issues in post-war Sri Lanka but falls short on key issues including accountability. There are serious concerns regarding the Government’s will in moving forward on the LLRC process, but in the wake of the Resolution on Sri Lanka at the 19th Session of the UNHRC the Government set up a Task Force which has put forward an Action Plan for implementing some of the LLRC’s Final Report. While the plan suggests the Government is taking steps to implement at least a portion of the LLRC, there are concerns relating to the exclusion of recommendations and the proposed actions. The Government has initiated some reconciliation initiatives but it has yet to move forward on addressing critical problems, including in response to attacks on religious places such as the attack on a Mosque in Dambulla in April 2012. The Government needs to fully implement the LLRC while going beyond to it to address fundamental problems relating to reconciliation and peace.     

4) Humanitarian Issues: Sri Lanka’s humanitarian crisis deepened in the period 2008-9 with the intensification of the war, as over 280,000 persons were forced into displacement and found themselves caught in war zone in the North and suffered a series of human rights violations, including human rights abuses and severe shortages of basic supplies. In terms of numbers there has been significant progress in reducing displacement through resettlement, including IDPs from the closed camps and the over 200,000 ‘old IDPs,’ there are concerns that returnees face serious socio-economic vulnerability. In addition, some displaced are unable to return and reclim their properties due to military occupation such as in Pallali in Jaffna and Sampur in Trincomalee. There need to be steps taken to ensure equitable assistance for all IDPs and legal protection for IDP as committed by the Government, in addition to an assessment to identify remaining IDPs. The space for humanitarian work is constrained by issues including the safety of local workers and approval for working in the North on issues relating to protection and psycho-social needs.  

5) Post-war human rights: The last four years has seen a dramatic reduction in the scale of human rights violations but given that the war has ended and the state has extended its writ over the entirety of the country, it is noted that the continuation of violations such as abductions, especially from Jaffna and Vavuniya and of custodial deaths numbering at least 49 between 2009 and 2011, is an issue of serious concern. While there are a variety of factors that contribute to the continuation of abuses, the persistence of the culture of impunity that is strengthened by the lack of investigations and prosecutions has a significant role to play. The practice of torture, including while in custody, continues to be problem and there are systemic issues that need to be addressed in order to address this problem, especially given the intimidation of victims and even lawyers. A high incidence of violence against women has been reported, including the war-affected areas and the south, including sexual violence. Domestic violence continues to be a key problem, yet, the use of the Prevention of Domestic Violence continues to be limited and the lack of follow-up by enforcement authorities makes it increasingly difficult for the victims.    

6) Human Rights Defenders and Freedom of Expression, Assembly and Association: Human rights defenders (HRDs) have faced acts of violence including killings and disappearances in the period under review and also been detained. In addition, HRDs and those involved in political dissent have faced threats, including by Government politicians, and a denigration of their work by the media, including the State media. Groups based in the North and East are particularly vulnerable to harassment by the authorities and find it difficult to obtain permission to carry out critical work relating to protection and empowerment. NGOs face a challenging atmosphere to work in and the Ministry of Defence has as a part of its expansion into a variety of activities is now responsible for supervising the NGO Secretariat and new legislation to control NGOs has been proposed.

Sri Lanka during war was listed as one of the most dangerous places for media workers as a result of killing, abductions and attacks on journalists and media actors. While some media workers who fled into exile have since returned and new media sources have been launched in the post-war period, there have been individual acts of violence, including one disappearance and assaults, and of intimidation that have resulted in fear and self-censorship. The lack of progress in the investigation of key cases coupled with restrictions on web-based media including extra-legal blocking of online news website and the arrests of online journalists has meant that the fears persist. Although the freedom to protest is practiced, a number of peaceful protests by opposition political parties and human rights groups were disrupted or prevented through both legal means and the use of force. Efforts to hold religious services for those killed or missing in the war continues to be difficult in the North, with organizers being threatened. Political parties, including the Frontline Socialist Party have also faced violence, including 2 cases of disappearance and 2 cases of abductions of activists. 

6)   Political Solution to the ethnic conflict: On the issue of a political solution the Government has yet to present its official position, let alone effectively implement the power sharing arrangement in accordance with the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution,  as per its Commitment at the last UPR.

7) Social-Economic Rights – Sri Lanka continues to make significant improvements in terms of development and as its official statistics suggest it will most likely meet the Millenium Development Goals as per its voluntary commitment in 2008. However, there are issues with the statistics, including the exclusion of the North and East from key socio-economic indicators. Specific sectors of Sri Lankan society face critical challenges to enjoying their full political, economic and social rights, including those living in the war-affected regions and also the

Up-Country Tamil community especially those living in the estate sector who lack access to essential services. Although migrant labour provide up to one third of Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange, the protection for these workers is lacking. On language rights the Government has presented a variety of measures to address the problem, including through implementing the official languages policy as per its voluntary commitment in 2008 however there continue to be a serious shortage of Tamil speakers in state-institutions, impacting areas including education and law-enforcement among others.

In conclusion, Sri Lanka is currently faced with a historic opportunity to address fundamental challenges and the UPR process offers an opportunity to review progress and remaining gaps in order to move forward. While there are a number of legal reforms and new policy frameworks that need to be introduced, the issue of implementation by the Government is fundamental to ensuring that the underlying systemic problems and the culture of impunity are addressed. While there are challenges relating to resources and capacity, it is paramount that the Government commits itself to bringing about change through implementation and fostering a culture of public dialogue.

31 Aug 2012
Read by Mirak Raheem of CPA at the informal UPR breifing held in Geneva organised by UPR INFO.

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