The Associated Press (AP) has carried a news story that gives a graphic account of torture practices in Sri Lanka that allegedly continue to this day. This story which has been carried by newspapers and media outlets throughout the world, including the New York Times, gives accounts of some 50 men who claim they were tortured and raped on multiple occasions and are seeking asylum in foreign countries. What is particularly disturbing about the current allegations is that the torture is alleged to have occurred during the period of the present government which was voted into power on a platform of good governance and respect for human rights. Earlier this year, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and counter terrorism, Ben Emmerson said that Sri Lanka’s tolerance of torture, was a “stain on the country’s international reputation”.
The government statement in response to the story published in the New York Times acknowledges the gravity of the allegations and the damaging impact of the story on the international community’s confidence in the Sri Lankan democratic and good governance process. Foreign Secretary Prasad Kariyawasam said that in 2017 disciplinary action had been taken against 33 members of the police for assault and torture, while one officer was dismissed. Disciplinary matter pertaining to 100 police officers he said were currently pending. He added that the government “strongly condemns any act of torture, and will ensure that allegations of torture committed in the country will be investigated and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”
The National Peace Council welcomes the government’s commitment to investigate the highlighted incidents of torture and calls on it to appoint a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the issue of torture, specifically with regard to the AP report, but also with a wider mandate. It is necessary to know the truth before a solution can be designed. It is not only Tamils and LTTE suspects who have been victims of torture. The most recent report of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka shows that most cases of torture that have been reported are outside of the North and East of the country and affect members of all communities. The practice of torture is dehumanising to both the victim and the perpetrator and generates a culture of fear and repression. Eradicating the culture of tolerance and impunity for torture is the responsibility of the government and civil society as a whole. We urge members of religious and civil society organisations to advocate and work against the practice of torture in any form and for any reason.
Sri Lanka’s human rights record including torture and other human rights abuses will face international scrutiny again when UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review meets on Sri Lanka. This will be a challenging time for the government delegation led by the Deputy Foreign Minister Dr Harsha de Silva as over a hundred countries have asked for time to ask questions. Denying the allegations as done by previous delegations, or attempting to gloss over them, will not be the way to go forward. The government needs to show in concrete and convincing terms how Sri Lanka can improve its human rights commitment in order not to further stain the country’s international reputation.