The human rights picture in Sri Lanka in 2011 was mixed. The Sri Lankan government continued to focus on post-conflict reconstruction, including the resettlement of civilians displaced during the 30-year civil war, and has made progress reintegrating former Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) fighters back into society.
The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission’s (LLRC) report, published on 16 December, looked into the conflict between the Sri Lankan government and LTTE from 2002 to 2009. It made wide-ranging recommendations including on ongoing human rights issues, which the Sri Lankan government committed to consider. In December, the Sri Lankan Cabinet approved the National Action Plan for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights (NHRAP). Human rights nonetheless remained a serious concern. At year end, significant progress was still needed to address the institutional weaknesses that allow for frequent human rights violations. Terrorist suspects continued to be held without charge for long periods. There were restrictions on freedom of expression, political violence, reports of torture in custody, further cases of disappearances and almost no progress in investigating past disappearances. No concrete progress was made in holding accountable those alleged to be responsible for violations of international human rights and humanitarian law during the final stages of the war.
In 2011, the UK focused on helping Sri Lanka overcome the human rights challenges resulting from the 30-year conflict. The UK sees accountability for alleged war crimes, respect for human rights and a political settlement as being essential elements in post-conflict reconciliation. In February, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State Alistair Burt visited Colombo and Jaffna, and in July the then Defence Secretary, Dr Liam Fox, visited. They emphasised the importance of respect for human rights and international humanitarian law.
The UK supports progress on human rights in Sri Lanka in a number of ways. Our High Commission actively monitors human rights around the country, meeting with a variety of organisations and travelling around Sri Lanka to understand better the situation on the ground. We lobby on particular human rights issues and on individual cases where we believe the Sri Lankan government should be focusing its attention. We fund projects and programmes either specifically designed to improve the human rights situation, or which include a human rights element.
A key focus in 2012 will be follow-up to the LLRC report and National Human Rights Action Plan. The UK will encourage the Sri Lankan government to implement recommendations, and address outstanding questions regarding accountability for alleged war crimes. In September 2012, we will contribute to Sri Lanka’s Universal Periodic Review under the UN human rights system in Geneva.
In March, July and October, staggered local elections were held in most parts of the country. The run-up to the polls was marked by violence and violations of election law, with at least six people killed and a number of people injured in disputes between political factions. In October, a pre-election dispute between two politicians from the ruling party resulted in a shoot-out and several deaths. At all stages of the elections, independent monitors noted unfair campaigning and the misuse of state resources by the government. This included the use of intimidation and reports that the police were not accepting complaints from opposition parties.
Our High Commissioner, along with other EU heads of mission in Colombo, called on all political parties to support a peaceful environment to allow people to choose their political leadership in a free, fair and unbiased manner. Our High Commission also supported election monitoring and regularly raised concerns with the government.
Freedom of expression and assembly
There were no reported killings or disappearances of journalists in 2011. However, Sri Lanka dropped five places in the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index to 163 (out of 179). Covert threats, physical attacks and intimidation were common. In addition, the government faced accusations that it curtailed the right to free expression and assembly by aggressively policing peaceful protests, leading to deaths and injuries. In July, a Jaffna-based newspaper journalist fled the country following a near fatal attack.
The Ministry of Information and Media took a greater role in regulating the media, calling on all news websites to register with the government. Media with dissenting views continued to face significant obstacles. A number of news websites were blocked, including the Lanka E-news website, which also suffered an arson attack on its office in January and the arrest of its new editor and a journalist in April. Our High Commission attended court hearings of the individuals concerned, which had not concluded by the end of 2011. EU heads of missions raised concerns over the attacks and called on the Sri Lankan authorities to ensure that the rights to free media were respected. One of the websites, having agreed to certain restrictions, was unblocked in December.
The majority of attacks against journalists, including the 2009 January murder of the editor of the Sunday Leader, remained unresolved. There was no conclusive investigation into the 2010 disappearance of cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda. At a UN Convention against Torture hearing the Sri Lankan government said it was “reasonably certain” Mr Ekneligoda had sought asylum abroad. His wife brought a case to admit the statement in court. The EU and our High Commission closely followed the Ekneligoda case, attending court hearings.
Human rights defenders
The environment for human rights defenders in Sri Lanka remained difficult throughout 2011. On 10 December, a group of 42 human rights defenders and political activists from the south were detained by police in Jaffna and prevented from attending a protest to mark Human Rights Day. Police attempted to disperse those gathered at the main protest venue. On 9 December, Lalith Kumar Weeraraj and Kugan Muruganandan disappeared while visiting Jaffna.
The remains of the body of activist Pattani Razeek, who disappeared in January 2010, were recovered, but the criminal investigation remained inconclusive. No progress was made on investigations into the 2008 grenade attack on the home of a local human rights lawyer who was also the former executive director of Transparency International in Sri Lanka or the 2009 post-conflict disappearances of Shankarapillai Shantha Kumar and Stephen Sunthararaj, members of civil society organisations. Our High Commission repeatedly raised disappearances with relevant authorities. The UK supported projects to document issues faced by human rights defenders and to ensure support and protection for them.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights activists raised concerns over increased negative media coverage and harassment, as well as unwarranted scrutiny by law-enforcement authorities. During Pride week our High Commission hosted an event to promote diversity in business.
Access to justice and the rule of law
Sri Lanka has a well-developed judicial system, but there are significant challenges to effective criminal justice and rule of law. The state of emergency was lifted on 30 August, but the practical impact of the removal of emergency regulations remained unclear. The Prevention of Terrorism Act was amended to reproduce many of the powers that lapsed, and continued to provide for prolonged detention without charge. A large number of suspects have been held under this legislation. Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State Alistair Burt raised related concerns with the Sri Lankan foreign minister on a number of occasions.
Disappearances and abductions continued, with a sharp rise in the number of disappearances towards the end of the year. In December, two political activists travelling in the north disappeared. There was almost no progress in resolving past cases of disappearances. The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission expressed serious concern over the lack of progress in investigations and prosecutions for disappearances, noting that in some cases the police even refused to investigate. The weakening of national institutions during the conflict led to concerns regarding the independence of the judiciary. The LLRC noted that it heard evidence to suggest that “a large number of persons having political patronage had committed offences, but the long arm of the law had not reached them because of the political pressure exerted on law enforcement authorities”.
Following the end of the conflict there was some scaling back of the military presence in the north and east of Sri Lanka. There remained, however, a heavy military presence, as witnessed by our High Commission staff during visits to these areas. Paramilitary groups also remained active in some areas of the country. On presentation of the LLRC report, the Sri Lankan government committed to further scale down the presence of the armed forces. We continue to urge that powers are transferred to civilian authorities wherever possible. To this end the UK is funding a community-policing project to help build the capacity of the police force.
Former chief of the Sri Lankan army and presidential candidate Sarath Fonseka was found guilty and sentenced to three years in prison in the “white flag” case, which revolved around his reported comments in a newspaper interview that the Sri Lankan defence secretary had ordered the killing of LTTE members carrying white flags. Civil society groups expressed concern that legal action against Mr Fonseka was politically motivated. The UK urged the Sri Lankan government to ensure that the law is fairly and independently applied in all cases.
In November, 12 NGOs submitted reports to the UN Committee against Torture, which held an open session on Sri Lanka. The committee’s subsequent report highlighted ongoing allegations of widespread torture, failure to uphold judicial and procedural safeguards of detainees, the alleged existence of secret detention centres, enforced disappearances and deaths in detention. The LLRC expressed alarm at the large number of alleged abductions, enforced or involuntary disappearances, and arbitrary detention. It raised concern over instances of people detained in custody for long periods of time under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Amnesty International’s report to the Committee against Torture stated that torture and other ill-treatment of criminal suspects by the police were common. Freedom from Torture’s report presented 35 cases in detail of alleged post-conflict torture. All cases pointed to the use of blunt-force trauma, with some signs of burning, threats and forced confessions.
The Sri Lankan government claims that it maintained a zero-tolerance policy on torture. The National Human Rights Action Plan marks prevention of torture as an area of priority, including safety of suspects in custody, victim and witness protection and ensuring that rules relating to evidence do not inadvertently promote torture.
The UK consistently presses the Sri Lankan government for progress on this issue.
Conflict and protection of civilians
The Sri Lankan government continued to focus on post-conflict reconstruction, and made progress in returning internally displaced persons to their home areas and in releasing former Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) fighters. Approximately 700 ex-combatants remained in rehabilitation camps without having been formally charged and a larger number were still in detention centres. The government said it was hoping to release all former LTTE fighters from rehabilitation centres by mid-2012. Improved access to camps and rehabilitation centres was granted to foreign embassies. The UK funded a project to support the reintegration of ex-combatants into society following their release from rehabilitation centres.
Physical reconstruction efforts, including the building of bridges and roads, and extensive de-mining, helped to improve the social and economic rights of Sri Lankans. The UK is providing £3 million assistance for de-mining.
In April, the UN Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts found that there were credible allegations, which if proven would indicate violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law by both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan military. In May, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extra-Judicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions reported that footage of alleged war crimes previously shown on Channel 4 was authentic and that events depicted did occur. In June, Channel 4 broadcast a documentary entitled Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, which showed new footage of alleged human rights abuses committed by the Sri Lankan army during the final stages of the military conflict in May 2009. Minister of State Alistair Burt called for an independent, thorough and credible investigation to address allegations that war crimes were committed by both sides.
The UK welcomed the full publication of the LLRC report on 16 December and called for implementation of its recommendations. The UK welcomed the human rights and post-conflict reconciliation components of the report, noting that many of its recommendations could be implemented in a matter of months. However, the report left significant questions unanswered, particularly on the issue of accountability for alleged war crimes. Minister of State Alistair Burt urged the Sri Lankan government to address these.
Freedom of religion or belief
There are four main religions in Sri Lanka: Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. In 2011, people were generally free to practise their religion without interference. But religious groups complained of onerous administrative burdens placed on certain religions, and religious education that did not take minority faiths into account. A draft Act of parliament presented by a minority party would, if passed, provide privileged status for Buddhism in Sri Lanka. In September, a Muslim religious site in the Buddhist city of Anuradhapura was demolished by mobs, allegedly led by Buddhist monks. There were reports of ministerial interference in religious animal sacrifice at Hindu temples. Our High Commission continues to monitor these matters and discuss issues with religious leaders.
Despite Sri Lanka’s established tradition of gender equality in many spheres, the National Human Rights Action Plan recognised that there remained significant discrimination against women, including under the law. Female participation in governance remained relatively low, with only 13 female parliamentarians out of 225. Sri Lanka also slipped from 16 to 31 in the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Index ranking.
Women’s rights require particular attention in the conflict-affected north and east, where there are up to 90,000 war widows. Our High Commissioner discussed rising crime rates for violence against women with the police in these regions and more generally. In August, a spate of attacks against women in the north and the east by men popularly termed “Grease Yakas” (grease devils) led to widespread fear. The LLRC report highlighted that the extensive military presence often made women feel unsafe. An International Crisis Group report expressed concerns over women’s security and right to economic empowerment in the north and east.
Our High Commission maintained regular contact with a range of women’s rights organisations and conducted regular visits to areas of concern. In November, our High Commissioner participated at an event to commemorate International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. As part of our ongoing dialogue on human rights with the Sri Lankan government, our High Commission encouraged them to investigate and take action on reported cases of human rights violations and abuse.
In January, the main Tamil party, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), and representatives of the Sri Lankan government began a series of talks on short- and long-term concerns of the Tamil community. Frustrated by a lack of progress, the TNA delivered an ultimatum in August challenging the government to define its position on core political issues. Following international community encouragement, talks resumed in September. Two further meetings were held, with limited results. The government proposed appointing a parliamentary select committee to develop a political solution, but the TNA said it would only take part in the process if a solution was agreed by both parties by December.
Some civil society organisations have expressed concern about “Sinhalisation” of the north. In particular, they point to changes of place names from Tamil to Sinhala, construction of Buddhist temples, alleged discrimination in favour of southern constructors and contractors, and the settlement of 100 Sinhalese in Jaffna.
The Sri Lankan government has identified the need to increase ethnic minority representation in key state bodies and is seeking to ensure that more state officials are able to speak Tamil. The UK has supported these efforts by providing Tamil language training to police officers as part of a community-policing programme. The UK supported a project through a local organisation which includes capacity-building for minority parties.
Despite significant steps by the Sri Lankan government to implement the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, activists claimed that sexual exploitation of children remained a problem. According to local media, in 2011 police recorded the highest number of child abuse and rape cases ever seen in Sri Lanka. Some estimates also suggested that up to 6,000 children were exploited for commercial sex. The Department of Probation and Child Care Services provided protection to child victims of abuse and sexual exploitation, but there were no comprehensive programmes to address the problem.
No prosecutions have yet been initiated against LTTE members allegedly responsible for the recruitment of child soldiers. The whereabouts of 13 children recruited by the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Puligal during the conflict remains unknown, as does the exact number of children killed or maimed during the conflict. UNICEF’s Family Reunifications and Tracing Unit still has 600 outstanding cases of children missing from the final stages of the conflict. The UK continued to raise these concerns, including through the UN Security Council Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict, and encouraged the Sri Lankan government to investigate allegations of violations and abuses as part of its efforts for national reconciliation.
Migration and refugees
There have been allegations in the media of returning migrants and refugees being abused. All such allegations in respect of returnees from the UK were investigated by our High Commission and no evidence was found to substantiate them. Returnees were encouraged to contact the High Commission if they required assistance.