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Saturday, February 24, 2024

Measuring Change in Sri Lanka – Yardstick After 100 Days

At the conclusion of the 100 day programme of Sri Lanka’s new Government we thought it would be timely to issue an update to Sri Lanka Campaign yardstick document, which attempts to track the extent of meaningful change with respect to Sri Lanka’s human rights situation.

Shortly after the election of President Maithripala Sirisena and the appointment of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe we published our‘yardstick for change’ – a series of tests which would allow people to determine what is changing in Sri Lanka, and what is staying the same.

Today marks 100 days since that election and the culmination of President Sirisena’s 100 day plan. In the days to come there will doubtless be much analysis of the extent to which the hundred day plan has succeeded and failed.  We are not going to comment on these issues; those in Sri Lanka would be much better able to do so.

However, the time is right to revisit our yardstick and to use it to make some preliminary judgements as to how much has changed in Sri Lanka.

A simple traffic light scoring system has been used:

Green – indicates significant progress (i.e. substantive positive change even if the end result is far from perfect.)

Amber – indicates some progress (i.e. some steps taken but much more work needed)

Red – no progress (i.e. no meaningful attempt to effect change)

Of the 30 tests we outlined the Government of Sri Lanka has demonstrated significant progress in 4 areas, some progress in 5, and no substantial progress in 21.

While it is still early days one would have hoped for more meaningful progress by now. Though some of these issues are exceedingly sensitive and complicated, and will take time to address thoroughly, others – such as a formal confirmation of the number of LTTE cadres in rehabilitation, or the release of political prisoners – could happen immediately. Here, and with regards to some of the troubling statements on militarisation and accountability, the issue appears to not be time or political capital but merely inclination.

It is also clear that the Government of Sri Lanka is far less willing, or perhaps able, to conduct reforms when it comes to issues in which the military has a significant influence – such as militarisation, accountability, and what it perceives to be issues of national security. This suggests that while sections of the Sri Lankan Government may be open to the idea of reform, elements of policy still remain in the hands of a deeply embedded security apparatus whose attitude has not changed since the days of the previous regime.

Moreover the fact that the issues upon which progress has been limited disproportionately affect the Tamil community is likely to damage prospects for reconciliation. This further advances the case we have recently made that survivors’ needs must drive the reconciliation process.

More positively, it is clear – from the release of Jeyakumary, from the visit of the UN Special Rapporteur, from the lifting of travel restrictions – that pressure from the international community has a decisive role to play in helping to effect positive change in Sri Lanka. The need for the international community to maintain its interest in Sri Lanka, and push the Sri Lankan Government towards meaningful reform has never been more evident.

The tests, by category:

The release of political prisoners

Has Jeyakumary Balendaran, a mother of one of the disappeared against whom no evidence has been produced, been released after over 300 days in detention? Green

Jeyakumary Balendaran was released on the 10th of March 2015. However she is still on bail and subject to oppressive and disproportionate reporting requirements. Similarly Ruki Fernando, who was arrested and released in connection with Jeyakumary’s arrest, remains subject to a draconian gagging order which prevents him from talking to the media about certain issues or travelling freely.

Is the government moving to abolish the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), a draconian piece of legislation which allows people to be imprisoned without trial for up to 18 months? Red

There have been no steps towards the abolition of the PTA.

Has it withdrawn regulations promulgated under the PTA which keep in place the effects of the lapsed Emergency Regulations? Red

There have been no steps towards withdrawing these regulations.

Has the government released all prisoners held under the PTA, or otherwise brought them into open court for trial on specific charges? Red

Seven other political prisoners were released at the same time as Jeyakumary Balendaran, but there has been no movement on the release of other political prisoners or even clarity on how many prisoners there may be. Following a meeting with Solicitor General Suhada Gamlath, TNA MP M.A. Sumanthiran claimed that there are about 300 political prisoners remaining, but Suhada Gamlath robustly defended the decision to continue to detain them.

Is Boosa Detention Centre, Sri Lanka’s most notorious torture site, still open? If it is, are civil society and international inspectors allowed to visit it and are lawyers provided unrestricted access to their clients? Red

Boossa is still open, there has been no change in the inspection regime, and lawyer’s access to their clients remains patchy.

Has the government disclosed how many LTTE cadres are being held in secret “rehabilitation camps”? Red

Prime Minister Ranil Wickermasinghe has denied that any such camps can continue to exist under his rule, however an article by JDS Lanka suggests that at least two continue to operate.

There is no clarity as to how many LTTE cadres remain in detention with estimates ranging from 49 to 700+.

A return to a normal way of life in the north and east

When a meeting is called in a predominantly Tamil area, do military personnel attend and keep a note of what is said? Do they attempt to break up the meeting? Amber

There have been no specific instances of this kind reported, but the situation in the Tamil north and east of the country remains tense. Participants in our recent report on reconciliation suggested that the military and security services still conduct widespread surveillance.

Have any abductions or assaults been reported in the Northern or Eastern Province? Red

On the 12th of March 2015 it was reported that a 26 year old female, Vishvalingam Vinothinya, former LTTE fighter was abducted by Civil Defence Force members and was assaulted

Do former LTTE cadres still receive regular night time visits from the police and army? Red

Several former LTTE cadres have reported that surveillance continues unabated.

Have the ex-military personnel appointed as Government Agents to districts in the Northern and Eastern Province been replaced by civilian officials proficient in the Tamil language? How many Government workers in Tamil areas speak Tamil? Red

No fresh appointments of Government Agents have been reported and so it is fair to assume that language barriers remain.

How much Tamil and Muslim land does the Sri Lankan army, and paramilitary groups such as the EPDP and TMVP, continue to illegally occupy? Do they continue to use it commercially? Is there a plan for return of the land and provide compensation? Red

Of the estimated 7,000 acres of land occupied by the military in the Northern Province the Government of Sri Lanka hasreleased 570 acres, and announced plans to release a further 430. This leaves over 6,000 acres of land occupied by the army with no plan for its release. No plan for compensation has been discussed and returning families have found their homes destroyed.

The Government of Sri Lanka has announced that they want to end the military’s involvement in the tourism sector, yet the army continues to build new hotels and resorts.

How many Tamil families remain internally displaced and in temporary accommodation? How much effort is the Government putting into resettlement, into allowing Tamil families to return to their own lands, and into restoring fishing rights? Red

At least 3000 families in the regions of Vempodukeni, Mukamalai and Ithavil alone are living as refugees. Recently the army has blocked displaced Tamils from visiting their own land.

Is there a plan to reduce troop numbers in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province and to move towards demilitarising Sri Lanka’s north and east? Red

No plans for demilitarisation have been announced and fresh orders have been given maintaining troop levels in Tamil areas.

Have checkpoints in the Northern Province preventing free movement to travellers, such as in Omanthai, been removed? And can foreigners travel to Sri Lanka’s Northern Province without having to get permission from the Ministry of Defence? Green

The requirement for tourists to register with the Ministry of Defence has been dropped. Omanthai checkpoint, and many other checkpoints, remain and the Government has announced that they have no plans to remove them.

Has the Government implemented a “Certificate of Absence” scheme, in lieu of a death certificate, for those who have been missing for a long time? Is this granted the same degree of legal recognition as a death certificate? Red

No such scheme has been implemented.

Has any compensation been given to war affected families and the families of the disappeared? Red

No comprehensive scheme for issuing compensation to war affected families and families of the disappeared has been implemented. Compensation by authorities has frequently been reported as being conditional upon abandonment of the truth by families.

A political solution to Tamil grievances

Has there been any progress on a negotiated political solution which would allow Tamil people more autonomy and meaningful devolution? Red

There has been no concrete progress to date, however it is perhaps too early to expect any on such a complicated issue.

Are the provisions relating to land powers and police powers for the Northern Provincial Council being implemented, or does the NPC continue to be blocked from performing its functions as envisaged under the constitution? Red

There has been no progress on this issue, and the Northern Provincial Council continues to be deprived of its authority on land and police matters.

Has the Chief Minister of the Northern Provincial Council been allowed to do his job without central interference? Red

Chief Minister of the Northern Province, C.V. Wigneswaran, says that “as a result of power being vested in the Governor, the Provincial Government had become observers rather than servers of their community.”

Are draft statutes presented to the Governor by the Northern Provincial Council being held up by the Governor? Amber

No instances of the Governor holding up statutes have been reported but Chief Minister Wigneswaran has suggested that similar delays are in any case occurring due to the fact that the Northern Provincial Council does not have staff with the training to draft the statutes.

Have the Governor of the Northern Province and Chief Secretary of the Northern Province been replaced by a civilian and by a choice of the Chief Minister respectively? Green

The Governor of the Northern Province has been replaced by a civilian. A new Tamil speaking Chief Secretary was also appointed, although there is no indication that the Chief Minister had power over their selection.

Promoting peace and friendship between ethnicities

Has the government presented any concrete plans to promote peace and friendship between Sri Lanka’s different communities, for instance through implementing the recommendations in the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) report on reconciliation (9.167-9.285) and through expanding the National Plan of Action to include all the LLRC recommendations? Red

President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe have talked repeatedly about the need for a truth and reconciliation process but have given no indication that they actually understand what that would require in practice, and have occasionally given the concerning impression that they consider it to be some kind of alternative to an accountability process.

Full implementation of the LLRC recommendations was discussed with Commonwealth Secretary General Sharma but no follow up or concrete action has been announced.

UN Special Rapporteur on transitional justice Pablo de Greiff outlined some of the problems Sri Lanka faces and the actions Sri Lanka needs to take following his recent trip.

Has there been more anti-Muslim rhetoric and acts of violence from the Buddhist extremist Bodu Bala Sena (BBS)? If so, how has the government responded? Green

Anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence has substantially decreased and there have been no major incidents reported under the new government.

Do the sanctions on 16 Tamil Diaspora organisations and 424 individuals remain in place? Amber

The sanctions remain in place. The Government of Sri Lanka has announced its intention to review the list but has not yet done so.

Ending the culture of impunity

Is there now an investigation into the hitherto uninvestigated deaths and disappearances of 36 journalists and media workers during President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s term in office? Red


What is the status of the investigation of the Matale mass grave, Lalith Weeraraj and Kugan Muruganandan’s disappearance, and the Trinco 5 and Muttur 17 killings? Red

There seems to be little to no progress in any of these investigations.

Has the report of the “Presidential Commission of Inquiry into 16 serious violations” been released to the public? Red


Is there a plan to investigate the 19,471 cases of disappearances registered before the Presidential Commission on missing persons in a timely manner?  Red

No. The Presidential Commission on Missing Persons will continue its work, and is planning to have more public sittings, but no plans have been announced to deal with the backlog of cases. The Centre for Policy Alternatives estimate it will take at least 13 years to complete the task even if no new cases are registered.

What is the new Government’s attitude to the United Nations’ procedures on human rights? Are they continuing to disrespect the office of the High Commission for Human Rights and block investigations? Amber

The Government of Sri Lanka remains steadfastly opposed to the “OISL” UN investigation in Sri Lanka and has not allowed the investigators access to the country or co-operated with its proceedings. However they have refrained from attacking the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and branding those who co-operate with the investigation “traitors”. There has been some intimidation and harassment of civil society activists they suspect of working with United Nations mechanisms.

Have any of the eight UN Special Procedures mandate holders with outstanding requests to visit been allowed to do so? Amber

One of the eight, representing the Working Group of Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, has now been invited to visit. Seven others remain outstanding (those on minority issues; freedom of assembly; freedom of expression; summary executions; human rights defenders; independence of lawyers; and discrimination against women).

One non-outstanding UN Special Procedures mandate holder, the UN Special Rapporteur on transitional justice has also been allowed to visit, and the Government of Sri Lanka has also expressed their willingness to allow the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to visit the country.

– SriLanka Campaign


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