A Troubling Trajectory
Less than a year after Resolution 46/1 was passed by the UN Human Rights Council, Sri Lanka remains on a deeply troubling trajectory.
The government’s continued lack of respect for human rights and the rule of law has affected people across the island over the last 12 months. Following the heavily criticised pardon of former army officer Sunil Ratnayake in 2020, the President pardoned a second convicted murderer, his long-time ally Duminda Silva, whose conviction for shooting a fellow parliamentarian was confirmed by the Supreme Court as recently as 2018. Other allies of the President have apparently been shielded from the law, with the Attorney
General dropping charges against high profile suspects in two emblematic cases. Key corruption cases, including some against the President’s brother and Finance Minister,
Basil Rajapaksa, have collapsed.
Prospects for domestic accountability in emblematic cases are almost non-existent, with key investigators transferred, arrested, and silenced, and witnesses facing intimidation.
Following the passage of the 20th Amendment in 2020, which gave the President complete control over senior judicial appointments and appointments to independent institutions, a raft of inappropriate appointments have confirmed the lack of independence of key bodies such as the Human Rights Commission (HRCSL), the Right to Information Commission (RTI), and the Office of Missing Persons (OMP). As a result, the international body responsible for monitoring national human rights institutions has recommended downgrading the HRCSL from A to B status.
The military continues to have a visible and oversized role in civilian governance. The defence budget will account for 15% of government expenditure in 2022, an increase of 14% on 2021. Army Commander Shavendra Silva, who has been leading Sri Lanka’s COVID-19 response, also sits on several ad hoc Presidential Task Forces and has recently been tasked with leading the country’s green agriculture strategy. Meanwhile, the Tamil-majority Northern Province continues to be heavily militarised, with sixteen of twenty army divisions stationed in an area that accounts for only 5% of Sri Lanka’s population.
At the same time, civic space remains heavily restricted. Surveillance and intimidation of civil society organisations, victim-survivor communities, and human rights defenders has increased since 2019, but remains most prevalent in the North and East. Many activists now ‘self-censor’ for their safety.
Numerous journalists and critics of the government have been interrogated or jailed by police. The government has used pandemic restrictions as a pretence to ban protests and restrict memorial gatherings. Education activists and students were arrested and detained after participating in protests, while ten Tamils were detained after gathering to remember those who died in the war.
Many of these arbitrary arrests of activists, particularly Tamils in the North and East, have been made using the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), despite repeated government promises to repeal or reform the Act. Several hundred Muslims arrested in the wake of the 2019 Easter attacks remain in detention in Sri Lanka’s overcrowded prisons, many held under the PTA. A majority of PTA detainees report being tortured, threatened, and forced to sign false confessions.
The proposed introduction of so-called ‘de-radicalisation’ regulations, clearly targeted at Muslims, would allow the state to detain individuals for up to two years without judicial oversight. While the regulations are currently suspended pending a court challenge, the intention behind the regulations is clear and indicate that government promises to reform the PTA in line with international human rights obligations are hollow.
The government has been increasingly bold in asserting its Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist agenda, appointing a controversial and racist Buddhist monk who has a history of inciting violence against Muslims as the head of a Task Force on the ‘One Country, One Law’ concept – largely seen as an exclusionary and racist project by civil society. Government proposals to ban the burqa, niqab, and face veil, and to close around 1,000 madrassas, contribute to a narrative that the Muslim community is a threat to national security.
Another Task Force on archaeology in the Eastern Province has exclusively supported Buddhist claims to contested sites.
As 2022 begins, Sri Lanka faces a looming economic crisis, caused by decades of economic
mismanagement, overspending, and corruption, worsened by the impact of the pandemic.
Government policies intended to ease the crisis and safeguard Sri Lanka’s dwindling foreign
reserves, such as the ban on chemical fertiliser imports, have backfired, leading to rising prices for basic food items and the risk of a rice shortage in coming months. People are queuing for hours to buy fuel, while medicine shortages are also expected. Anger at government incompetence has been growing for months, with strong criticism levelled at the President and his allies on social media and in the streets.
As in the past, the Rajapaksas have played to majoritarian and nationalist sympathies in an attempt to shore up support, raising the spectre of terrorism and scapegoating non-Sinhalese communities. Given the trajectory over the last year, with a widening circle of repression beginning to affect Sinhalese critics and protestors, many fear the government could eventually opt for a violent crackdown on all forms of dissent.
What is certain is that ordinary people in Sri Lanka from all communities are suffering as the economic crisis bites. However, a sustainable solution to the economic crisis cannot ignore or postpone the need to restore human rights and respect for the rule of law to the centre of Sri Lanka’s government. Indeed, as the roots of Sri Lanka’s economic crisis lie in part in the lack of independent institutions able to prevent corruption and hold decision-makers accountable for fraud and mismanagement, Sri Lanka’s economic and political well-being both depend on re-establishing the rule of law and practices of accountability.
Read the full report as a PDF: Jailing activists and pardoning murderers – monitoring ten issues of concern in Sri Lanka in 2021