UN COMMISSION ON HUMAN RIGHTS – 43RD SESSIONS: FEBRUARY 1987
Intervention by Miss Tamara Kunanayakam, World Student Christian Federation
I speak on behalf of the World Student Christian Federation, a non-governmental organisation with movements in more than 90 countries throughout the world.
It is increasingly recognised in reports of the Commission ‘s monitoring bodies in respect of detention, torture, enforced disappearances and summary executions, that these violations are usually part of a systematic pattern, and such systematic violations of human rights usually betray structural root causes which need to be addressed before the violations will disappear. For example, the Report of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (E/CN. 4/1987/15/Add.], paragraph 43) stated with regard to Peru that “it is not feasible to divorce the issue of disappearance completely from related violations of human rig/Its or from the socio-political processes that have engendered them
He concludes that ‘only when the structural factors that contributed to the spiral of terror and counter-terror are properly dealt with, can there he any hope of preventing a recurrence of the excesses of the past. The report of the Special Rapporteur on Torture (E/CN.4/]987/13, para.5) states that ‘torture almost invariably takes place in a political context, ” and that ”victims of torture are very often opponents of the government in power.
These reports show that the inter-related violations such as torture, disappearances and summary executions are manifestations of deeper structural realities. Mr Chairman, it is within this wider context identified by the Special Rapporteurs that we wish to deal with tile violations of human rights that occur in Sri Lanka. Our case is that the government of Sri Lanka should address itself to the underlying causes if it is genuine/v commuted to the restoration of human rig/Its in that country.
The distinguished delegate of Norway yesterday (24/2/8 7) said “Enforced and involuntary disappearances and torture of persons seem to be used as convenient tactics for governments suppressing opponents and espousing a policy of stifling dissent often on the grounds of national security or with reference to the national integrity and sovereignty.” This is exactly the practice prevailing in Sri Lanka today, in the context of the government’s failure to address itself to the legitimate grievances of the Tamil people stemming from socio-economic and political causes.
There is incontrovertible evidence that compared to previous years, larger numbers of people have been arrested in 1986, very often on a mass scale, and detained for prolonged periods. A civil rights monitoring group in Sri Lanka estimates that the total number taken into custody during 1986 to be in the region of 14,000 persons. Those arrested are detained not in normal detention centres but in army camps located in various parts of the country under degrading conditions.
Most of the arrests, the victims of which, by and large, are Tamils, are effected under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and Emergency Regulations. It may he noted that the Prevention of Terrorism Act has been described by the International Commission of Jurists as an ugly blot on the statute hook of any civilised country. Sri Lanka has been ruled by the present government under a state of emergency for most of its life since 1977.
The Prevention of Terrorism Act authorises detention up to a period of 18 months and Emergency Regulations for an unlimited period. Yesterday (24/2/87) the Sri Lankan delegate sought to argue that unlimited detention is not possible under Emergency Regulations because orders under a State of Emergency can legally last only for a month.
The fact of the matter is that the State of Emergency has been renewed every month without interruption during the last several years thus enabling detention of persons for unlimited periods. The Committee for Monitoring Cessation of Hostilities appointed by the government itself in its report dated 17 January, 1986 stated that “Those held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act for more than 18 months are served with detention orders under Emergency Regulations which authorise unlimited detention.”
For all practical purposes there is no prospect of judicial review of detention of persons whether under the Prevention of Terrorism Act or Emergency Regulations. Mr Chairman, yesterday (24/2/87) the Sri Lankan delegate sought to impress this Commission about the remedy available by way of habeas corpus applications. This remedy in actual practice has proved ineffective and in most cases unavailable. In this connection the President of the Law Society Sri Lanka has said ”Since it is a tedious legal process which entails inordinate delays, a Habeas Corpus application does not serve the intended purpose. Quite a large number of applications in respect of persons about whom nothing is known after arrest, is still pending in the Appeal Court.” (Island, 20 January, 1986).
The Sri Lankan delegate also claimed yesterday, that detainees or their relatives have the right to make representations to an Advisory Board appointed by the President. A delegation of the UK Parliamentary Human Rights Group which visited Sri Lanka in February 1985 stated, “The problem is that it frequently takes several months for tile parent’s or mother’s letter requesting a review to reach the Advisory Board via the Ministry of Defence. And, once the Board has made its recommendation, it takes several more months before the Ministry of Defence acts upon it.”
The Prevention of Terrorism Act and Emergency Regulations have removed most of the legal safeguards prescribed under the International Covenants on Human Rights. Prolonged incommunicado detention without trial is the norm. The whereabouts of people arrested and detained are not made known to relatives. Lawyers and relatives have no access to detainees in most cases.
Mr Chairman, it is in this context that many substantiated cases of torture and deaths in custody have been reported, so much so that the Special Rapporteur on Torture has expressed great concern his report referring to Sri Lanka. The suspension of important legal safeguards under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and Emergency Regulations have created conditions conducive to the practice of torture.
Another new but reprehensible development reported during1986 has been the use of detainees as hostages and/or human shields during military operations by security forces.
There is also substantial evidence to indicate that over a thousand persons have disappeared or gone missing after being taken into custody. Besides the well documented Amnesty International Report on Disappearances, dated September 1986, the UN Working Group also has reported an in increasing number of disappearances.
The current report before this Commission by the Special Rapporteur refers to 321 outstanding cases of disappearances transmitted to the Sri Lanka government of which it was able to provide clarification in only 5 cases. By an standards this is unacceptable.
Mr.Chairman, while the violations of human rights to which we have adverted occur in the context of a continuing ethnic conflict, there is increasing evidence that wider sections of the whole Sri Lanka population, including those belonging to the Sinhala community, are becoming victims of similar violations. And very often the victims have been members of a wide range of opposition groups including members of some political parties, trade unions, women, student and human rights organisations.
Referring to the situation in south Sri Lanka, the Campaign for the Release of Political Prisoners (CROPP) an organisation based mainly in South Sri Lanka and whose leadership by and large belong to the Sinhala community, in recent statement said –
Reports coming in from those close to arrested persons reveal that tactics of arrest and detention long associated with repressive regimes in Latin America and in Asia. in the Philippines wider the Marcos government, have been put into practice in Sri Lanka:
* people are followed and picked up from the street. from public transport. in unmarked vehicles by persons in civil clothes;
* houses and boarding houses are raided at night:
* torches are flashed into the faces of suspects to blind’ them and prevent identification;
* private homes and offices are used as places of detention and interrogation
* families are never informed as to the cause of arrest; deliberate deception is also resorted to, to prevent families pursuing inquiries.”
The same organisation also expressed its concern that “powers of arbitrary arrest and detention arrogated by the State are being increasingly used to silence its political opponents and to stifle popular protest against the regime.”
Mr Chairman, it should thus be recognised that these violations in the South are also occurring in a broader socio-political context, denial of basic trade union and democratic rights. Pickets, demonstrations and strikes have often been banned under Emergency Regulations, and when they had taken place those workers who participated have been summarily dismissed from employment. For instance, when the Bank Employees decided to take industrial action in the form of a ‘work to rule’ campaign, Emergency Regulations were promulgated declaring banking and associated activities Essential Services, all industrial action made illegal, the entire leadership of the Bank Employees Union summarily dismissed and the Union’s assets made liable to confiscation. In addition, the civic rights of the leaders of the Bank Union were made liable to be deprived.
In the political arena, the right of the people to participate in the political processes by means of regular elections has been denied since 1977, by the extension of the life of parliament without a general election. In place of a general election, a referendum was held under a State of Emergency.
The Parliamentary Elections Commissioner in a recent report has catalogued substantial electoral malpractices as having taken place during this referendum. In the absence of an orderly democratic means of expression by the people or sections of the people, contradictions amid conflicts are bound to result leading to a repressive response from the State. And it is that response, accompanied by a process of miilitarisation, which has brought in its train the practice of arbitrary arrest, detention, torture, disappearances amid summary executions, not only in the areas affected by the armed ethnic conflict, but increasingly so in the South of the island.
Mr Chairman, the real situation is reflected by the fact that Sri Lanka bias figured prominently in the three reports of the Special Rapporteurs and by the fact that thousands have fled the country in search of physical security, and not by the abstract, technical and often theoretical arguments advanced by Sri Lanka before this Commission
Mr Chairman, no longer can the government of Sri Lanka divert the attention of those genuinely concerned by the human rights situation in that country by references to separatism and terrorism. It must, as we said earlier, address itself to the root causes that have given rise to violence and violations that characterise Sri Lankan society today.