As 2020 comes to an end, we take a look at some of the key developments in human rights and accountability in Sri Lanka over the last 12 months. It makes for grim reading. Yet despite increasing intimidation and harassment, victim-survivor communities and activists bravely continue to speak out against impunity for human rights violations, discrimination against minority communities, and militarisation. As we look towards the new year it is critical that the international community steps up to support them.
Repression of dissent and attacks on lawyers, journalists, and human rights defenders
Repression of dissent and increased intimidation of human rights defenders, victims, journalists and lawyers, has been a constant feature throughout the year. At the end of 2019, there was a spate of attacks against journalists, including a police raid on the offices of a news website and assaults on a number of journalists. Reporters Without Borders released a statement calling for a stop to all forms of intimidation. Meanwhile, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa told heads of media organisations in an official meeting that “media has a responsibility to create a virtuous image for our country.”
In February, Human Rights Watch reported that security forces and intelligence officers had intensified surveillance and harassment of relatives of the disappeared and the activists supporting them.
The COVID-19 pandemic provided a cover for further repression; UN human rights chief Michele Bachelet criticised states including Sri Lanka for using the pandemic as an excuse to curtail freedom of expression and arresting critics. One of those detained was online activist Ramzy Ramzeek who was arrested after reporting death threats he received to the police. Despite serious concerns about his deteriorating health, he was only released on bail after more than five months in custody.
In April, human rights lawyer Hejaaz Hisbullah was arrested under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act and held in detention in violation of his due process rights. His case has been postponed several times and is currently scheduled to be heard in court in February – ten months after his arrest. In December, the Appeal Court finally agreed to grant Hejaaz Hisbullah confidential access to counsel.
Following this crackdown, a group of ten international human rights organisations released a joint statement raising the alarm about attacks on human rights in Sri Lanka and called on the government to end the “campaign of fear” targeting journalists, lawyers, and human rights defenders.
INFORM, a human rights NGO in Sri Lanka, reported severe restrictions of memorial events in May 2020 marking the eleventh anniversary of the end of the war. Organised commemorations of Maaveerar Naal in November were banned by several district courts. There were alarming reports of state intimidation of Tamils marking the remembrance day even in private homes.
Military appointments to civilian positions
Since his election as President in November 2019, Gotabaya Rajapaksa has consistently appointed ex and serving military officers to key positions within the current government. Although Shavendra Silva was appointed as Army Commander under the previous government in August 2019, the President has since promoted him to Acting Chief of Defence Staff and head of Sri Lanka’s coronavirus response. In this latter role Silva is extremely visible, giving regular press conferences. Fellow former commander Kamal Gunaratne was appointed Secretary of Defence in November 2019. Both have been appointed as members of several Presidential Task Forces set up by the President to manage issues as diverse as poverty alleviation, archaeological heritage, and national security.
Silva and Gunaratne are simply the highest profile amongst many military appointments. Currently four secretaries of government departments (defence, health, agriculture, and foreign affairs) are former or serving military officers. MP Sarath Weerasekara, who was recently made Minister of Public Security – in charge of police – is a former senior naval officer.
US designates General Shavendra Silva
In rare positive news, in February 2020, the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, announced that Gen. Shavendra Silva had been publicly designated by the State Department due to credible information of his involvement, through command responsibility in gross human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings.
Over the summer the UK government launched its new Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime, inspired by the Magnitsky Act in the US, under which it can place sanctions on individuals for human rights violations. The UK joins the US, Canada, and several other states in Europe in setting up such schemes. As we argued in July, they should use these schemes to sanction individuals like Silva in Sri Lanka who are credibly accused of gross human rights violations, especially those that hold key positions in the current government.
Government of Sri Lanka withdraws from commitments at the Human Rights Council
In February 2020, the government of Sri Lanka announced it was withdrawing from commitments the previous government made to the UN Human Rights Council to deal with the legacy of the civil war and hold perpetrators to account. The government argued that Sri Lanka needed a purely domestic accountability and reconciliation process, claiming that they have worked before. As we argued, this is grossly misleading: previous commissions have unequivocally failed to deliver justice or reconciliation.
Ten months later, the government has yet to set out any plans for a domestic mechanism. Meanwhile, the government has wound back the clock on the limited progress which had been made under the HRC process, actively undermining the rule of law and trampling on human rights. With the President repeatedly promoting, not prosecuting, individuals credibly accused of involvement in war crimes, promising to protect the military from prosecution, and scrapping the independence of the judiciary and other key institutions, no domestic mechanism can seriously address the longstanding cycle of impunity in Sri Lanka.
President pardons convicted murderer Sunil Ratnayake
In March, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa pardoned former soldier Sunil Ratnayake, who was convicted for the murder of eight Tamil civilians, including a five-year old child, near Jaffna in 2000. Ratnayake’s conviction had been unanimously upheld by the Supreme Court less than twelve months previously and was a rare exception to the wholesale impunity enjoyed by Sri Lankan armed forces for human rights violations. There was outrage among civil society as Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, Kamal Gunaratne, travelled to the prison to welcome Ratnayake in person as he was released. The UN Human Rights Chief described the pardon as an “affront to victims,” while a joint statement by Sri Lankan civil society groups referred to it as a “lethal blow to the rule of law.”
Militarisation of COVID-19 response
Sri Lanka’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has been heavily militarised. The centre responsible for tackling the virus is headed by Army Commander Shavendra Silva. The response has been termed as a ‘war on the pandemic’ and a ‘national security challenge,’ while military intelligence, who are notorious for their use of torture against Tamil civilians and ex combatants, have been put in charge of contact tracing. The military’s role in contact tracing, surveillance, building and running quarantine facilities and distribution of essential services has raised concerns about confidentiality and the targeted suppression of minority communities and activists.
In a particular incident in October, garment workers at the Brandix factory were rounded up and quarantined by the military with no warning after an outbreak was reported at their place of work. Workers were met by military buses in the middle of the night and given minutes to gather their things, before being taken to quarantine centres far from their homes with no information. One INGO has said this amounts to arbitrary detention.
The Police Media Division gave direction for legal action to be taken against video and other publications on the internet that criticize the work of state officials, and in a little over 2 months, the authorities arrested over 66,000 people for allegedly violating curfew restrictions. Security checkpoints have been set up across the country and particularly in the North and East. Drones and intelligence software, as well as military intelligence officers, were deployed to track down anyone potentially infected with the virus.
Rising hate speech and discrimination against Muslims
Anti-Muslim sentiment and scape-goating in Sri Lanka has been on the rise, particularly since the Easter Bombings in 2019. In 2020, the Prevention of Terrorism Act has been used to target and arbitrarily detain Muslims, including poet Ahnaf Jazeem, who is accused of promoting extremism in his writing. Jazeem has been detained without charge since May.
This year, Islamophobia was particularly evident in the government and media response to COVID-19, with official narratives being quick to blame Muslim communities for the spread of the virus in the country. Muslim religious practices were singled out as “super-spreader” events, while rates of infection among Muslim communities were specifically mentioned in the media.
The government’s policy of forced cremations for COVID-19 victims and those suspected of having died of COVID-19, which ignores WHO guidelines that allow burial, has deprived Muslims of an important religious practice, caused harm to victim’s families and communities, and created fear among Muslim communities preventing them from accessing medical care. The government is yet to present any scientific evidence that cremation is necessary. In early December, a 20-year-old baby was cremated against his family’s wishes. The outcry has led to people from all communities coming together in growing protests across the country.
Investigations into alleged “political victimisation”
In January 2020, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed a Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCOI) on “political victimization” of allies of his government and the armed forces under the previous Sirisena-Wickramasinghe government (2015-2019). Initially only corruption inquiries were in scope, but investigations by the Criminal Investigations Department were later included.
The PCOI’s wide ranging powers were criticised and challenged by civil society in Sri Lanka who feared they could be used to disrupt and impede investigations and legal proceedings.
During its operations the PCOI held parallel evidence sessions from complainants who were defendants in ongoing court proceedings, attempted to halt criminal proceedings in the ongoing Navy abductions case, and made procedural invasions into other ongoing court cases. A witness in the Prageeth Eknaligoda disappearance case appeared before the PCOI despite a court order prohibiting him from doing so.
The PCOI delivered its final report to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on 8 December 2020. The report is not publicly available, and it is not clear what action will be taken on the basis of the PCOI’s findings.
Targeting police officers for investigating crimes
In November 2019, following Presidential elections, a number of key police officers were transferred away from posts in the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), where they had been investigating key cases including the navy abductions case, the disappearance of Prageeth Eknaligoda, and the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge. Inspector of Police, Nishantha Silva, was forced to flee the country after his security protection was removed.
In July 2020, Shani Abeysekara, former Director of CID, was arrested and charged with concealing evidence. A police officer alleged in a magistrate’s court hearing that he was “pressured” to give a false statement against Abeysekara. In November, it was reported that Abeysekara had tested positive for COVID-19 and was at serious risk due to preexisting health conditions. Amid concerns that he was being refused proper medical treatment, an outcry by civil society and intervention by the National Human Rights Commission, Abeysekara was eventually moved to a Colombo hospital. He remains in detention.
Delayed elections and the extended suspension of parliament
In March 2020, President Gotabaya called elections and suspended parliament at the earliest opportunity, despite the growing threat of the COVID-19 pandemic. The public health threat eventually forced the Election Commission to delay the election, but parliament remained suspended. On 2 June, Sri Lanka entered a period of unconstitutional executive rule, with parliament suspended for more than the maximum 3-month period permitted under the Constitution. Following elections in August, a new parliament finally sat on 20 August, leaving Sri Lanka without parliamentary scrutiny for almost six months during the public health crisis.
Militarised Task Forces circumvent parliamentary scrutiny
While Sri Lanka’s parliament was suspended, the President appointed Presidential Task Forces on subjects as diverse as poverty alleviation, national security, and archaeological heritage. The Task Forces were given wide powers and circumvented the accountability of parliamentary democracy. Civil society groups raised concerns about the broad and vague powers which they were granted and the overlap with existing government agencies, as well as the high numbers of military officers among the membership of the Task Forces.
The 20th Amendment’s threat to independent institutions
In October, the 20th Amendment to the Constitution was passed despite significant opposition from civil society, including members of the Sangha and the Catholic Bishops Conference. The Amendment removes almost all checks and balances on the power of the President and significantly weakens the Prime Minister and reduces Parliament to a mere rubber-stamping mechanism.
The 20th Amendment is a clear step towards authoritarian government by one man. The President can remove the Prime Minister, Cabinet, and other Ministers at his discretion. It removes the independence of key institutions including the judiciary by giving the President sole control over key appointments.
A joint statement by the Commonwealth associations for judges and magistrates, lawyers, and journalists raised concerns that the 20th Amendment is contrary to the key Commonwealth principles as well as UN principles on the independence of the judiciary. In December, the UN Special Rapporteurs on the independence of judges and lawyers and the promotion of truth, justice, reparations and guarantees of non-recurrence published an analysis of “the adverse impact that the 20th Amendment…may have on the independence of the judiciary and the separation of powers” and made recommendations for significant amendments.