Human Rights in Sri Lanka in 2021

December 21, 2021 Sri Lanka Campaign Comments Off

As 2021 comes to an end, we have been looking back over some of the key developments in human rights, justice, and accountability in Sri Lanka over the last year. This has been an extremely challenging year in Sri Lanka, as an increasingly militarised, authoritarian, and majoritarian government has made it clear that they hold human rights and democratic governance in contempt.

Despite this, victim-survivor communities, human rights defenders, journalists and others in Sri Lanka continue to stand up for justice, equality, and human rights in the face of intimidation and harassment from state officials. As we look towards the new year it is essential that the international community plays its part to support them. 

Growing protest despite repression of dissent and attacks on journalists, protesters, lawyers, and activists

Once again, repression of dissent and intimidation of human rights defenders has been a persistent feature this year in Sri Lanka. In February, courts issued bans and injunctions against civil society activists, journalists, politicians, and others in the North and East in advance of the Pottuvil to Polikandy (P2P) march organised by victim-survivor communities and activists. Despite this, the march made a large impact and has shown the resilience of communities in the North and East who continue to protest despite the many challenges they face. Families of the disappeared, victim-survivor communities, and human rights defenders in the North and East continue to face intimidation, including interrogations by police and surveillance by security forces who photograph those attending protests and memorial events. Journalists seeking to cover events in the North and East have been prohibited from reporting from certain locations, interrogated, and even assaulted by security forces.

While this crackdown on dissent in the North and East is neither new nor surprising, throughout the year the government has increased their repression and restrictions are now affecting almost any critics of government policy. In July, as protests at the government’s agricultural policies were growing, the government used the pandemic as an excuse to impose a ban on all protests. The policy also impacted students, academics, and education activists protesting against the militarisation of education. Several protestors were arrested and detained, with some contracting Covid in overcrowded prisons while they were awaiting trial

In her September update, the High Commissioner for Human Rights echoed these concerns:

“Surveillance, intimidation and judicial harassment of human rights defenders, journalists and families of the disappeared has not only continued, but has broadened to a wider spectrum of students, academics, medical professionals and religious leaders critical of government policies.”

Restrictions on memorialisation and the right to remember

It has now been more than 12 years since the end of the civil war, and Tamils still face immense difficulty and persecution when attempting to remember their dead. In the days, weeks, and months leading up to Mullivaikkal Remembrance Day on 18 May, Sri Lankan forces did their utmost to suppress commemorations. A memorial to Mullivaikkal at the University of Jaffna was demolished in January, and another in Mullaitivu was allegedly vandalised by armed forces in May. The government cracked down hard on Tamils across the North, using COVID-19 restrictions as an excuse to prevent memorialisation. Ten Tamils were arrested under the PTA on the 18 May and were finally released on bail in December after almost seven months in detention.

In November, as Tamils prepared to commemorate Maaveerar Naal, similar events took place, as mourners and journalists were harassed, intimidated, and assaulted, whilst courts attempted to prohibit public commemorations.

Human Rights Council passes new resolution

The Human Rights Council adopted resolution 46/1 in March 2021, which mandates the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to collect, analyse, and preserve evidence of human rights violations in Sri Lanka. While there is understandable frustration over the slow pace of international mechanisms, this resolution has kept Sri Lanka on the agenda of the Council and sets out a clear path towards international accountability options.  The resolution further expressed concern over the deterioration in human rights in Sri Lanka since March 2020 and called on the government of Sri Lanka to protect civil society actors and investigate abuses.

In 2022, the High Commissioner for Human Rights will present a written report at the March 2022 session of the Council, followed by a report on accountability options to the Council in September 2022.

Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room Palais des Nations Jess Hoffman UN Photo public domain
Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room, Palais des Nations, Jess Hoffman UN Photo, public domain

Political interference in court cases

Following the controversial pardon of Sunil Ratnayake last year, in June the President pardoned another convicted murderer – longstanding friend and ally of the Rajapaksa’s, former MP Duminda Silva.  Silva’s conviction had been upheld by the Supreme Court as recently as 2018. The pardon was condemned by the UN human rights office for weakening the rule of law and undermining accountability.

A number of Rajapaksa allies have seen charges against them in emblematic cases dropped during the year. In January, the Attorney General dropped charges against MP Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan (alias Pillayan) and four others for the 2005 assassination of Tamil MP Joseph Pararajasingham. There has been no indication that the investigation will be reopened. In the autumn, the Attorney General also dropped charges against former Navy Commander Wasantha Karannagoda, who was charged in the ‘Navy 11’ case for abduction and conspiracy to murder. Instead of facing trial, he was appointed as Governor of the North Western Province by the President a few months later.

Deaths in custody and the safety of prisoners

Between March and June 2021, press reports identified at least six individuals who died in police custody. They included a 22-year-old Tamil man from Batticaloa, Chandran Vidushan, who died in detention soon after being arrested by police at his home. An initial autopsy ruled that Chandran had died after swallowing packets of drugs; however, his family say that he was dragged out of the house by police, tied to a tree, and severely beaten in front of them. They have continued to fight his case, and the court has ordered a second autopsy. Although the court is still waiting for the results, in November the lawyer representing Chandran’s family told the media that the Judicial Medical Officer had submitted a report to the court which stated that there were 31 injuries on Chandran’s body. 

There have also been several deaths in so-called “encounter killings”, where suspects in detention were reportedly killed in shootouts when they were taken by police to recover hidden weapons or other evidence. Prompted by the recent killing of ‘Tinker’ Lasantha in November, the Committee for Protecting the Rights of Prisoners said that it would seek international intervention following a lack of action by the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka and the Inspector General of Police.

Concerns have also been raised about the safety of prisoners. In September, State Minister for Prisons Lohan Ratwatte reportedly stormed into a prison while drunk and forced prisoners held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) to kneel at gunpoint. Although Ratwatte resigned from his ministerial post in charge of prisons, he retained his post as State Minister for Gem and Jewellery Related Industries and has yet to face any other disciplinary actions. The safety of prisoners was further brought into question in December after reports that four Muslim prisoners held on remand under the PTA had been hospitalised after being assaulted by other inmates at Badulla prison.

Police Scotland withdrawal

After years of campaigning by human rights organisations and Tamil diaspora groups in the UK, on 24 November Police Scotland announced their decision to stop training Sri Lanka’s abusive police. The training is funded by the Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office. Chief Constable Iain Livingstone announced that Police Scotland would not be seeking a renewal of the contract when it ends in March 2022.

Police Scotland have been training Sri Lanka’s police since 2006 and officers have made over 90 deployments to Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan officers have also been trained in Scotland. While Police Scotland maintain that their engagement promoted human rights and gender equality, the human rights record of the Sri Lankan police remains extremely troubling. Torture remains endemic and there have been a spate of reported deaths in custody during 2021.

The UK government must now commit to cancelling the training altogether rather than seeking another police force to take on the contract. The funding for the training should instead be used to promote justice, accountability, and human rights in Sri Lanka.

Continuing use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act despite promises of reform

Throughout the year, the government have continued to use the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) to arrest and detain people without trial for extended periods. The PTA continues to be disproportionately used against Tamils and Muslims.

Lawyer Hejaaz Hisbullah was charged with vague offences relating to causing “communal disharmony” earlier this year and remains in detention despite significant international attention on his case. Hundreds of Muslims are still in detention since their arrest in the aftermath of the Easter bomb attacks, facing vague accusations of links to the bombings. Many have struggled to engage and retain lawyers to fight their cases as there is a stigma attached to PTA cases. There have been a renewed spate of arrests of Tamils under the PTA, including ten Tamils who were arrested after gathering for a memorial on May 18.

International attention on the use of the PTA has increased, with an ongoing review of the European Union’s GSP+ trade policy putting pressure on the government to reform the legislation. In June the European Parliament passed a resolution which raised serious concerns about the ongoing use of the PTA and called on the EU to use the leverage afforded by GSP+ to demand the repeal or replacement of the PTA.

Following this renewed pressure, a number of PTA detainees have been released on bail, including the ten Tamils arrested on May 18 and poet and teacher Ahnaf Jazeem. Ahnaf spent more than 18 months in jail, including 6 months with no access to a lawyer, and still faces the prospect of a trial on vague charges.

Eroding independence of key institutions

Our analysis last year showed how the 20th Amendment posed a serious threat to independent institutions. On the first anniversary of the Amendment, we looked at the impact of the legislation, examining appointments to critical independent institutions such as the national Human Rights Commission (HRCSL) and the Office of Missing Persons. These institutions are supposed to hold the government to account, but recent appointments have reduced their independence and the pluralism of their membership. As a result, the global accreditation body (GANHRI) announced that it was making a recommendation to downgrade HRCSL from A status to B status. The key concerns raised by GANHRI were changes to the appointment process which give the President total control over appointments, the pluralism of HRCSL’s membership, and the lack of action on several key human rights concerns.

Days after this announcement, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed former judge Rohini Marasinghe as the new chairperson of the Commission, and Kalupahana Piyarathana Thero, a Buddhist monk, as an additional member. These two new members, both members of the Sinhalese majority community, are not likely to assuage the accreditation body’s concerns about pluralism of HRCSL membership.

Centralising power and governing through presidential taskforces

In our round-up of 2020, we highlighted how President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was centralising power and avoiding parliamentary scrutiny. This trend has continued, with the President continuing to govern through presidential taskforces.

In October, the President appointed a new taskforce headed by notorious monk Gnanasara Thero, leader of the extremist Buddhist group Bodu Bala Sena, to make proposals to implement the “One Country, One Law” concept. There was a civil society outcry over fears that the taskforce would target minorities, particularly given Gnanasara’s history of inciting hatred and violence against Muslims. It is the first time that Gotabaya Rajapaksa has officially endorsed Gnanasara, and while the President has attempted to address concerns about representation by adding Tamil members and one woman, it is doubtful how effective they could be within a Taskforce set up in this way.

US sanctions two more Sri Lankan military officers

On International Human Rights Day (10 December), the US announced that it was designating 12 individuals including two Sri Lankan military officers, Chandana Hettiarachchi and Sunil Ratnayake, for their involvement in gross violations of human rights. Both men have so far escaped justice in Sri Lanka for their crimes.

Ratnayake was one of the few soldiers ever to have been convicted for a war-time atrocity in Sri Lanka, when he was imprisoned in 2015 for murdering eight Tamil civilians, including three children, near Jaffna in 2000. Despite his conviction being upheld by the Supreme Court, Ratnayake was granted a pardon by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in March 2020.

Hettiarachchi was designated for his role in the abduction and disappearance of 11 men and boys in the emblematic ‘Navy 11’ case. The trial is ongoing, but charges against former Navy Commander Wasantha Karannagoda, the fourteenth accused, were recently dropped by the Attorney General.

The US designations bring some hope to the victims’ families and show that they have not been forgotten. But states must recognise that human rights violations are not just a problem of a few isolated cases and individuals, but rather the result of a culture of impunity which is driven from the very top. Human rights sanctions must target the senior commanders who both benefit from and perpetuate this culture of impunity in the ranks, and who continue to hold powerful positions in the country.

That’s why we’re calling on all states with human rights sanctions regimes to designate Shavendra Silva and Kamal Gunaratne, who are credibly accused of mass atrocity crimes and hold influential positions within the current regime, and to consider sanctioning others.