In May of this year, we will be commemorating 15 years since the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka, when tens of thousands of Tamil civilians were killed by the armed forces’ deliberate bombing and shelling.
In 2010, following those war crimes by the armed forces of Sri Lanka and other serious human rights abuses committed by them, the European Union took the momentous decision of suspending Sri Lanka’s GSP+ trading privileges, not reinstating them until 2017. Beyond its immediate economic effects, this revocation and subsequent 15 demands made of Sri Lanka, sent a clear message that the EU would not stand by as the Sri Lankan government committed mass atrocity crimes and continued its gross human rights abuses. The suspension came after the government failed to make a written promise of progress on three human rights conventions which deal with torture, children’s rights, and civil and political rights. Whilst this measure could not alone provide the accountability sought by victims and survivors in Sri Lanka, it placed immediate pressure on the government to change some of its practices.
In 2024, Sri Lanka is very far from meeting its human rights and good governance obligations as a continued recipient of GSP+ privileges. As the recent European Commission report highlights, the government has walked back many of the commitments it made since 2015, which had allowed for the reinstatement of trading privileges in the first place. The Office of Missing Persons, which was ostensibly established to provide truth and justice to the families of the forcibly disappeared, has achieved almost nothing since its establishment almost 7 years ago. Sri Lanka has walked back its commitment to cooperate with the United Nations (UN) for the implementation of Human Rights Council resolution (40/1 and related resolutions 34/1 and 30/1) and has totally failed to advance accountability for gross human rights abuses, expressing its intention to instead pursue a domestic accountability and reconciliation process despite its long history of failed domestic accountability mechanisms.
Instead, the government of Sri Lanka is introducing new, repressive legislation which will further worsen the human rights situation in the country. In 2021, the European parliament called on Sri Lanka to repeal the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and to ensure that any replacement legislation adheres with international best practices. Unfortunately, the government’s proposed replacement legislation – the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) – has been met with real concern by Sri Lankan civil society. Activists we spoke with on our visit to Sri Lanka last year believed the bill proposed a real threat to their vital human rights work, and the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights has called for the Bill to be revised, as it does not mitigate many of the serious problems with the PTA, and provides new and excessive powers to the executive (such as expanding the legal definition of terrorist offences beyond international guidelines and expanding the power to make detention orders outside of judicial oversight). The PTA has long been used to silence Tamils, Muslims, human rights defenders, and government critics; the ATA appears to have a similar purpose.
The Online Safety Act, passed in January, is a serious threat to free expression in Sri Lanka, whilst a proposed NGO law will place intolerable restrictions on Sri Lankan civil society and curtail their freedom of association. NGOs we have spoken to within Sri Lanka face constant harassment and intimidation by the police, including regular raids on their offices and interrogation of their staff. Meanwhile, protestors across the country continue to face arrest and brutal crackdowns for merely speaking out against the government. This is particularly pronounced for Tamils, including family members of the disappeared, who face ongoing and targeted harassment from the same government who has done nothing to locate their forcibly disappeared loved ones.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Sri Lanka is a party, was codified in law as the ICCPR Act. However, rather than ensuring the citizens’ rights under the ICCPR are upheld, the legislation is used by the authorities to arrest government critics and suppress free expression. For example, comedian Nathasha Edirisooriya was arrested under this law in May 2023 for ‘insulting Buddhism’. The absurd manner in which a core piece of the international human rights framework has been perverted by the Sri Lankan government is demonstrative of the general contempt displayed for international human rights law.
In this context, it is little surprise that few in civil society have any faith in the government’s proposed ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’ (TRC). The government of Sri Lanka has set up dozens of commissions to investigate human rights abuses over the past few decades, the reports of many of which have never been published and none of which have resulted in any significant accountability or substantive changes in policy. The proposed TRC has no avenue for real justice for victims, and the government has still not provided a clear roadmap on how they will ensure the safety and security of any individual providing testimony to it – which was a fatal flaw in previous post-war commissions of Inquiry. The European Union must listen to the concerns of Sri Lankan civil society and should not engage with the Commission in its current form.
Whilst the Sri Lankan authorities have continued their crackdown on civil society, members of the government and security forces remain totally unaccountable. Those who have been sanctioned internationally for their alleged role in war crimes, such as General Shavendra Silva, remain in official positions. Deshabandu Tennakoon, who was found responsible for torture by the Supreme Court in December, has remained Acting Inspector-General of Police; Lohan Ratwatte, who stepped down as Prisons Minister in 2021 after admitting to drunkenly threatening Tamil prisoners with a pistol, has recently been given a new ministerial role. It is impossible for a real domestic truth process to take place in such an environment. The Wickremesinghe government even refused to hold local elections last year, an ominous sign for democracy in the country.
Instead, the European Union and EU member states must support international accountability efforts, as demanded by victims and survivors in Sri Lanka. Continuing support for the Human Rights Council’s Sri Lanka Accountability Project is essential, and member states must insist on a strong UN resolution on Sri Lanka in September.
The lesson that should be learned from 2017 is that mere promises alone are not enough. For the government of Sri Lanka to retain good relations with the European Union, including privileged trading relationships, it must demonstrate real progress on human rights and governance reform. At the moment, unfortunately, Sri Lanka is going backwards. It is critical that the European Union understands this and responds to the country’s continued backsliding by suspending trading privileges and supporting continued international efforts for accountability in Sri Lanka.