Human Rights and Democracy report - Sri Lanka
This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The human rights situation in Sri Lanka did not improve during the last three months.
Latest Update: 31 December 2013
The human rights situation in Sri Lanka did not improve during the last three months, although the international focus on the country’s human rights record intensified during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in November.
There were a number of incidents during the week of CHOGM. On 13 November, family members of the disappeared from the north were prevented by security forces from travelling to Colombo to attend a human rights festival. The festival itself was attacked on 14 November, allegedly by pro-government protestors who previously attacked the Sri Lankan Opposition Leader’s vehicle. A Tamil youth at the event was temporarily detained and allegedly attacked by the police. The police obtained a court order preventing protests and processions in Colombo during the 15and 16 November, resulting in the cancellation of a candlelight vigil by human rights defenders. Part of the British Channel 4 team in Sri Lanka for CHOGM decided to cut short their visit, citing extensive intimidation and surveillance, including an apparently government-orchestrated protest which prevented the train they were travelling on from reaching the North.
During his CHOGM visit, British Prime Minister David Cameron said that the UK would be forced to use its position in the UN Human Rights Council to support the call by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to establish an independent international investigation, if Sri Lanka failed to set up a credible, transparent and independent domestic process by March 2014. The Prime Minister also urged the Sri Lankan government to agree a meaningful political settlement with the North, including demilitarisation, and to fully implement Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) recommendations. The Prime Minister was also able to undertake a visit to Jaffna, the first visit of any Head of Government to the Northern Province since Sri Lanka’s Independence in 1948. This visit allowed him to see the situation on the ground for himself, and speak to some of those affected by the conflict to hear their concerns directly. The Prime Minister was accompanied to Jaffna by media organisations such as BBC, ITV, Sky and Channel 4, which helped to contribute to increased scrutiny on human rights and accountability issues in Sri Lanka during CHOGM. Foreign Secretary William Hague called on Sri Lanka to end the culture of impunity on violence against women during an event addressing civil society, members of the Sri Lankan government, campaigners and the media on preventing sexual violence in conflict. The Foreign Secretary and Minister for Sri Lanka and the Commonwealth Hugo Swire met a wide range of Sri Lankan civil society actors and human rights defenders, including media activists, families of the disappeared, those working on torture prevention, and women’s rights activists. We have emphasised to the Sri Lankan government that the human rights defenders, journalists and members of the public whom Ministers met during CHOGM should not face any reprisals. Our High Commission in Colombo is closely monitoring this situation post-CHOGM.
Concerns continued over the culture of impunity in Sri Lanka. On 14 October a Sri Lankan court released on bail 12 Special Task Force personnel accused of killing five Tamil students in the eastern town of Trincomalee in 2006 (the ‘Trinco 5’). The case had been re-opened for investigation in July this year. On 3 December French NGO, Action Against Hunger (ACF), in a report on the assassination of 17 ACF humanitarian aid workers in Sri Lanka, alleged that the aid workers were assassinated by members of the Sri Lankan security forces and the crime was covered up by “top Sri Lankan authorities”. In December, newspapers reported that the Sri Lankan Human Rights Commission had postponed the National Inquiry on Torture that was due to be set up with assistance from the Commonwealth Secretariat, on a request from civil society. Prominent civil society actors have disassociated themselves from the request.
There were a number of custodial deaths of suspects under questionable circumstances during the period, in addition to two reported abductions. One of the alleged victims returned days later while the other remains missing. In a statement, civil society activists condemned the detention of seven Tamil youths under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) following their arrest in November. All seven remain in detention. Activists were concerned that the arrests were unfounded and would perpetuate the climate of fear and insecurity of the people of the North. A 10 December Human Rights Day demonstration by the families of the disappeared in the eastern town of Trincomalee was attacked by unidentified masked men. EU Heads of Missions in Colombo in their Human Rights Day message encouraged the government to extend further invitations to facilitate outstanding visit requests by other UN special mandate holders, including the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances. There were also a number of attacks on Christian churches and mosques during the period, including three on Christmas Eve.
Positively, the Sri Lankan External Affairs Minister told diplomats in December that a proposed Witness Protection Bill was nearly at the end of the parliamentary process. The Commission investigating wartime disappearances extended its deadline to receive complaints. The Commission’s mandate was also extended by six months. Dr. Chaloka Beyani, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), visited Sri Lanka from 2-6 December. He noted Sri Lanka’s “impressive strides in rebuilding infrastructure” and highlighted the need for more durable housing, access to social services, and the creation of livelihood opportunities. He also noted that of equal importance is an environment allowing the resettled and remaining IDPs to exercise their property rights, receive information on missing family members and access legal services.