(2007) Current Human Rights Issues in Sri Lanka
Some current human rights issues in Sri Lanka (2007)
By M.C.M.Iqbal, National Liaison Officer of the IIGEPs.
President Mahinda Rajapakse’s assumption of office as the President of Sri Lanka saw a a deterioration of the human rights situation in the country in general and in the North and East in particular. Though during the presidential elections a pledge had been given to bring peace to the country even if he had to “walk an extra mile” the events that followed saw the chances of peace becoming dimmer and dimmer. The slender majority the President received at the parliamentary election compelled him to rely on the support of radicals such as the JVP and the JHU who did not believe in negotiating for a peaceful settlement with the LTTE. Subsequent actions of the President such as the appointment of persons known to be favourites of the Sinhala chauvinists to key posts as that of the Prime Minister, the Commander of the Army and the Adviser on Police Affairs sent wrong signals to the Tamils and the militants. These actions were capped by the appointment of the President’s brothers as the Defence Secretary and his Chief Adviser. The issues of concern relating to human rights situation in the country are briefly set out below -
2. Emergency Rule
Sri Lanka has had emergency rule for more than half the number of years since
independence almost 58 years ago. During this period the rights of the minorities especially the Tamils, have been systematically violated. The Emergency Regulations (ERs) suspend the relevant provisions of the normal law and removed judicial oversight in relation to arrest and detention. They give authority to the security forces to arrest any person on mere suspicion without a warrant. The ERs and the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) give wide powers to the Defence Secretary to detain persons for long periods without any charges being framed against them. Tamils often get rounded up en masse at cordon and search operations. As of 25 January 2007, there have been over 350 Tamils sent to a detention centre at Boosa of which at least 116 are known to still be there. These enactments erode the powers of the courts in relation to the rule of law. There had been several deaths of persons in the custody of the Police or security forces.
3. Abductions and Disappearances
Sri Lanka has had a history of large numbers of persons having disappeared during the period prior to 1995. This phenomena has re-appeared once more. A Civil Monitoring Committee is engaged in monitoring current involuntary disappearances, abductions, extra judicial killings, arbitrary arrests and detentions in Sri Lanka. They have recorded that 88 persons have been either abducted or gone missing in and around Colombo between 1st August 2006 up to 9th April 2007. The Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission (NHRC) had received 4,787 complaints of human rights abuses in 2006, including 3,128 regarding illegal arrests, torture and disappearance. It had received 419 complaints of disappearances in the Jaffna Peninsula alone since December 2005.
The SLHRC’s regional offices in the Tamil areas have received a large number of complaints of abductions. Many Tamils are now seeking “protective custody” orders from local magistrates to avoid being seized. Around 122 persons who had sought sanctuary in the SLHRC office in Jaffna had been sent to Jaffna Prison for safety.
Many arrests had been witnessed by people, but the security forces had later denied the arrests. In most cases relatives have not been able to find the places of detention. They had not been given receipts acknowledging arrest as per the directive of the President.. In some cases abducted persons have been traced to security force detention centres or prisons indicating that the abductions had been done by security forces personnel or persons connected to them. Among those who were abducted recently are the Vice Chancellor of the Eastern University and Fr. Jim Brown of a Catholic Church in the North. .
The UN Special Rapporteur on Extra-judicial Executions says in his report of March 2006 that the Sri Lankan police are engaged in summary executions, and in none of the cases of killing by police, had an internal police inquiry been opened. He points out that when grave misconduct such as torture or murder has been alleged against the police, the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) conducts the investigation, which undermines both its effectiveness and impartiality, and that cases referred to the Attorney General seldom lead to conviction. The Report adds that this ‘failure to effectively prosecute government violations is a deeply-felt problem in Sri Lanka’, and ‘many people doubt that their lives will be protected by the rule of law’.
In his Report to the UN General Assembly he has suggested that many of the killings taking place in Sri Lanka are best characterized as human rights violations and best addressed through human rights implementation and monitoring. In many cases of civilian deaths, the killings were carried out by unidentified persons arriving at homes and shooting them or taking them away to other places and murdering them. Many people were abducted by unidentified persons, murdered and their bodies dumped in public places. Others were murdered in public places such as bus stations, streets, shops or offices. These instances have created fear and panic among the people especially in the North and the East. Most of the civilians killed were between the ages of 15 and 35, but some people over the age of 60 had also been targeted. The Sri Lankan security forces, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and paramilitary groups aligned to the security forces are accused of carrying out these killings.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said in a Report in December 2006: “There is an urgent need for the International Community to monitor the human rights situation in Sri Lanka as these are not merely ceasefire violations, but grave breaches of International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law. ….. Nearly 2000 people, majority of them civilians, have been killed since the beginning of the year according to the Nordic Monitoring Team”
Hundreds of Tamil civilians have also been killed when they were targeted by Sri Lanka Air Force planes, heavy artillery, and the like. Conservative estimates by the BBC indicate nearly 3500 killings since January 2006: almost all of the civilian casualties in the war are Tamils.
4. Child recruitment
Agencies working with children report that child recruitment by the LTTE had resumed following the breakdown of Ceasefire Agreement. Before the March 2004 split between the LTTE and the Karuna faction, there was a sense that the LTTE might be prepared to end this unlawful practice of child recruitment. However, following the split there has been more widespread recruitment across the north and east by both the LTTE and Karuna faction that works closely with the security forces.
5. Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs)
The Tamil speaking population in Sri Lanka has, by percentage, one of the highest rates of internally displaced in the world today. Most of them have been bombed out of a number of locations. Most estimates show that more than one third of the remaining Tamil speaking population on the island is displaced and are living in make shift camps and welfare centres. In addition, many others have recently fled to India, which had already had hundreds of thousands of refugees from past periods of the conflict.
The camps of the IDPs are in a deplorable condition. Some of them are housed in school buildings. The unprecedented number of IDPs has placed an enormous pressure on the local community. Government restrictions on movement and on the transport of building materials have already had an adverse impact on the construction of shelters for war and tsunami victims. Education has been badly affected by the fighting in the Eastern Province and the displacement. There is increasing fear amongst the Tamil and Muslim displaced people that their homes will be given to Sinhala settlers. There are also reports that the government has been conducting forcible returns of IDPs into insecure areas, and has threatened to cut off humanitarian aid to IDPs camps and revoke family cards if they don’t follow orders.
The Jaffna Peninsula which has been denied access by road has a severe shortage of food and medical supplies.
6. Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression:
The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression said in his report of 27 March 2006 on Sri Lanka that he was seriously concerned, in the light of information that those responsible for attacks and killing of five journalists over the past four years had not yet been apprehended and brought to trial. The Special Rapporteur urged the government to provide protection to journalists and human rights defenders and called on the government to be thorough in investigating and in bringing to justice those responsible in line with international human rights norms and standards. Currently journalists and left wing activists are being targeted by the authorities under the Emergency Regulations. Reports and newspapers which criticize the government have come under sustained attack. President Rajapakse, the Defence Secretary and the Army Commander have from time to time summoned meetings of media representatives and warned them against criticizing the war on the grounds that it will affect national security and the morale of the security forces.
The Sri Lankan Free Media Movement (FMM) has pointed out that six people working for the media, including four journalists, have been killed in Sri Lanka in the last 16 months, while not a single crime against a journalist has been solved in the country for the last 20 years.
Recently a mob led by a Deputy Minister attacked journalists in Colombo who had gathered to cover a peace demonstration. Many Tamil and Sinhalese journalists have been sent death threats. Selvarajah Rajivarman, a journalist working for Uthayan newspaper was shot dead by gunmen riding in a motorbike on 29 April 2007 at 10:00 a.m. The journalist was said to be gathering news in the Jaffna town.
7. Freedom of Movement:
Since August 2006 the people living in the Jaffna Peninsula live amidst continued curfews, sometimes three to four days continuously with a break of a few hours. This affects the all walks of life in the north, particularly the poor daily wage earner. The curfew also facilitate abductions, sexual violence against women, disappearances and robberies in many areas. There are new restrictions imposed on foreigners travelling to the North and the East. This includes foreign staff of diplomatic missions, international organisations and international NGOs. This has seriously affected the relief and development work and has brought more suffering to tsunami and war affected victims. These are clear violations of the freedom of movement.
8. Insecurity of Human Rights Defenders
The international and local non-governmental organizations, human rights groups and individual human rights defenders are under serious threats. Responsible Ministers of State and even the President had repeatedly stated that those who are talking of human rights are supporters of the LTTE and that they should be treated as traitors.
The International Non-government Organisations have been repeatedly insulted calling them agents of the LTTE. Adverse public opinion has been created on the humanitarian work they are doing in Sri Lanka. Thus human rights activists and humanitarian workers have been put at risk of being targeted by misguided citizens and the security forces.
9. The Judiciary as the protector of human rights.
The judiciary of a country should be the protector of the rights of its citizens and should be accessible to victims of violations of their rights. But that will not be possible if the people do not have confidence in the judicial process. There is therefore an overwhelming need for an independent credible judicial system. As it is now, the judiciary lacks accountability and lack protection from undue interference. There had been instances of breach of natural justice. The President himself does not give provisions in the Constitution the respect that is due to it. Ignoring provisions in the 17th Amendment to the Constitution and appointing persons of his choice to independent institutions such as the National Human Rights Commission is a case in point. By a judgment of the Supreme Court, the people of Sri Lanka have been denied access to international remedies for victims of human rights violations.
The UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers on Judiciary said in as long ago as in July 2003 that corruption in the judicial system is on the increase. Up to now, no action has been taken to address these concerns.
The people of Sri Lanka in general and those in the North and East in particular bear the brunt of the deterioration of the security situation and consequences to their human rights.
During security operations violations of human rights has become more the rule than an exception. With the legality of the National Human Rights Commission becoming questionable, the people have lost the confidence that had been reposed on this institution in the past.
To add to this callous situation the President has recently issued a gazette notification conferring police powers to the military. This step is going to lead to a further deterioration of the human rights situation in the country. That the country is facing a war situation is no excuse to condone human rights violations by the police and the security forces personnel. This decision of the President is indicative of the degree of sanctity he attaches to human rights in this country. Despite utterances to the contrary the government is yet to credibly demonstrate that it is genuinely interested in following democratic principles and standards.
National Liaison Officer to the International
Independent Group of Eminent Persons.
5th May, 2007.