2019 in review - Sri Lanka: Security fears trump freedoms

Unrealized government commitments to pursue truth, justice and reparations, continued impunity for violations and abuses, compromised freedoms of religion and expression characterized 2019 for Sri Lanka, Amnesty International said as the human rights organization released its annual report on events in the Asia-Pacific region.

Human Rights in Asia-Pacific: Review of 2019 published today by Amnesty International delivers the most comprehensive analysis of the state of human rights in the world’s largest continent.

For Sri Lanka, Amnesty International finds that the fallout from the April bombings bred communal violence, endangered minorities and put freedoms in peril. Justice and reparations for the 30 year conflict seem to be increasingly out of reach for the victims, as even the limited but key gains of recent years appeared at risk of rollback given statements by the new government.

For the victims of Sri Lanka’s decades-long conflict, there was little progress on disappearances and no accountability for other crimes
Biraj Patnaik

“It was a difficult year for Sri Lanka. The tragic April bombings, which devastated hundreds of lives, led to the state adopting a heavy-handed security response that trumped people’s human rights,” said Biraj Patnaik, South Asia Director at Amnesty International.

“For the victims of Sri Lanka’s decades-long conflict, there was little progress on disappearances and no accountability for other crimes.”

Undue Restrictions on Freedoms

The authorities used Emergency Regulations to resort to arbitrary detentions and to impose undue restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression and religious belief in the aftermath of bombings earlier in the year.

It also banned clothing that conceals the face – effectively targeting women wearing face veils.

The Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), long-criticised for not being in line with international human rights law and standards, was also used to allay national security concerns despite repeated commitments from the government to repeal it.

Against this backdrop, a spate of anti-Muslim violence followed the April bombings – that had been claimed by the armed group calling itself ‘Islamic State’. The security forces did little to protect minority communities from attack.

“Laws that actively jeopardize freedom of expression and freedom of religion must be repealed and replaced, as the Sri Lankan government had previously committed to do. As reflected by the aftermath of the April bombings, it becomes all too common for authorities to violate the rights of particularly vulnerable groups in the name of national security,” said Biraj Patnaik.

Limited Advances on Transitional Justice

Repeated assurances by the government to address allegations of serious human rights violations including crimes under international law carried out during the thirty year conflict which ended in 2009 remained largely unrealized.

The Office on Missing Persons issued a report that made critical recommendations for interim relief and justice but only one of these was approved by the outgoing cabinet.

The Attorney General filed hurried indictments in November in numerous cases of serious human rights violations but omitted other alleged perpetrators, including in the emblematic case of missing journalist, Prageeth Eknaligoda. In July, a magistrate in Trincomalee acquitted 12 members of the police Special Task Force accused of executing five Tamil students in 2006 due to lack of evidence. No one else has been charged for these killings since then.

Several military officials named in a 2014 investigation conducted by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights were promoted to positions of power after the new government was sworn in at the end of the year.

The new government under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has also been distancing itself from the UN Human Rights Council resolution 30/1 – which established truth, justice and reparation mechanisms – stating that his government is not bound to deliver on commitments made by a former government.

“Effectively addressing a legacy of serious human rights violations requires serious commitment to confront truth, justice and reparations, no matter who is responsible. Choosing to ignore these practices risk creating an environment for further conflict, further human rights violations and abuse. Sri Lanka must not turn its back on the duty it owes to the Sri Lankan people,” said Biraj Patnaik.

Some other developments

The threat of executions returning to Sri Lanka after more than four decades was staved off by the actions of lawyers and activists, with the Supreme Court granting a temporary reprieve.

he Office on Missing Persons established regional offices in Matara, Mannar and Jaffna.

Human rights in Asia-Pacific: Review of 2019