Myth-Busting Sri Lanka at the Universal Periodic Review
On Wednesday 1st February, the Sri Lankan government will undergo its fourth Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. You can watch it here between 9:30-12:30 Geneva time.
The UPR is a quadrennial review which allows member states to scrutinise each other’s human rights records and make recommendations, which will either be accepted or rejected by in this case the Sri Lankan government at the June Human Rights Council session.
Ahead of the session, the Sri Lankan government (GoSL) has submitted a national report, detailing its supposedly successful implementation of recommendations that were made at the third UPR cycle in 2017. Unfortunately, much of the government’s report is highly misleading. To effectively hold the GoSL to account, member states must understand why these claims are dishonest, and what the true human rights situation in Sri Lanka is. To help combat this disinformation, we are busting 5 myths contained in the government’s UPR report.
Claim: The UPR report asserts that since 2017, organisations such as the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) and the Office of Reparations (OR) have ‘carried out many productive and constructive activities’. Operating through a supposed ‘victim-centric approach’, the report claims the OR has provided ‘relief and assistance’ to victims, including the ‘restitution of land rights’. The government further claims that Sri Lanka’s domestic law allows families of victims to ‘obtain compensation and information on the whereabouts of victims.’
Fact: The OMP, which was established in 2016 to investigate enforced disappearances, has categorically failed to fulfil its mandate and is not fit for purpose. The government claims that the OMP has ‘established mechanisms to expeditiously assist victims’. In reality, however, the Office has not provided information about the fate of any forcibly disappeared person to a single family member. The OMP contains no accountability mechanism, and many Tamil families of the disappeared, who have been protesting continuously for more than 2,000 days over the government’s lack of action on disappearances consider the organisation ‘inactive’. Its insufficient resources and lack of independence prompted Commissioner Shiraz Noordeen to resign in May 2022. OMP Chair Mahesh Katulanda recently denied that Tamils who surrendered to the armed forces in 2009 disappeared and told Reuters that the armed forces’ brutal Northern offensive had ‘rescued’ civilians. Meanwhile, most families of the disappeared have not received adequate compensation, and significant portions of land seized in the North and East remain under military occupation.
To read more about the occupation of land by the armed forces, see our article on the subject here.
Given the current status of the OMP and OR, UN member states must demand their replacement with independent, international and victim-centric mechanisms. These bodies could investigate disappearances and advance accountability in Sri Lanka, compensate victims, and return confiscated lands.
Claim: The report asserts that Sri Lankan courts have ‘consistently upheld’ the Constitutional right to freedom of speech and assembly, and that so long as protests do not result in ‘criminal obstruction’ or ‘unlawful occupation’, ‘anyone can exercise their rights and freedoms’.
Fact: Since the start of large-scale anti-government protests in the spring of 2022, Sri Lankan authorities have cracked down hard on protestors. In July, soldiers and police officers attacked ‘GotaGoGama’ in Colombo in the dead of night, attacking protestors and international journalists, just hours before they were scheduled to leave the site. These violent tactics continue to be deployed by the security forces, who recently used water cannons against peaceful demonstrators in Jaffna.
Hundreds of protestors have been arrested since the outbreak of the protests, some of whom have been detained for extended periods of time, including under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). One of the student leaders detained under the PTA, Wasantha Mudalige, has been held for more than 100 days; his family have expressed concern for his health, as he has been held in solitary confinement in unsanitary and dangerous conditions. UN member states must demand that Mudalige and all others detained for participating in peaceful protests are released with charges dropped and that protests be allowed to take place in Sri Lanka without being disrupted by the security forces.
Claim: The report describes Sri Lanka as having a ‘vibrant civil society’ which has allowed the NGO sector to ‘compliment the programmes of the Government’ and provide ‘constructive comments on Government policies’, suggesting that the government allows for and encourages the flourishing of civil society in the country.
Fact: The Sri Lankan state has continued to use intimidation and aggressive legislation to limit the efficacy of civil society organisations since the last UPR cycle in 2017. Activists and NGO workers, particularly in the North and East, report regular harassment from security forces. According to one activist speaking to Human Rights Watch in 2021, activists have had their devices hacked, have received death threats, and have been subject to arbitrary violence or arrest; this had led to regular ‘self-censoring’ for their own safety.
Meanwhile, the government has continued to aggressively legislate against NGOs. Whilst the NGO Secretariat was removed from the purview of the Ministry of Defence in November 2021, it has since been transferred to the Ministry of Public Security, which means NGOs are still treated as security threats. The government has continually proposed amendments to the Voluntary Social Service Organization Act to tighten restrictions on NGOs, and government officials frequently allege that such organisations have nefarious anti-national objectives. In November 2021, then-Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa described them as ‘agents of foreign powers disguised as social activists’ who were capable of overthrowing ‘strong and populist governments.’
The international community must demand that the GoSL allows for the secure and independent operation of NGOs, and that the harassment and intimidation of civil society organisations is brought to an immediate halt.
Claim: The government’s report describes how the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL), established in 1996, maintains ‘its functional independence’ which has allowed it to ‘promote human rights’ and engage with the government as ‘an independent observer’.
Fact: The HRCSL is not an independent body. Following the adoption of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution in 2020, the President has been able to directly appoint commissioners to the HRCSL without parliamentary oversight. Whilst the report claims that the recent 21st Amendment has strengthened ‘independent oversight of key institutions’, the government retains indirect control over the appointment of commissioners. In fact, the HRCSL was recently downgraded to a ‘B’ status organisation by the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI). This was done on the basis that the HRCSL’s selection and appointment process is insufficiently transparent, and the organisation has not done enough to address human rights violations in the country.
This is especially concerning given the powers vested in the HRCSL. In this report, the government notes that the HRCSL is responsible for vetting UN Peacekeepers and is Sri Lanka’s designated National Preventive Mechanism for the crime of torture. Foreign governments must demand that the independence of the HRCSL is sufficiently strengthened.
Claim: The report claims that, following an Act of Parliament in March 2022, Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) has been substantially amended, introducing measures to protect those in detention. It further suggests that a new piece of legislation on counterterrorism is being prepared, which will ‘balance national security concerns’ with international human rights standards.
Fact: The March 2022 amendments to the PTA are wholly insubstantial and do not address the fundamental problems with the Act. The reformed Act retains an overly-broad definition of terrorism, allowing far too many individuals to be swept up in its net. It does not prevent confessions from being used in evidence, which has frequently allowed for and encouraged the torture of detainees, who can still be detained for 12 months without charge or trial. These changes have been derided as cosmetic by many observers, which is why the government is now considering replacing the PTA.
Unfortunately, there is little indication at present that new legislation will meet expectations, and this is not the first time that Sri Lanka has proposed new anti-terror legislation. In 2018, the Cabinet – including then-Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, the current President – approved a draft ‘Counter Terrorism Act’ to replace the PTA. Whilst this ‘CTA’ was an improvement, it did not adhere to international standards. It lacked provisions for effective judicial oversight, and granted excessive powers to the President to declare curfews: to the Minister of Law and Order to restrict the free movement of suspects; and the security forces to make arrests without warrants. Like the PTA, its wording still remained vague and overly broad. Despite being tabled in Parliament, the flawed CTA has so far not been passed into law. The UN must demand the repeal of the PTA and the release of all PTA detainees. Member states must insist that any draft counter-terror legislation is submitted for international review to ensure it complies with human rights standards.
At this UPR session, it is critical that UN member states’ recommendations reflect the dire state of human rights in Sri Lanka. The GoSL’s report attempts to obfuscate this reality by misleading its readers, and presenting stories of progress which do not reflect the situation on the ground. It is critical that this misinformation is challenged, and states must ensure that these critical human rights issues are addressed on 1 February 2023.