ECONOMYNEXT – The overall human rights situation in Sri Lanka continued to deteriorate in 2020, the UK’s annual report on human rights and democracy said.
Titled ‘Human Rights and Democracy: 2020 Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office report‘, the document noted an alleged increase in surveillance and intimidation of civil society, limited or no progress with regard to accountability, militarisation and other issues.
“The government of Sri Lanka delivered free and peaceful parliamentary elections despite the COVID-19 pandemic, and maintained low numbers of COVID-19 cases compared to global figures. However, there was increased surveillance and intimidation of civil society, constraints placed on communities practising religious burial rites, a number of lengthy detentions without charge, and several setbacks on post-conflict accountability and reconciliation,” it said.
Noting Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolutions 30/1, 34/1, and 40/1 on post-conflict transitional justice, accountability and reconciliation, the UK report said there was no progress shown by Sri Lanka despite the government announcing its commitment to a domestic mechanism for reconciliation and accountability.
“The UK made clear its commitment to reconciliation and accountability in statements delivered on behalf of the Core Group on Sri Lanka at the HRC in February, June and September,” the report said.
In June 2021, the core group, comprising, Canada, Germany, North Macedonia, Malawi, Montenegro and the UK, expressed concern over what it called the lack of progress with regard to human rights, the rights of religious minorities and other issues highlighted in resolution 46/1.
The UK report, dated July 08 2021, said Sri Lanka’s commitment to accountability was further called into question in March 2020 when President Gotabaya Rajapaksa pardoned and released former Army Staff Sergeant Sunil Ratnayake, who was convicted in 2015 for the murder of eight civilians (including children) in Jaffna in 2000.
Ratnayake, who was attached to the long range reconnaissance patrol of the army, was sentenced to death by the Colombo High Court in June 2015 for his alleged involvement in the Mirusuvil massacre in 2000. The former soldier, who was the first accused in the case, was found guilty of the murder of eight civilians including three children. He was pardoned by President Rajapaksa on March 26, days after an island-wide curfew was declared to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Amnesty Intentional, too, said in May last year that in pardoning Ratnayake, the COVID-19 pandemic was exploited as an “opportunity to reverse justice”
The Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office report further said the President continued to appoint controversial military figures accused of war crimes to government roles, while civilian functions such as the Secretariat for Non-Governmental Organisations were brought under the control of the Ministry of Defence. In October, the government passed the 20th amendment to the constitution, which the report said extended executive power over appointments to the judiciary and independent institutions, and reversed several important institutional checks and balances.
“In March, the President dissolved parliament ahead of elections, which were then twice postponed because of the COVID-19 outbreak. Although the government went on to deliver peaceful and democratic elections in August, the delay resulted in a lack of parliamentary oversight between March and August. The government instead formed several presidential ‘taskforces’ without parliamentary scrutiny, including to oversee the COVID-19 response,” the report said.
The report was also critical of the government’s widely condemned move in March 2020 to cremate Muslim victims of COVID-19 against the wishes of the community with little or no scientific basis to the decision. World Health Organisation guidelines had also permitted burials.
“This particularly affected Muslim and some Christian communities, for whom burial is an essential rite. In December, the Supreme Court dismissed several petitions that challenged this policy. The outbreak of COVID-19 also led to an increase in anti-Muslim sentiment, fuelled by hate speech and disinformation suggesting that Muslims were ‘carriers’ of COVID-19 and were violating prevention measures. In June, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, expressed concern over the clampdown on freedom of expression, noting an announcement made by the police in April to arrest those critical of the Government’s COVID-19 response,” the report said.
The report also made references to allegations that judicial medical officers and police had conducted invasive intimate examinations on LGBT+ persons without their consent, following which the Justice Minister Ali Sabry gave instructions to halt and investigate the practice.
The Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) has been a running theme in international pronouncements on Sri Lanka’s human rights record. The European parliament moved a resolution on June 10 calling for its release.
The UK report on Sri Lanka’s human rights situation in 2020, too, noted that the government of Sri Lanka continued to use the PTA, despite a renewed pledge at the 43rd session of the UNHRC to review the legislation.
“In April, prominent human rights lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah was arrested by Sri Lanka’s Criminal Investigation Department under the PTA. Hejaaz was detained without charge or presentation before a court. International rights groups noted an increase in intimidation, surveillance and online abuse, including threats to lawyers, journalists, families of disappeared persons and individuals working on human rights and anti-corruption.”
Riots in Sri Lanka’s prisons in late 2020 were also highlighted in the report.
“In November, unrest at Mahara prison over COVID-19 concerns resulted in the death of eleven inmates and injury of over 150. A committee appointed to investigate the unrest concluded that the inmates’ demands had been reasonable, and autopsies revealed that all inmates had died of gunshot wounds. In November, the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka wrote to the Inspector General of Police to highlight an increase in deaths in custody, and released a prison study which noted that the treatment of prisoners fell below international standards,” it said.
The UK will continue to press for progress on human rights, gender equality and protections for minorities and vulnerable groups in 2021, the report further said.
“We shall continue to invest in ambitious programmes which support conflict-affected communities, promote the role of civil society, facilitate social cohesion, and underline the critical importance of post-conflict reconciliation and accountability,” it added. (Colombo/July09/2021)