By Chandani Kirinde
Amnesty International (AI) said yesterday that Sri Lanka’s human rights record in 2019 was characterised by unrealised Government commitments to pursue truth, justice and reparations, continued impunity for violations and abuses, and compromised freedoms of religion and expression.
Speaking at the launch of the human rights organisation’s Human Rights in Asia-Pacific: Review of 2019, Deputy Regional Director Amnesty International South Asia Omar Waraich said that 2019 was a year of repression, but also of resistance in the region.
“Across Southeast Asia, repressive governments entrenched themselves further, silenced their opponents, muzzled the media, and shrank civic space to the point where, in many countries, even participation in a peaceful protest can trigger arrest. In South Asia, governments appeared anxious to keep up, innovating new ways to perpetuate old patterns of repression – especially through the introduction of draconian laws that punish dissent online,” Waraich said.
The report provides a comprehensive overview of the human rights situation in the region. Violations of human rights, death penalty, climate crisis, as well as dissent and fights against hate in the regional are documented under each country profile in the report.
With reference to Sri Lanka, the AI report found that the fallout of the Easter Sunday bombings bred communal violence, endangered minorities, and put freedoms in peril, while the justice and reparations promised to victims of the 30-year conflict seem to be increasingly out of reach for the victims. AI’s main concern was that even the limited but key gains of recent years may be rolled back, going by some of the statements by the new Government. Some of the key concerns for AI in 2019 was the use of Emergency Regulations by the authorities after the Easter Sunday attacks, which led to arbitrary detentions, led to the imposition of undue restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression and religious belief, as well as the ban on clothing that conceals the face, effectively targeting women wearing face veils.
AI also said that against this backdrop, a spate of anti-Muslim violence followed the April bombings, which had been claimed by the armed group calling itself ‘Islamic State’, and that security forces did little to protect minority communities from attack.
That 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, was also highlighted in the report.It said that a repeated assurance 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 unrealised.
“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,” AI said.
It added that 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 Ekneligoda. “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.” The year also saw several military officials named in a 2014 investigation, conducted by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, being promoted to positions of power, while 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, the Report added.
AI said that 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 while the Office on Missing Persons established regional offices in Matara, Mannar and Jaffna.
Other speakers at the press conference were Radhika Coomaraswamy, a Sri Lankan lawyer, diplomat and human rights advocate, and Thyagi Ruwanpathirana, South Asia Regional Researcher of Amnesty International.