By Basil Fernando –
After the election of the new government, Sri Lanka’s foreign policy has been to show positive attitudes towards the protection and promotion of human rights. In international forums and in public declarations, it has declared that it accepts the international law on human rights, that it is committed to enforcing international agreements on human rights, and that it is committed to a policy of reconciliation. On issues like torture and ill treatment, the Minister of Foreign Affairs has categorically stated at the Human Rights Council that everything would be done to enforce the Convention against Torture (CAT) and that the police and military would be given instructions to avoid torture and ill treatment, and that those who violate these instructions would be taken to task.
However, as far as internal policies and practices are concerned, the government has done nothing to improve the conditions of human rights in Sri Lanka. In relation to all the basic rights, such as freedom from illegal arrest and illegal detention, the right to fair trial, right against torture and ill treatment, and all other rights relating to personal liberties, there are constant violations and the government has not taken any policy decision to improve the situation.
It is basically linked to the issues relating to the basic intuitions of justice – that is, the courts, the prosecutors’ department (Attorney General’s Department), and the investigation divisions (the police). The implementation of human rights only happens through the functioning institutions of the administration of justice. The government has not taken any policy decision in order to improve the conditions of the judiciary, the prosecutors’ department and the police. From the point of view of budgetary allocations, the government has not made any increase of investments to reform the judiciary to enable it to administer justice speedily; or to improve the prosecutor’s department so that it could have an adequate number of prosecutors, who could help to speed up the justice process; and, as far as the police are concerned, no attempts have been made to improve the quality of the investigative services, which are the only means through which the frequent use of torture can be avoided.
This also relates to the issue of enforced disappearances. The government has not made any attempts to introduce a law criminalizing enforced disappearances, as required by international law. Under international law, enforced disappearances are considered one of the most heinous crimes and the government, despite undertakings given internationally to create laws criminalizing enforced disappearances, has done nothing in order to enforce this. The fact that there is not even a draft of a bill shows that there has been no preparation at all for ensuring that enforced disappearances will be made a crime in Sri Lanka in the near future.
Additionally, the Minister of Justice has introduced an amendment to the criminal procedure whereby lawyers will be prevented from attending police stations to assist suspects. According to this law, the lawyers would only come to the police stations after the investigations stage is over and after statements have been recorded.
This is despite the fact that, almost daily, there are reports of severe cases of torture, some leading to custodial deaths and others leading to serious injuries.
The government has stopped the implementation of the law against torture, which is contained in CAT Act No 22 of 1994, which declares that any officer who commits an offence under this law would be punished with 7 years imprisonment and a Rs 10,000 fine. It is in the lawbook but, as a matter of policy, the law is not implemented.
Thus, the internal policy of the government regarding the improvement of human rights is so negative that it does not even implement the available law against the state officers who are the perpetrators of crimes. The policy of impunity is accepted and prevails within the country.
While this is happening, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has called for a discussion with civil society organizations to ask for suggestions in order to improve the implementation of human rights in Sri Lanka, particularly to stop the use of torture and ill treatment. In fact, there is nothing very much that the civil society can suggest on this so long as the government has a policy of impunity and when the government also ensures that the administration of justice remains in a dysfunctional state by not making investments to improve these institutions.
All kinds of recommendations can be made by civil society, and they may look very nice on paper, but so long as the basic policy of the government is not to invest in the administration of justice or implement the existing laws against human rights abuses, all these nicely prepared papers would be nothing but deception.
What civil society should do is to question the policy of the government not to invest money in the improvement of the judiciary, in order to ensure speedy justice; the improvement of the Attorney General’s Department, so that it can overcome many of its publicly known defects; and in the improvement of the policing system, so that it can be modernized and become able to conduct its affairs without the use of third degree methods, and so that the quality of its performance will ensure the respect for rights. Until then, there will be foreign policy declarations about improving human rights alongside internal policies that defeat the very point of having human rights declarations at all.