By Jehan Perera –
Twice every year, the situation in the North and East of the country resembles that which existed during the three decades of war. One occasion is during May 18-19 which is the anniversary of the end of the war in 2009. The other is November 26-27 which used to be celebrated by the LTTE as Heroes Day when they remembered their war dead. Even though the war ended twelve years ago, these two days have the capacity to mobilise the sentiments of the Tamil people particularly in the North and East and to generate an equivalent opposite reaction in the government which leads to a heightened military presence. The period 2015-19, in which the government actively sought to promote a reconciliation process that gave more leeway to Tamil sentiment was one of de-escalation.
The wounds of war remain unhealed as the events of the past week have shown. The week leading up to November 27 saw people and organised groups in the North and East preparing to commemorate the war dead and the government preparing to forestall it. Police sought to get prohibition orders from the courts in the hope that the law would prevent the commemoration events from taking place. However, most of the courts did not oblige, and reaffirmed the basic rights to freedom of association and to remember the dead. They also ordered that no LTTE symbols could be displayed and refused to place further limits on the right to memorialise, except to the need to keep within Covid health guidelines. The right to remember is a human right, which the JVP practices faithfully every year, and the law setting up the Office of Reparations offers support to memorialisation.
Despite the presence of large contingents of the security forces in public places, and checkpoints and partrolling, remembrance events took place in most areas in public places and cemeteries, with people lighting lamps and candles. In some places memorials took place in the face of soldiers standing near to them with guns in hand. In other places the large numbers who gathered were not permitted to enter the area they wished to go to, and only a few were permitted in with the rest of them standing out. In many other parts of the North and East more low-key commemorations took place. Due to the heavy security presence and the fear of harassment, intimidation and detention, many opted to hold memorial events in their homes. A journalist was hospitalised after he was allegedly assaulted for taking a photograph of the name board of the site where the last battle of the war was fought. This demonstrates the use of arbitrary power in violation of human rights .
The heavy handed actions in the North and East take place at a time when the government is also trying hard to impress the international community that it is serious about improving the human rights situation in the country. The international perception that the human rights situation in the country is deteriorating is very strong. Recently the famous Scotland Yard, which had been training the Sri Lankan police said that they will not renew their training contract with the country’s police force during the remainder of the agreed period, which ends in March 2022. They cited human rights concerns. In recent days, the Bar Association of Sri Lanka and human rights organisations have protested against the deaths in police custody of those accused of drug and other criminal offences. The cessation of training by Scotland Yard is liable to make a bad situation even worse.
However, the Scotland Yard decision is in keeping with the overall international assessment of human rights in Sri Lanka. In its latest report on the global human rights situation the UK’s Annual Human Rights and Democracy Report issued in July 2021 stated Sri Lanka is among the 31 Human Rights Priority Countries. The January 2021 report on Sri Lanka by the Office of the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) expressed deep concern over “trends emerging over the past year, which represent clear early warning signs of a deteriorating human rights situation and a significantly heightened risk of future violations”. The report further stated that “Security forces increased their surveillance and intimidation of human rights activists and their use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, with a number of arbitrary arrests. The government proposed new regulations with powers to arrest and send individuals to rehabilitation centres to be ‘de-radicalised’ with no judicial oversight or requirement for further process.”
In June this year the EU parliament gave an early warning that its GSP Plus duty free tax privilege would be withdrawn as a last resort unless Sri Lanka demonstrated that it was serious about keeping to its commitment to uphold human rights. This is an economic benefit that the Sri Lankan economy cannot afford to lose when foreign exchange earnings are much lower than the demand for it and there is a shortage of dollars in the market and new strains of the Covid virus threaten to strike. While the EU resolution states that twelve years on from the end of the war, domestic initiatives for accountability and reconciliation have repeatedly failed to produce results, thus more deeply entrenching impunity and exacerbating victims’ distrust in the system, the EU has indicated that the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) as it currently stands is central to what is unacceptable to them.
The government is presently in the process of amending the PTA. It appointed both a committee consisting of senior government officials headed by Defense Secretary General Kamal Gunaratne to submit a report on the PTA which they have done. Now that report is being vetted by a ministerial subcommittee headed by Foreign Minister Professor G L Peiris who are seeking the views of other sections of society. This past weekend they met with civil society members in the form of the Sri Lankan Collective for Consensus (SLCC), which consists of individuals drawn from civil society organisations that have reconciliation, human rights and peace building aims in their work. Prof Peiris along with Justice Minister Ali Sabry explained that there was no draft legislation as yet to share but only a set of proposals which they wished to discuss with civil society and other groups.
Prof Peiris explained that the changes to PTA proposed were a result of consensus between the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Justice and Defence and the Attorney General’s Department; these changes are not conceived as one time ones, but as a part of a continuum, there being other changes contemplated that will be agreed on later. He also assured the members of SLCC that changes in legislation will be rapid, and take place early next year. The changes proposed will fall short of expectations of those whose primary concern is human rights, but are an improvement over the present formulation of the PTA. The salient amendments described in the verbal presentation made by Prof Peiris was the shortening of the maximum period of the detention order, restriction in the use of PTA, judicial oversight, supervision by magistrates of detainees, access to lawyers by those detained, speedy trials and repeal of Section 14 with regard to publication. Prof Peiris promised that this was only the start.
The question, and the challenge, will be in the implementation. Support for the initiatives taken by Prof Peiris needs to come not only from a selected few of his colleagues but from all of the government to enable us to ward off the challenges posed by EU, UN Human Rights Council and the international community. The present spate of killings in police custody is unacceptable. In one instance, the lawyers for the person under arrest had warned beforehand that their client will be killed in the next day or days in a shootout, and appealed to the Bar Association and to the police IGP to protect that person’s life but to no avail. All systems collapse and no perpetrator is identified and so there is impunity.
In a statement the Bar Association said “Once again, the Sri Lanka Police is involved in an incident which has the hallmarks of an extra judicial killing. This killing comes at a time that Sri Lanka’s human rights record is under scrutiny and there are threats of consequences to the country and its economy as a result of the deteriorating human rights situation…Responsibility for these killings must lie not only with the persons who carried out the killings but also all those who command them and those who failed to ensure the safety and security of the suspect. The BASL calls upon the IGP to explain his failure to protect the suspect who was in Police custody.” There are other changes that need to be made, the most important of which is the need for a system of checks and balances that works and the Sri Lankan state to consider all its citizens to be precious.