SRI LANKA: A Gratuitous Relationship for the Promotion of Human Rights – AHRC and Sri Lanka 

Sri Lanka Report for 2017

2017 was a decisive year for Sri Lanka, showing what progress had – and hadn’t – been made in the past few years.

In January 2015, a new government was elected with a massive intervention on the part of the people. For 10 years, their premiere, Mahinda Rajapaksa, ran an authoritarian regime. During this regime, one of the most visible signs of its authoritarian behaviour was the use of overt forms of violence on the people. The Ministry of Defense, which was the most powerful ministry during this time, was run by Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was the president’s younger brother. The basic internal control mechanism in the country came under the control this ministry. The Defense Secretary developed ways to control all activities of the armed forces and the police. In this way, he became the most powerful man within the state apparatus.

Some of the more remarkable events of the time were the arrests of journalists and, on two occasions in particular, the most gruesome forms of cruelty being perpetrated on two of the most well-known journalists in the country. In one instance, Lasantha Wickrematunge, the editor of the Sunday Times, was pursued, surrounded and shot in his car in broad daylight by a number of persons on motorcycles. Investigations into his murder are still ongoing. In the other instance, a journalist who was returning home after a meeting with the Ministry of Defense was abducted and taken into a large vehicle, and inside the vehicle were people that appeared to be military officers, and they had weapons. His legs were broken, and he was thrown onto the street and left for dead. However, due to the intervention of some three-wheeler drivers who were around, he was taken to the hospital and survived. The death threats started immediately, saying that he would not survive again. Soon, some international journalists’ associations came to intervene and took him away from Sri Lanka.

Besides these tragic and traumatizing events, there were other well-known cases of people engaged in journalism being targeted, and one such person was a cartoonist. He was abducted and taken to an unknown place, and what happened thereafter is yet unknown. There were two years of campaigning by his wife in particular, and some investigations have been done, but all that got entangled in an extremely backwards legal system that does not allow for speedy investigations or speedy trials. Allowing or creating delays in the judicial system can help any repressive ruler sabotage attempts by people to find justice. This remains a major obstacle to finding solutions to the kind of impunity that prevails in the country.

Besides this, there were many journalists who had to flee the country for fear of assassination.

Newspapers were heavily censored during this time. Several times, newspaper offices were attacked by mobs led by those who supported the government. Press equipment was often targeted and damaged during those attacks.

Under these violent circumstances, trade unionism suffered greatly. The government’s attempts to raise the prices of essential goods while keeping wages down created constant tensions, but every time workers engaged in peaceful and legitimate protests, the security forces cracked down. More sophisticated forms of attacks were also developed; for example, when a group of people from a remote village in Negambo organized themselves to come to the town to join a protest, a sniper killed one of them in the village itself. This violence was meant to intimidate those in every part of society who were considering participating in protests, and thereby to prevent mass participation in protests. In one of the three tradezone workers’ protests, the security forces entered the factories while people were working, and one young boy was shot dead inside. When the family and others wanted to organize a massive funeral for the young boy, it was stopped by the use of the courts.

This kind of violence was perpetrated in almost every area of life, but it was not the only terrible feature of this government. In fact, while the external drama of violence was going on, massive sums of money were being appropriated by people who were close to the leaders of the regime and taken into their banks in other countries. In fact, it could be said that, in the history of Sri Lanka, this was the time when the largest sums of money were taken away from the country due to corruption and then deposited in other countries to be used by mainly the family of the president.

In order to do all this, the government entered into forms of borrowing that were unorthodox and unprecedented. Money was borrowed at very high interest rates even from international banks, and this added to the highly indebted situation of the country as seen by the World Bank and many other agencies throughout the world. The country’s economy suffered internally in a manner that it will take a long time to recover from even if there were more favorable circumstances within which it could recover. However, such a time has not yet arrived.

It was against such a background that the January 8 2015 elections took place, and the massive change of voters’ attitudes was mainly due to their disapproval of the economic situation created by the government, particularly the theft of national resources in order to enrich individuals, which received increasing attention and became one of the main motivations for people to vote against the very powerful government of Mahinda Rajapaksa. He himself did not think that such outcome was possible when he called for elections prematurely with the view to strengthening his hand so that he could be president for his whole lifetime. However, even without a strong leadership from the opposition, people themselves gathered and demonstrated their will to have a change of government. Thus, January 2015 provided an opportunity for a considerable change from the kind of state collapse that had taken place in Sri Lanka.

The coalition that came together to form the government promised many goals to be achieved as a matter of priority. Among these were, first of all, a change of the constitution, so that the provisions that are anti-democratic would be removed and the constitution would be rearranged to reflect the democratic nature of the governance. There was also agreement that some form of just solution should be found to the minority issue and there was openness on the part of the coalition partners at the beginning that this needs to be done. Above all, the demand was for quick prosecutions against those who have stolen national resources and income for their own personal gain. Anti-corruption became the slogan and the main demand was that, as soon as possible, the investigations into the corruption should happen and that trials should begin. Certain legislative changes were made in order to give greater powers to the anti-corruption agencies in order to be able to engage in these kinds of investigations, which had involved the theft of massive amounts of money.

The investigations did happen with some speed, but then political maneuvering started in order to delay the prosecutions as much as possible. The common understanding was that this was done with the connivance of the president and some other politicians who were secretly more in agreement with the leaders of the former regime and, therefore, that they were preventing the possibility of investigations and prosecutions into the corruption. Thus, the first disillusionment of the people began over the issue of the failed prosecutions. This dissatisfaction was to grow with time and the main reason was for it was incapacity of the state to enforce the basic rule of law – or its unwillingness to do so. The real problem was not merely the absence of consensus among the coalition partners. The real problem was that, over a period of forty years, the Sri Lankan state had suffered very serious collapse. The country became independent only in 1948 and the beginning of a free and sovereign state began only at that point. The leaders at that time did not concentrate on consolidating the state apparatus in a way that they could meet the challenges of the future. All government institutions suffered very serious neglect. This was compounded by the machinations over the 1978 Constitution. Over the years, the policing system became one of the worst institutions in the country, demonstrating a lack of any kind of discipline and very prone to taking bribes. It also allowed and assisted politicians to do what they wanted. This link between the politicians and the police was known as politicization. Direct commands were no longer coming from the higher up police officers to the lower ranks; rather, the commands were coming directly from the politicians. Therefore, the basic organizational structure of the policing system suffered and fell apart.

This was worsened by the insurgencies that took place thereafter, where the police were given powers of abduction in place of arrest. They detained people outside known places of detention and did not keep records. They engaged in torture, killings of persons and disposals of their bodies. This killing and disposal of bodies was known as the enforced disappearances. Sri Lanka became one of the well-known places for having a very high number of enforced disappearances, not only in the region but also in the world. This happened many times in the different kinds of conflicts that developed in the country. The law enforcement nature of the policing and security forces begin to lose its grip and, in their place, a public security mentality grew, with public security habits, including the security use of violence, which became the norm within the country. It was this that needed considerable change if the dream of January 2015 were to be realized. However, no deliberate attempt was made to improve the policing system despite the fact that a number of civil society organizations, including the Asian Legal Resource Center based in Hong Kong, made demands in writing to the Minister of Finance requesting him to the grant the necessary resources for proper police reforms. This issue has not even been touched upon and it remains one of the major causes of why Sri Lanka is unable, despite of some political change, to achieve any kind of positive results towards democratic norms. Similarly, institutions like the Attorney General’s Department and the judiciary also suffered a great deal because of all the successive governments that discouraged the independence of the judiciary and tried to subordinate them to a secondary position, under the executive and the legislature. There was a long history of such undermining and it has had its impact on the judicial officials themselves, and also on the public. In the eyes of the public, the prestige that was once enjoyed by the judiciary is not there any more, and this had an enormous impact on any kind of change that the new government could have attempted in order to undo the traditions that came from repressive regimes. However, neither the leadership of the new regime nor any section of government focused on the reform of the judicial sector. In fact, they preferred a backwards and dilapidated judicial system, because it allows far greater room for corruption and the misuse of power. These were the lost opportunities in 2017 and mass unrest was growing throughout the country.

2017, thus, was a period of disillusionment for those who had a lot of faith in the possibility of some change in Sri Lanka. The rising accusations of corruption against the new government itself created a kind of attitude that, whether they be in the opposition or in the government, they are all the same. This attitude favored the former regime, which was hated for its record of corruption.

What still kept some faith among those supporting the government was the fear of return of the Rajapaksas again. The regime’s use of violence is still very much in the memory of people and the fear that that kind of situation might once again return is still a politically important factor. The government could have mobilized this more effectively, but internal conflicts from within the two major parties of the coalition government began to occupy the central political space. The two parties, the SLP and the UNP, were seen to be working towards strengthening their own base for the coming election and, for that purpose, they had begun to undermine each other. This included public statements by the president against the UNP and the statement by UNP leaders regarding the president himself as having some sort of secret pact with the Rajapaksas. All this damaged the expectations of unity necessary for the difficult tasks that the government had to undetake if it was to win the respect back from the people.

In the midst of all this, the price of almost everything was rising daily. The Rupee was performing badly as against the dollar and there was a dramatic downfall of the value of money. The essential commodities were rising in price, and the complaint that it is no longer possible to make ends meet began to be heard almost everywhere. Added to this, in the areas where people depend on agriculture, once again there were many forms of crisis which also brought the value of their goods down and their prices up on what they had to buy.

Additionally, the student organizations developed forms of highly organized protests, particularly relating to private universities, but the student unrest was often utilized by various political parties for their own purposes.

This was the situation that the country was faced with by the end of 2017. The same situation has continued and this has had a profound effect in the political attitudes of the people. The predominant attitude is to be indifferent to all political parties, as none of them can be trusted to make any positive change in the situation faced by the country.

The consensus that all political parties are without credibility is the most common political attitude that prevails in almost every part of Sri Lanka. However, this attitude itself does not in any way contribute to bringing about anything positive in terms of a solution to the existing problems.

Causes for this situation of political indifference

Seeking the meaning of this indifference is an interesting exercise and could lead to many insights into the kind of political culture that had been introduced to Sri Lanka by the time the colonial powers were leaving Sri Lanka. It is that kind of culture that continues to prevail even now.

When a colonial power rules a country, the people being ruled are called the subjects of the Crown, which exists elsewhere. Within the colony, people become subjects of the British Crown. The people of Sri Lanka were not part of a state themselves; they were merely subjects of another state. The other state may provide various means by which to administer society and to provide for various things, but such attempts do not constitute being a state created by and for the people.

That was the problem that Sri Lanka was faced with in 1948 and it should have been the duty of the leaders of the time to, above all, concentrate on consolidating and creating a state apparatus that was strong enough to sustain the governments that were to come. This aspect was totally neglected by the leaders of the time, and this neglect remains a feature even up to now.

It is very common in Sri Lanka for people to talk about the government, and about changing the government. They are forever in the cycle of changing governments but nobody has given thought to the fact that, while the governments change, the state apparatus needs to remain strong if a state is going to be viable. The absence of a functioning state apparatus means that fewer resources, or no resources, are spent on the development of the state. The policing system became ever more degenerate and has lost even the limited prestige it had during colonial and early post-colonial times. A policing system that is capable of providing internal security to the people is an essential factor in the stability of any society. It is the sense of security that people need in order to engage in their own affairs and move around freely, and thereby engage in all kinds of productive and creative purposes. When the policing system is weak, then the people fall back to what Thomas Hobbes called man’s natural state. Hobbes stated that, in his natural state, man would engage in fights with each other, mainly for property reasons. The very idea of building a state, which he referred to as Leviathan, was very essential if the people were to be controlled and stability was to be brought into society. Ideas of what the strong state is change over time, adding in other concepts such as those relating to individual freedom, and the purpose of the state developed through such writers as Rousseau and other revolutionary thinkers. But the essential foundation was a state strong enough to defend and protect its own people, which was essential if any form of governance is to take place in a society in a manner that will bring benefits to the people. Thus, it is on the foundation of the state apparatus that a government can function. This includes the policing system, the civil service, the judicial system, the various forms of administrative systems whereby money is controlled and transactions are administrated over by way of a system of banks and other means, and there has to be a huge elaborate system by which every aspect of society, every aspect of trade and commerce and every aspect of relationship with foreign governments, are all ordered according to a system of civilized laws. That is the system necessary for various governments to function upon as they come and go. The role of a government is limited. No government can take over all the functions that belong to the state. State functions are there to protect the state as a whole; all that the government can do is to administer within that framework, and, of course, they can try to improve it without damaging the overall structure of the state.

It is this area in which Sri Lanka failed miserably, along with many other developing countries. They jumped from a colonial status to a status of having governments without really having highly developed structures. The core of the problem in Sri Lanka is in this absence of a strong state structure. The problem with this is that there is nobody that will come forward to correct this situation and to build this structure. Every government that is elected is preoccupied with its own affairs for a short period and it does not want to divert its attention to long term goals, such as consolidating the state apparatus. This could only happen if the people who lead the government had a far wider vision and were not led by a kind of a narrow idea of somehow surviving and also, unfortunately, as it happens to be, benefiting themselves from the government that they are a part of.

The people themselves are mostly unaware that these problems are in the state apparatus itself. Their life has been conditioned by having elections over and over again, with new governments coming in. And this preoccupation with those in government focuses people’s their conversation on government affairs, talking about what is a good government and what is a bad government. However, in their assessment of good and bad governments, they do not refer to the nature of the state apparatus, which is the very foundation on which the state has to operate. This was not properly conveyed during colonial times, and has also not been communicated to the public during the post-independence era. There is a huge vacuum created by this ignorance about the need for a functioning state as the foundation on which social stability is created, and the need for governments to function within this apparatus in order to create a stable situation that is beneficial for everyone in society. It is this grave problem that needs to be addressed somehow. There needs to be an educational process through which the people, as well as those who govern, are brought to an understanding of the crux of the problem which affects their social stability.

AHRC’s role

It can be said that the Asian Human Rights Commission is one of the only organizations that has taken this issue up, and is the only one to have done so over a long period. Pointing out the defects of the state apparatus, including the police, judicial system, civil service and other institutions of the state, has been the major preoccupation of the Asian Human Rights Commission. In a recently-published book on the social destruction caused by the delays in justice, this paramount importance of state-building was brought sharply into focus. It is this effort, which small organizations like the AHRC can only do on a small scale, that should be enlarged into a much larger social effort. Thereby, the problems of a country like Sri Lanka can be resolved within a certain limited period of time. However, if the questions of state are neglected, there is no possibility that the country will solve the kinds of problems that it facing now.

Interventions and activities

1. During 2017, the main interventions and activities were centered on the following concerns: 1. Improving the input and the quality of the three organisations with whom we have been working for now nearly over 20 years. These are Janasansadaya, Pandura; Kandy Human Rights Office; and Right to Life. Besides that, there are other smaller groups like those who do artwork as therapy in the prisons and those who engage in counseling for those who have gone through traumatic experiences. Our main concern is always to help in every possible way to improve these groups and to promote their work. Our advocacy work is often on the basis of the factual data collected by these groups.

2. The documentation of the human rights violations, particularly extra-judicial killings, enforced disappearances and torture, is ongoing. This work has produced many reports and many books, and has changed the conversation on these subjects in the country.

3. Court interventions involve taking up various cases relating to serious human rights violations and also pursuing cases that have been undertaken a long time back but continue in the courts because of the delays in the judicial system. These activities were also carried out consistently during this year and there were interventions on several cases not only in the Sri Lankan courts, but also with the United Nations Human Rights Committee.

4. Advocacy work, including constant newspaper publications, particularly in English and Sinhala languages; the issuing of statements and urgent appeals; and also the publication of reports and several books on issues that are being discussed in the country, are part of the wider discourse on democratisation and human rights. In all this work, we ensure that we intervene on behalf of women and minorities. One of the policies of the AHRC is to encourage gender equality, to improve the quantity and quality of work relating to the violations of the rights of women and children, and also to connect civil and political rights with economic, social and cultural rights, particularly on issues such as malnutrition, basic primary education of children, and basic healthcare for the people. In all these areas, recent years have seen reductions in government interventions and expenditure, and, as a result, the problems have increased a great deal.

The work with the three local groups

The AHRC conducted several training programmes for activists from the three groups with whom it has been working for a long time. Additionally, books printed by the AHRC were also distributed in large quantities to these groups, so that they could share it with their partners and use this local literature to improve the discussions on human rights issues.

The groups were engaged in their own daily routine work of providing various kinds of services, particularly for the poorer sections of society. In at least 200 cases relating to torture, rape or other sexual abuses and abuses of children’s rights, assistance for victims was undertaken by the three groups themselves. In fact, there have been many more cases in which they have been able to do more extensive work, and bring some form of interventions, both in courts and also at the societal level.

Helping the victims also includes solidarity work. Some groups have developed their solidarity work very comprehensively, and the result is that many volunteers have come together to help them in all kinds of ways to do their work. For example, when victims need medical treatment in hospitals, retired doctors or nurses help them to find proper treatment for their illnesses. There are also others who help people through material means, particularly when the victim leaves the area they were living in because of fear of the police or the perpetrators, and, at that point, being very much alone. At these times, these solidarity groups can be of considerable help in order to find them places to stay, even food and clothing, as well as keeping company with them and creating a kind of a homey atmosphere for the victims. Many victims have commented on the importance of this solidarity work.

There are also constant discussions between AHRC and the leaders of these groups in order to find ways to help them improve their work. In the past, when the AHRC had better resources, we were able to help these groups in a more extensive manner. In fact, the early development of these groups was due AHRC’s considerable input. However, the limited funds available to the AHRC now mean that they look as much as possible for other resources, sometimes with the help of fundraisers. Many attempts in that direction were undertaken during this year.

Cases before court

There are a considerable number of cases assisted by the Asian Human Rights Commission and also by the local groups associated with the AHRC on various human rights violations on different parts of the country. AHRC’s efforts are usually concentrated more on the work of the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court. Some cases have been supported for more than fifteen years continuously because of the postponement of cases. It is very common in Sri Lanka for cases – including cases of torture, rape and similar serious crimes – not to be brought to conclusion even after such a long period. The AHRC has raised concerns over all this delay, tried to create public awareness and trained groups on how to resist this issue of delay. This year, one of the books that has been published is on the destructive effect of judicial delays on the justice system as a whole. The book consists of several issues that go into the very nature of the state and how the nature of the state itself can be undermined and sabotaged by the process of such prolonged delays, which makes the courts and ineffective instrument in the protection of individuals.