SRI LANKA: Human rights situation is much worse than 60 years ago

The AHRC is publishing its 2008 annual human rights report on Sri Lanka. A pre-publication version of the report can be downloaded at

The human rights situation of today is much when the UDHR was adopted with regard to civil and political rights as well as economic, social and cultural rights. Particularly the denial of human rights increased since the manner in which the state repressed the 1971 insurgency and that has continued for various reasons until now.

The following are the main features in the change of the violations of rights in Sri Lanka Summary executions

The UDHR forbids arbitrary deprivation of life. In Sri Lanka now the habit of summary executions is a well-entrenched habit and this has claimed the lives of over a hundred thousand people in the recent decades. The state executions outside the judicial process have taken the form of forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings, coupled with the suspension of inquiries into such deaths. The state’s engagement in summary executions has been done in a well organised manner by creating the conditions for the state agencies to engage in such executions in such a manner so as to leave hardly any trace of all the activities connected to executions and burial of bodies. As far as the law is concerned although the courts may deliver the death sentence, the practice of reducing the death sentence into a life sentence by the head of the state exists. However, the entire process of the law has been bypassed by forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings. Sri Lanka ranks high in these forms of arbitrary deprivation of life. The recommendations of local commissions on forced disappearances and UN agencies for the prevention of such have not been implemented and added to this are the killings after arrest of alleged criminals, purportedly in self defence by the authorities. In fact, these are prearranged killings at different police stations or by other state agencies including the military and paramilitary are done with an approved policy of the elimination of criminals in this manner. All inspector generals of police in recent years have condoned this policy and have not taken any action to stop such executions. In fact, the process envisaged by the Criminal Procedure Code of Sri Lanka is deliberately sabotaged to enable such killings.

Arbitrary arrest and detention 

In the early part of Sri Lanka’s independence there were rules enforced by the courts for the arrests, normally to be done with a warrant issued by a magistrate. This practice has been abandoned. Officers in civilian clothes behaving often, as gangs, using whatever methods they like engage in the arrest. This happens in all normal criminal investigations for offences under the Penal Code. The situation is worse when it comes to arrest and detention under emergency laws and anti terrorism laws. The state propaganda is based on the policy line that regarding enemies, anything at all can be done and is formulated on the basis of the statement of the former Deputy Minister of Defence that “these things cannot be done according to the law.” Literally hundreds of cases that have come before the Supreme Court by way of fundamental rights cases illustrate the state’s approval of the policy of arbitrary arrest and detentions.


The main method of criminal investigations is torture on all offences under the Penal Code or under any other law. Many hundreds of cases which have come before the Supreme Court and many more cases documented by other sources, including human rights organisations, stand as illustrations for this regular practice of torture. Under military conditions torture is practiced with special arrangements such as military camps specially designed for these purposes as was illustrated by the southern experience from 1986 to around 1991. The same methodologies have been used in the east and the north. The same policy that terrorists must be dealt with in the same fashion that they deal with others is pursued. The state has failed to implement any of the recommendations of the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka given in many of the fundamental rights judgements and also the recommendations of UN agencies.

Denial of fair trial

There was much more space for fair trial in the early days of independence. During those early years the Sri Lankan policing system was controlled by the judicial system as well as the very internal disciplinary system of the police. The Departmental Orders of the police service was enforced through a relatively better exercise of command responsibility. The political interference with the police was less due to a better overall management of the administration of justice system. Today, the policing system itself has become a major threat to the rule of law. The politicisation of the entire system has been acknowledged by parliament itself when it passed the 17th Amendment to the Constitution. The Criminal Procedure Code is sabotaged by the policing system. Allegations of corruption are spread everywhere. Added to this witness assassinations and intimidation is high. The attack on the legal profession is also extreme. All these affect the process of criminal investigations, the gathering of information and presentation in court; even the limited amount of cases that come before the courts are defeated by delays in the administration of justice that sabotage the possibility of fair trial. There are also allegations of incompetence and even corruption regarding judges.

Freedom of expression

In the area of freedom of expression the early years after independence demonstrated a far higher level of the freedom of the press and guaranteed security for journalists. Now assassinations of journalists and intimidation are common features reported regularly. The J.S. Tissanayamgam case is an attempt to engage in even mock trials on the basis of false charges and fake laws in order to stifle freedom of expression. Besides this, heavy controls on private media and the enormous patronage of the state media deprives the journalists of the necessary institutional support to engage in freedom of expression. Electronic media in particular is severely controlled while the government sponsored media is allowed to engage in every form of falsification without any respect for any ethical conduct.

Freedom of association

In the early part of independence the trade union movement had far greater freedom. Today trade unionism is severely repressed by very complex methodologies of control. Under the pretext of attracting investments trade unionism was severely undermined. The worker’s movement which once had a strong voice in all areas of national life has now been suppressed. A fear psychosis generated by summary executions, arbitrary arrests, torture and other modes of intimidation as mentioned above have been used to stifle freedom of association. The right to freely engage in political debate has been suppressed by the manipulation of the electoral process and the introduction of the use of violence in elections.

Economic social and cultural rights

In the areas of economic social and cultural rights there is more unemployment despite of the larger sections of society being now more educated and skilled than in the early years of independence. While the women have acquired greater education and capacity the opportunities for employment have not improved. Large numbers of persons go abroad for menial employment such as domestic helpers and very many are illegal immigrants in many countries. The hope of employment is very dim for large sections of the population.

Denial to education

Free education was one of the great achievements of Sri Lanka in the early part of the 20th century. This involved the building of schools everywhere, providing teachers and also providing teacher training. Now there is criticism everywhere of the degeneration of education by poor teaching and inadequate training facilities for teachers. In many areas there are not enough teachers in many subjects. Often, particularly the science subjects are not even taught in schools in remote areas. Meanwhile the private schools provide for education at very high prices. Thus, the initial aims of education in the early 20th century to be made available to all are lost. Parents struggle hard to find good schools for their children and in the process have to engage in falsification for this purpose. The overall atmosphere of social conflict affects the minds of the young. When young people grow up in a society where basic rule of law and human rights are not respected they do not have the opportunity to develop the necessary rational, emotional and cultural habits which will help them to live better lives in the future.

Denial of health services

In the early part of the 20th century one of the great achievements of Sri Lanka was the improvement of health due to better health and sanitation facilities. This great achievement was enhanced by the ability to retain medical professionals within the country and the absence of the need to engage in unscrupulous practices by the professionals for making extra money. The internal disciplinary processes ensured that no extraordinary form of neglect of patients was allowed. Higher levels of morale existed. Today with the undoing of free medical care in hospitals the poor are unable to deal with their medical costs, particularly for more serious ailments like heart problems and other treatments which require surgery. The unscrupulous commercialization of health facilities is depriving the larger sections of the population. The breakdown of overall morale is reflected by increasing reports of serious medical negligence leading to death or permanent injuries. Health is often a nightmare for the people.

Denial of leisure

In a society that is so deeply entrenched in a fear psychosis, insecurity, corruption, war, lawlessness and fear of robbery everywhere due to greater impoverishment of people there can hardly exist any meaningful opportunities for leisure. The states’ fear of the people prevents free associations of people even for art and other forms of creative expression as the state looks at all these things with suspicion. The state does not provide adequate funding in to cultural enterprises. In every area of cultural expression there is demoralisation and degeneration.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights sets out high ambitions for human kind. In many countries during the last 60 years there have been significant achievements of the improvement of rights. As a result there is greater freedom for the individual and greater cooperation among different social groups. As a further result a high level of tolerance has developed in many societies. Many societies have seen great achievements in control of corruption, the rule of law and the area of good governance. For Sri Lanka it is the opposite that is true.

In the years to come if the UDHR is to have a significant meaning it is in the area of the public institutions that there needs to be a thorough reform. The reform of policing to bring it under the rule of law and bringing the politicians under the rule of law by legal machinery of the control of corruption remains major targets to be achieved if human rights are to be improved in Sri Lanka.

The AHRC is publishing its 2008 annual human rights report on Sri Lanka. A pre-publication version of the report can be downloaded at

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-313-2008
Countries : Sri Lanka,