SRI LANKA: No avenues available for redress of human rights abuses

Mechanisms for making complaints about human rights violations, for conducting investigations into such violations, for the arrest and prosecution of offenders, for the protection of complainants and victims, as well as all other avenues for the pursuit of redress are now completely closed in Sri Lanka.

The promotion and protection of human rights by the state has been poor in recent times. (See AHRC AS-119-2006 for further discussion.) However, the intensification of violence relating to ‘the ethnic issue’ in the past months has brought the protection of individuals to a complete standstill. Ironically, the present violence is a relief to the government, which is besieged by internal and international criticism of their failure to protect people and to maintain law and order in any part of the country.

Human Rights Watch has called for the protection of Dr Manoharan, father of one of the five young students extrajudicially killed in Trincomalee in January 2006. Dr Manoharan remains the sole witness willing to testify before the courts. The reluctance of witnesses to give evidence in court, not only about ‘ethnic conflict’ related violence, but even regarding common crimes, is widespread in Sri Lanka. In fact, the country’s dismal four per cent criminal conviction rate is largely due to the absence of witnesses, who are intimidated and threatened. While the Sri Lankan government claims to be drafting a law regarding witness protection, the state has thoroughly failed in its obligation to protect complainants and witnesses. The country lacks not only legislation, but also the requisite political will to protect its citizens.

Instead of pursuing democratic reforms to deal with collapsed public institutions and governance mechanisms, the present government under Mahinda Rajapakse has dismantled even the limited supervisory framework provided through the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, enacted in 2001. This amendment was a consensual acknowledgment that basic institutions of governance had collapsed due to political manipulation. To rebuild these institutions, the Constitutional Council and several other commissions were established in 2001. They started their work sometime later, and were beginning to show a capacity to deal with the problems in a positive manner. In March 2005 however, this whole process was deliberately sabotaged by the president’s failure to appoint members to the Constitutional Council. In 2006 President Rajapakse made his own appointments to some of these commissions in direct contravention to the constitution.  When these appointments were challenged in court, the court held that the executive president has absolute immunity from actions in court for acts and omissions both official and personal, under article 35 of the constitution. In this way, commissions appointed to defend the regime have taken the place of commissions that were meant to act independently and preserve democratic norms (see AHRC AS-139-2006 for more discussion).

Two such commissions are the National Police Commission and the Human Rights Commission. Both are now playthings in the hands of the president. Not only has Sri Lanka’s policing system lost all credibility; the institution meant to be supervising it also lacks legitimacy and credibility.

The limited initiatives undertaken by the Human Rights Commission’s former head, Dr Radhika Coomaraswamy, have come to an abrupt end. The new head is over 80 years of age and was a former governor–a political posting. Before that he was a Supreme Court judge and nothing in his record indicates any inclination towards the protection and promotion of human rights. He has admitted to the press that government agencies do not comply with any of the requests of the Human Rights Commission. His solution has been to seek ‘mandatory presidential orders’ requiring government institutions to comply. However, making the Human Rights Commission a tool in the hands of the president cannot in any way enhance the protection of human rights. In the meantime, a human rights officer engaged in investigating human rights abuses received an envelop containing five bullets and threats to stop his investigations. Such officers receive no protection from the state. Even an arson attempt on the headquarters of the Human Rights Commission itself has not led to any prosecutions (see AHRC UA-174-2005).

Bitter criticism can be heard throughout the country by persons who have nowhere to turn to make complaints, or to seek protection in the face of grave human rights abuses. Murder for the most petty reasons has become common in Sri Lanka. The well known case of the murders of police inspector Douglas Nimal and his wife, allegedly because of his investigation into a drug case involving some senior police officers, has yet to lead to any arrests or prosecutions. The recent acquittals of those suspected of the murder of Fr. Aba Costa, who was killed after being stabbed 27 times, allegedly for his criticism on drug abuse is one of many cases, which clearly indicates the state’s inability to properly investigate or prosecute offenders. While such crimes are reported daily, there is rarely any significant response taken by the state.

The attempt to reactivate the Press Council by the present government takes place within the chilling background of the absence of any redress against abuse. Silencing the press would further add to the suppression of rights. During the 1980s the Press Council was used to suppress all forms of dissent and criticism against the executive presidential system introduced by the 1978 Constitution. The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has constantly pointed out that the current government wants to return to the system prevailing in the 1980s.

In the midst of the present intensification of violence, all these issues can be hushed up both locally and internationally. The result is that people throughout the country are more helpless than before without any possibility of redress for human rights abuses. The AHRC therefore calls upon all concerned persons in the country as well as outside, to pressure the Sri Lankan government to ensure redress for human rights abuses by speedy appointment of the Constitutional Council and other institutions under the 17th Amendment. The state of Sri Lanka must be held liable before the international community for its failure to maintain law and order and to protect its citizens.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-156-2006
Countries : Sri Lanka,