Photo courtesy of IFEX 

Today is Human Rights Day

As the world marks Human Rights Day, two years of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidency and over one year of his government have seen Sri Lanka slide rapidly down the slippery slope to renewed ethnic and religious violence unless there is an about turn on bringing about accountability and justice and adherence to the rule of law. It is not a far-fetched scenario.

Time and again international and local human rights advocates and analysts are pointing to the dangerous erosion of human rights and the promotion of religious and ethnic hatred to shore up rapidly dwindling support for President Rajapaksa and his government.

The corrupt and inhumane police force tortures and terrorises the very people it is supposed to protect while the cowed judiciary delivers no justice to the person who is not rich or influential. Trapped between these two institutions, people will soon be taking the law into their own hands; the result will be anarchy and mayhem.

“Here’s the thing. Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious country. That’s the reality. Either the state figures out how to protect the rights of all its people, whatever their identity, or the future will be a repeat of the past – driven by violent inter-ethnic violence. We should all want to do all we can to prevent that,” said US Congressman James P. McGovern speaking at the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission Accountability and Human Rights in Sri Lanka this week.

“The Rajapaksa administration has pursued policies hostile to the country’s Tamil, Muslim and Christian minorities, raising concerns of future communal violence,” said John Sifton of Human Rights Watch, a witness who testified at the Commission, citing the ending of singing the national anthem in Tamil at independence day celebrations and forced cremations of Muslim Covid victims. Last month in the north, Tamil people were arrested and harassed for trying to commemorating their war dead.

“In recent months, amid a worsening economic situation, the Rajapaksa government has begun reacting to international pressure over human rights by offering vague promises of reform to foreign diplomats, especially from the European Union, which is conducting a periodic review of rights linked to trading preferences enjoyed by Sri Lanka known as GSP plus. This rhetoric is belied by the government’s actions. In particular, the Rajapaksa administration has issued vague promises to reform the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which continues to target Tamils and Muslims, perceived opponents of the government and members of civil society groups with prolonged arbitrary detention,” Mr. Sifton told the Commission.

A statement from civil society on the proposed changes to the PTA said, “We note that nearly all so-called changes proposed already exist in law and do not address any of the shortcomings in the PTA that enable grave human rights violations. We call for repeal of the PTA and in the interim an immediate moratorium on the use of the law. This is in line with the requests of persons and communities adversely affected by the law. We reiterate that any law that purports to deal with terrorism must adhere to international human rights standards.”

The fact that the international community is taking note of the deteriorating human rights situation can be seen with the cancellation of police training by Police Scotland and the non-invitation to the US’s Summit on Democracy. While Sri Lanka counts China, which has just been accused of genocide of its Muslim Uyghurs community by an unofficial UK-based tribunal, among its supporters, its most important economic ties are with the US, Europe and India who can bring pressure to bear on the human rights front.

In addition to backtracking on the promises of reconciliation undertaken in the UN Human Rights Council resolution co-sponsored by Sri Lanka, the government has not protected the Muslim community from mob violence and allows hate speech and anti-Muslim rhetoric to go unchecked. A known racist priest, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasarawas, given the task of overseeing the One Country, One Law policy, a position for which he clearly has no qualifications. According to media reports, public consultations on the law are being conducted in Sinhala only in the east.

The space for civil society has been shrinking with eight major human rights organizations denouncing the government’s responseto protests with repression, arbitrary arrests and intimidation against students, unions, teachers and academics.

It is clear that the government has no sincerity or political will when it comes to upholding human rights and the rule of law in the country. Time and again perpetrators get away with their crimes, those credibly accused of war crimes are appointed to high positions and convicted murderers receive presidential pardons. In the latest case, former Navy Commander Wasantha Karannagoda, accused of being complicit in the abduction and murder of 11 men and boys, is the new Governor of the North Western Province. Such acts send out the wrong message to victims seeking justice and to the international community.

All the dire predictions about the dangers of the 20th amendment have come to pass with the small gains made by the previous government towards transitional justice and reconciliation being rolled back. The Office on Missing Persons (OMP) and the Office of Reparations are barely functional, with the OMP pressing for financial compensation rather than truth, justice and accountability while the Human Rights Commission has lost its independent status. The absence of a Constitutional Council allows the president to appoint people at will – cronies and the unqualified – to the Police Commission, the Election Commission and the Public Service Commission among others. The Right to Information Commission has no commissioners. Judges on serious cases are appointed and transferred at the whim of the president without any consultations.

In the face of an implacable government, activists and victims of human rights abuses have nowhere to turn but the international community. Increasingly, the government is coming under pressure at the UN Human Rights Council with the new resolution calling for monitoring and evidence collection as well as the European Union that is watching progress to determine whether to withdraw GSP +.

Already several of the country’s nominees for ambassadors and high commissioners have been rejected for allegations of war crimes while Army Commander Shavendra Silva cannot travel to the US under its Global Magnitsky Act that imposes sanctions of those accused of human rights abuses and corruption. Australia is the latest country to pass the rules, which also apply to families. There are calls for the US to impose targeted sanctions soon on others in the government who are credibly linked to serious human rights abuses, that will remain in place until improvements are seen.

Father Nandana Manatunga is the Director of the Human Rights Office Kandy. He became involved in human rights work during the JVP insurrection when he witnessed bodies floating in rivers and many arrests of young people. He started visiting police stations to get them released. Father Nandana studied in India and the Philippines where he dealt with different types of victims. At CARITAS, he started a human rights unit and began working with torture victims, some of whom were school boys in need of protection and counselling and later with families of the disappeared in the south and in the north as well as prisoners and their families and victims of gender based violence.

“I am convinced that as priests we have to be not only religious leaders but also moral leaders to stand by victims and make their voices heard. Most victims are very poor and scared to speak up against the powerful. If we do not empower them, most will not speak out but will be silent and their stories will die with them. ” He pointed out.

Father Nandana has witnessed the recent erosion of human rights first hand, especially during the pandemic when the police were given greater powers of arrest and detention. He said that there had been several fabricated charges brought against innocent people as well as more torture cases and extra judicial killings in the past year. He cites the corrupt and brutal police force and the undermining of the judiciary as the two main causes for the collapse of the rule of law around the country.

“Policemen know they will not be punished and no inquiries will be made into fabricated charges even though the people have made complaints. Police officers who have violated basic fundamental rights of innocent people are being promoted. In our work we come across several cases where people are arrested and tortured but victims have no way of making complaints because the police officers are safeguarded by ministers and local politicians,” he said.

The judiciary is the last resort for people to get justice but it is failing them repeatedly, especially during the pandemic when cases are being postponed, while judges and state counsels are appointed and transferred at will. “People are losing confidence in the judiciary. Court delays are affecting ordinary people. Manipulation of the justice system is the story of the day,” Father Nandana said.

Speaking on the Scotland Police stopping training for Sri Lankan police, Father Nandana said that the training was for senior police officers but good practices had not trickled down to local police stations where torture was rampant. “Hundreds of torture cases are reported very week but in 2020 only one perpetrator was charged. This is the official report. The only recourse is to go for a fundamental rights case. Several have been filed with enough evidence for the Attorney General to  indict perpetrators. Police officers have cases against them in Supreme Court. Why are they not being indicted?” he asked, stressing that torture should not be allowed at any time for any reason, even during war.

Father Nandana describes torture as the mother of human rights violations. “The powerless have to fight the powerful and take risks. The police are supposed to protect your rights and give you security. Instead they are torturing and harassing citizens.” For torture victims, said Father Nandana, protection was most important. The victims are injured and need medical assistance and trauma counselling. Court delays mean that torture cases can take 10 years or more during which time victims and their families need to be relocated until the case is over and then reintegrated into society. “Until they are reintegrated, we have a responsibility to protect them because we are the ones who encouraged them to seek justice.”

“There are laws in this country so we encourage people to seek justice even knowing that justice system is defective. Only by going to courts can we know the defects and campaign for reform. Without going to police, we won’t know their defects. It is a long and hard process,” Father Nandana concluded.