Photo courtesy of Hindustan Times

People suspected of using illegal drugs are among the latest Sri Lankans to find their rights under attack from the regime. So are those sharing news and views online that might suddenly be deemed prohibited, as huge powers of censorship are handed to a few presidential appointees.

Meanwhile ministers continue to push for an Anti-Terrorism Bill which would let people be arrested on the flimsiest grounds, encouraging new injustices. And proposals for a Commission for Truth, Unity and Reconciliation fail to address those of the past in a meaningful way. Amidst an ongoing cost of living crisis and underfunded public services, people on low and middle incomes still suffer. Minorities, families struggling to make ends meet, trade unionists, dissidents and many others face the threat of further rights violations in addition to historical injustices that have never been properly addressed.

On these and other matters, people and groups defending human rights in Sri Lanka itself have largely been ignored or attacked by the state yet the justice of their case has been recognised across the world.

As the next session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), from February 26 to  April 5, 2024 approaches, the international spotlight will again fall on the government and its decision not to tackle, but rather add to, abuses. Perhaps rulers assume that competing global concerns and diplomatic manoeuvring, including willingness to impose austerity in line with the IMF even when this undermines economic and social rights, will mean that further criticism can be brushed away again. However it is risky to rely on this and people at home may feel more confident in objecting to violations when they know that their concerns are being heard across the world.

Rolling out abuses, alienating yet more people

In recent weeks, thousands of Sri Lankans have been arrested during Operation Yukthiya, supposedly aimed at cracking down on the trade in illicit drugs and connected crime. Yet while genuine problems exist, especially regarding hard drugs and their impact on communities, the approach has added to these rather than addressing them effectively. Poor neighbourhoods have been targeted, suspects seized on flimsy grounds and mistreated, users criminalised rather than helped and low level dealers affected more than those in charge. Already overcrowded prisons have been further crammed with people, making dangerously unhealthy conditions worse while misuse of police powers has been promoted not discouraged and mistrust deepened.

To quote the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) in January 2024, “The Commission acknowledges that preventing organised crime and the trafficking of dangerous narcotics is an important objective. However, the Commission has received a number of complaints concerning torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and arbitrary arrests and detention associated with the ‘Yukithiya’ Operation. We also note the recent statement of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka raising serious concerns with respect to the said operation. The operation has accordingly become associated with reports of widespread injustice, making its very title ‘Yukthiya’ (the Sinhala term for ‘justice’) a misnomer.”

Sri Lankans worried about the impact have won support from other organisations across the world with relevant expertise, who pointed out that “A punitive and militarised approach to drug control contravenes recognised international human rights standards and guidelines, is ineffective to protect individual and public health, and ultimately fails to make communities safer.” The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights urged a more humane and effective approach as did several UN Special Rapporteurs and Working Group members in a joint call to suspend and review yukthiya. Sri Lanka’s public security minister Tiran Alles nevertheless brushed away concerns.

A widely condemned Online Safety Bill was pushed through parliament at such speed that aspects were apparently contrary to the law, although the government afterwards backed down and agreed that any clauses counter to a Supreme Court decision will be removed. It is widely feared that the new Act will be used to silence or punish unhappy citizens and opposition parties in the run up to an election. An Online Safety Commission appointed by the president will have power to order digital content to be taken down and fine or jail those who post prohibited material.

The HRCSL had earlier raised serious concerns about the proposed new law, as had the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. But the government pressed ahead with various questionable measures. Criticised by the Sri Lanka Press Institute, which had previously raised concerns in September, the Bill had also attracted detailed criticism from a range of organisations concerned with freedom in Sri Lanka and globally.

Organisations such as Article 19 emphasised that the Bill had “a chilling effect on free speech, which is crucial not only for participation, accountability, the right to information and the right to protest, but also for individual development, freedom of thought and conscience, artistic expression, and press freedom,” undermined privacy and safety, failed to take on board the views of experts on online harms to women and children (whom the new law was meant to protect” and would have “a detrimental impact on Sri Lanka’s digital economy and avenues for employment online, an area which has tremendous potential to equip Sri Lanka’s youth and generate economic growth.”

A media statement by a Sri Lanka-based Media, Civil Society and Trade Union Coalition was even more blunt. “We, as citizens who are expecting a good and profound change in the socio-political system, express our grave concern about the attempts by the government led by President Ranil Wickremesinghe to take the country into a dictatorship by bringing repressive laws restricting the public’s right to expression, right to organize and space for civil activities quite contrary to the basic values of the democracy,” they wrote, underlining the undemocratic process as well as content. “It is essential to ensure that the next election is free and fair, providing a public platform for debate and discussion without any censorship to access to information that is accurate, balanced, impartial and non-partisan.”

Reopening old wounds

In addition, with at most minor adjustments despite extensive criticism at home and abroad, the regime is pressing ahead with an Anti-Terrorism Bill with many of the flaws of the discredited Prevention of Terrorism Act. And creation of a Commission for Truth, Unity and Reconciliation in which many families of victims have no confidence, and when some face harassment, is likely to add to rather than reduce their suffering.

Numerous Sri Lankan campaigners had previously expressed discontent with a new law which defined terrorism extremely loosely and opened the door to yet more abuses and the HRCSL had raised concerns. Yet in early 2024, the revised wording not only failed to reassure minorities, who had been worst hit by the previous law, but also prompted warnings it could be used to repress opposition parties during an election year. To quote SJB general secretary Ranjith Madduma Bandara, “The bill has not defined nor analysed what a terrorist is. Anyone can be arrested.” Overall a couple of dozen petitions were filed and protesters gathered to express their dismay.

The Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights had declared the proposed law risked “perpetuating patterns of violations from the past”, being “substantially identical to previous drafts that were withdrawn after widespread criticism. It defines acts of ‘terrorism’ overly broadly, restricts the scope of judicial guarantees, especially with respect to challenging the lawfulness of detention orders, and curtails the ability of the Human Rights Commission to visit places of detention, among other problematic provisions.” The Bill “would weaken the legal grounds needed for security forces to arrest individuals without warrants. It would also still permit lengthy pre-trial detention.” The government was urged “to meaningfully engage with civil society and other stakeholders to substantively revise the Bill.”

The Anti-Terrorism Bill was another of the proposed laws at which the Media, Civil Society and Trade Union Coalition had taken aim in its statement. It urged the government “to withdraw all these bills immediately and enter a consultation process with stakeholders” and if it refused, “We emphasize as a citizens’ collective; we won’t hesitate to take all measures through democratic means to defeat all the MPs who will vote in favour of the bills without responding to people’s voice.”

The HRCSL drew attention to some of the weaknesses in the Commission for Truth, Unity and Reconciliation in Sri Lanka Bill while others such as the International Commission of Jurists expressed concern that “the lack of consultation with victim communities and the continued neglect of their demands deprive the Bill of legitimacy”, especially “amidst a climate of impunity for past human rights violations and abuses and intimidation of victim communities in the North and East of the country.”

Old and new offences

The forthcoming 55th session of the UNHRC will include, on March 4, according to the provisional timetable, an oral update on Sri Lanka, building on past issues raised at that forum. It seems likely that some other agenda items will be relevant too.

The experience of being under public scrutiny will almost certainly be uncomfortable for the government although the effects of some factors are hard to predict. For instance, after recent events in the Middle East, some of the Core Group on Sri Lanka have lost moral authority yet UN officials and mechanisms themselves have probably gained it after displaying their willingness to resist pressure from major powers when defending people at risk.

What happens inside Sri Lanka will be crucial. Those concerned about human rights internationally can help to validate and publicise the experiences and concerns of local activists and, more generally, all seeking a more just and merciful future. If those challenging a range of human rights violations across the country can deepen mutual understanding and work together more effectively, there is hope for change.