By: Mollie M. McSweeney
Sri Lanka has had a long history of war. For about three decades, Sri Lanka was at war with the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. This war has killed some estimated 100,000- 200,000 civilians, and left even more injured or displaced. This war “widened a seeming unbridgeable rift between the minority Tamil and Muslim communities, and majority Sinhalese communities.” Put simply, this conflict came about from ethnic tension between Sinhalese and Tamil citizens.
Great Britain once owned Sri Lanka from 1815-1945. The country was previously dominated by Sinhalese speakers. The British established large cash crop plantations on the island of Sri Lanka. First, the plantation workers began making coffee, then started making rubber and tea. The British brought in approximately one million Tamil speakers from India to work on these plantations. The British also established better schools in the north where the majority of Tamil’s lived, and appointed Tamil’s to bureaucratic positions, which did not sit well with the Sinhalese majority. Once Sri Lanka became an independent Country, the Sinhalese majority began to pass laws that were discriminatory against Tamils, in particular, the Indian Tamils brought to the island by the British. In 1948, the Singhalese passed a law that barred Indian Tamils from becoming citizens in Sri Lanka. This was not corrected until about 2003, creating long years of rioting and anger, and death.
Finally, on May 18, 2009, the city of Colombo, Sri Lanka, declared the end of a 26-year civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or commonly known as, Tamil Tigers. The ending of this war has presented the beginning of the new era of “peace, national reconciliation and development.” Despite the hope and promise of a new era, torture, death and panic remained. In October of 2015, Sri Lanka pledged to the United Nations Human Rights Council to address justice and accountability. Around that same time, in 2015, the country of Sri Lanka elected a new President with the hopes for political changes and human rights protections, President Maithripala Sirisena. However, President Maithripala Sirisena has been criticized for being “worryingly slow” by the United Nations.
In December of 2016, a United Nations committee questioned the government’s commitment to fulfilling those promises of political changes and promise of advocating human rights. Still a year later after this election, police continued to use torture to “investigate and prosecute atrocities committed by security forces and Tamil Tiger rebels at the end of the country’s 26-year civil war in 2009.” United Nations Committee Against Torture, conducted a hearing over two days it which it stated that “it was deeply concerned by evidence that torture was ‘a common practice’ routinely inflicted by the police Criminal Investigation Department ‘in a large majority of cases,’ regardless of the suspected offense.” The Committee noted this as a major issue, along with expressing concern that the government is reluctant to address even broader problems within the Country. The Committee reported that “the government has not embarked on institutional reform of the security sector.”  These things were promised to the people of Sri Lanka, and they are a necessary part of moving forward after the long years of oppression and war. The last battle that ended in the war in 2009 claimed 40,000 lives of ethnic Tamil civilians. Since then, investigator uncovered horrific detailed “accounts of extrajudicial killings, torture, sexual violence and enforced disappearances.” These horrific events have occurred after President Maithripala Sirisena’s promise of a new era.
President Maithripala Sirisena told the people of Sri Lanka, and the United Nations, that he would set up a truth, justice and reconciliation commission, which would investigate the tens of thousands of missing people, restrict torture and create a judicial mechanism to ensure accountability for the grievances of the past. However, President Maithripala Sirisena has already written President Trump, asking for help to release Sri Lanka from these obligations. Further, President Maithripala Sirisena planned on making the same request to the secretary general of the United Nations. These actions create great doubt that the President will follow through with his promises.
Still, by September 11, 2017, the United Nations Human Rights Council highlighted Sri Lanka’s lack of progress. The Council called on the government to realize that its obligations are essential to address the rights of its people. The Committee noted that “[g]overnments at the Human rights Council should be clear with Sri Lanka that setting up various reconciliation offices and talking of progress is not the same thing as implementing. . . resolution.” Sri Lankan people who have long struggled and suffer deserve to see evidence that justice is actually be achieved. The Committee has urged Sri Lanka to repeal its draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (“PTA”).
The PTA is said to curtail the human rights of people it affects. Under Section 9 of the PTA, people can be arrested in the absence of formal charges filed against them and can be detained for up to eighteen months under a detention order. This in effect, allows the President of Sri Lanka, to restrain a suspect without judicial authority. Furthermore, Section 10 of the PTA disallows a detainee to appeal any order made under Section 9. These Sections completely violate Article 13 of Sri Lanka’s Constitution. Article 13 states:
Every person held in custody detained or otherwise deprived of personal liberty shall be brought before the Judge of the nearest competent court according to procedure established by law and shall not be further held in custody except upon and in terms of the order the Judge made, in accordance with procedure adopted by law.
Moreover, these Sections violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which states, “Everyone has the right to liberty, security, and no one shall be subject to arbitrary arrest or detention.” Sri Lanka has made steps forward to try to correct the errors of the PTA and in May of 2017, Sri Lanka proposed its latest counterterrorism bill. However, the United Nations Human Rights Council stated that this bill still falls short of Sri Lanka’s pledges it has made to the United Nations. This bill improves on the PTA but would still permit many of the abuses that the PTA allows, and also raises a number of new concerns.
Sri Lanka has had a long history of war, death, and distrust. The only way to move forward is to make the changes that were promised to the Sri Lankan people. New legislation needs to reaffirm the fundamental rights of its people as found in the Country’s Constitution. Eight years after the end of the civil war, this Country still needs stability, peace and justice for its people.
 Miguel Candela & Zigor Aldama, The Scars of Sri Lanka’s civil war, Aljazeera, (Jun. 6, 2016), http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/inpictures/2015/12/scars-sri-lanka-civil-war-151221062101569.html.
 Tejshree Thapa, Sri Lanka’s Difficulty With Truth, Human Rights Watch (July 13, 2017), https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/07/13/sri-lankas-difficulty-truth.
 Kallie Szczepanski, The Sri Lankan Civil War, Thought Co. (Feb. 9, 2017), https://www.thoughtco.com/the-sri-lankan-civil-war-195086.
 Candela & Aldama, supra note 1.
 Nick Cumming-Bruce, Torture Is ‘Common Practice’ in Sri Lanka, U.N. Panel Finds, NY Times (Dec. 7, 2016) https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/07/world/asia/sri-lanka-torture.html.
 Jenny Gustafsson, The Journey home: Sri Lanka’s displaced try to rebuild their lives, The National (Apr. 12, 2017), https://www.thenational.ae/arts-culture/the-journey-home-sri-lanka-s-displaced-try-to-rebuild-their-lives-1.14121.
 Cumming-Bruce, supra note 14.
 Gustafsson, supra note 15.
 Cumming-Bruce, supra note 11.
 Sri Lanka: 2 Years On, Scant Progress on UN Resolution: Human Rights Council Should Seek Timeline for Action, Human Rights Watch (Sep. 13, 2017), https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/09/13/sri-lanka-2-years-scant-progress-un-resolution.
 Sachin Parathalingam, Prevention of Terrorism Act in Sri Lanka is a True Example of Draconian Legislation, DBSJeyaraj.com, (May 29, 2013), http://dbsjeyaraj.com/dbsj/archives/21681.
 Parathalingam, supra note 22.
 Sri Lanka: Anti-Terror Bill Revives Concerns of Abuse: Drafter Law Falls Short of Colombo’s Pledges to United Nations, Human Rights Watch, (May 18, 2017), https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/05/18/sri-lanka-anti-terror-bill-revives-concerns-abuse.