Mainstream Weekly

Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2009 > March 2009 > Sri Lanka: Human Rights under Attack

Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 15, March 28, 2009

Sri Lanka: Human Rights under Attack

Thursday 2 April 2009, by Apratim Mukarji


As Sri Lanka’s long-drawn civil war is drawing to a close, human rights abuses by both the Sri Lankan Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) are reaching unprecedented proportions.

In a telling commentary on the status of Sri Lanka’s human rights situation, the International Coordinating Committee of National Human Rights Institutions in December 2007 downgraded the accreditation of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) of Sri Lanka after it was established that the Sri Lankan body was staffed by political appointees. The accreditation body ruled that in order to function properly the NHRC must be “independently appointed and fully resourced”. The United States Government suspended military aid to Sri Lanka out of its concerns for human rights in the country in the same month.

However, the Mahinda Rajapaksa Government has apparently decided to ignore the advice of the international body just as it had over the last two years either disputed or ignored all independent advices, usually tendered by international organi-sation. For, one year after the downgrading of the NHRC there are indications that the government is going ahead with “politicising” (the very reason why the human rights body has lost its credibility !) the Attorney General’s Department by appointing a “close associate”, Mohan Peiris, as the new incumbent (who is also believed to be readying for taking over as the next Chief Justice). The AG’s Department already stands condemned in the popular perception as a willing tool in the hands of the Defence Ministry in particular, and with this impending appointment the government clearly wishes to ensure that the identity of this constitutional authority is fully aligned with itself.

The Asian Human Rights Commission said on December 11 that the issue of filing false charges (in which the AG’s Department was largely indulging) was a matter of grave concern as filing of fabricated cases by the police, and “sometimes also by the Attorney General’s Department”, was a serious problem affecting the lives of innocent persons in Sri Lanka. “The Department has already been battered in the public eye and only last week the Supreme Court itself blamed the Department for filing false charges on fake laws. ” While in March 2008 the International Group of Eminent Persons (which had a rather nasty experience of dealing with a perpetually recalcitrant government) denounced the “dual” role played by the AG’s Department in the Presidential Commission of Enquiry, it is also particularly criticised for its failure to fight impunity relating to disappearances and to implement the law relating to torture.

As for the LTTE, a recent assessment of its human rights record makes equally dismal reading. The Human Rights Watch said in its December 15, 2008 report, entitled “Trapped and Mistreated : LTTE abuses against civilians in the Vanni”, that in the face of the ongoing military offensive, the LTTE had increased the pressure on the civilian population under its control. Having long used a “coercive” pass system to prevent civilians from leaving areas under its control, the LTTE had now completely prohibited movement out of the Vanni, except for some medical exigencies. “By refusing to allow displaced persons to leave for government-held territory, the group has severely restricted their access to essential humanitarian relief. Only about a thousand people have managed to flee the conflict zone since March 2008. By refusing to allow people their basic rights to freedom of movement, the LTTE has trapped hundreds of thousands of civilians in a dangerous war zone, ” the report said.

The plight of Tamils caught in the LTTE’s web, however, goes beyond being forced to stay at one place and not move out. While the rebel force had till recently honoured its traditional practice of recruiting on an average one person from a Tamil family, it is now forcing as many recruits it can lay hands on as possible without bothering about the recruitment norm, also betraying at the same time its desperation to somehow get out of the present crisis.

While the LTTE had earlier (following a sustained international campaign) agreed to abide by international law and not recruit fighters below the age of 18 years, it has since given it a go-by and has instructed schools to send students of the 14-18 years age group for recruitment. If a family fails to abide by this diktat, the LTTE simply abducts its head until the desired member turns up for recruitment.


The wrath of both the government and the rebels has in particular visited upon the media. While Tamil media persons functioning in the north-east have lately been subjected to large-scale intimidation, abductions and killings, journalists working elsewhere in the country are being required to deal with an increasingly intolerant government. In a startling development, the Sri Lanka Press Institution (SLPI) and the Newspaper Publishers Association recently offered a reward of Sri Lankan Rs 5 million (approximating US $ 50, 000) for information about the assault on journalist Namal Perera (working with the SLPI) and the British High Commission’s political officer Mahinda Ratnaweera when they were severely beaten up and their car smashed up by “unidentified men”.

Commenting on the unusual reward, the Free Media Movement pointed out that normally it was the police which declared such rewards when a case remained unsolved. “The SLPI initiative in offering the reward demonstrates the determination of media organisations to uncover the sources behind the increasing attacks on journalists and other media persons, ” it said. “…Perhaps the more worrying question is whether the government really wants information about crimes like the attacks on journalists. A report of the International Federation of Journalists was quoted by the BBC (Sinhala service) saying that forces within the government are ‘behind many of the recent attacks’. If this is not true, it is the duty of the state authorities to show who the real culprits are by taking steps to effectively investigate such incidents. ”

The International Federation of Journalists’ General Secretary Aidan White recently said: “Censorship, whether through threats against those who seek to express their views freely or the imposition of harsh sanctions against media personnel required to toe the government line, is failing the people of Sri Lanka. ”

By now, the continuous sufferings of several journalists, and in particular of Iqbal Athas (who has been exposing corruption in the armed forces) and J.S. Tissainayagam (who was running a website and has been detained without being charge-sheeted for nearly a year in violation of the anti-terrorism law under which the arrest has been made), have drawn the attention of the international community, leaving no doubt that the objective journalism is a very risky profession in today’s Sri Lanka.

Independent lawyers are another threatened community. A former prominent parliamentarian and presently an adviser to the President Vasudeva Nanayakkara wrote to President Rajapaksa in December 2008 pointing out that the Defence Ministry website had published an “initimidating” report on lawyers who had taken up cases filed against persons suspected of terrorist activities. “The report,” Nanayakkara wrote, “has singled out Tamil lawyers who have filed such cases (while leaving out Sinhala lawyers). Exposing Tamil lawyers in this manner is extremely dangerous and discriminatory.”

Over the last two years or so, the government has not only grown increasingly intolerant of civil society and political dissent but has also been taking predetermined and well-coordinated steps to systematically diminish the very institution of human rights in the country. In the north and to some extent in the “liberated” east, the LTTE has intensified its already terrible record of human rights abuses. All over the island, therefore, those who feel compelled to oppose either the government or the Tamil rebels are being intimated, abducted, imprisoned and killed with impunity. The growing irrelevance of the international community in Sri Lankan affairs has never been exposed to this extent.

Unfortunately for Sri Lanka, abuse of human rights by those who wield power has over the years been integrated into the psyche and behavioural pattern of the people. There are instances when even during peacetime the civilian police and armed forces have indulged in extra-constitutional methods of dealing with dissent and inconvenient exposures. As for the rebels, abductions and summary executions of political opponents and dissenters and forcible recruitment of children into the LTTE have been part of their traditional way of functioning. All their enemy groups have been equally guilty of human rights abuses.

When in retrospect this period in the history of modern Sri Lanka will be considered, perhaps the coincidence of its ultimate “deliverance” from the LTTE and the emergence and consolidation of an elected regime bent on establishing an autocratic rule would strike the historian as an unintended tragedy.

As the world already views it, the Rajapaksa Government appears to be earnestly pursuing banishment of legitimate exercise of human rights from the country while successfully winding up the war against the LTTE. In a sense, this is ironical because the LTTE is also guilty of having systematically decimated human rights within its territory in order to establish its dictatorial regime in the northern and eastern provinces.

Human rights has always been at a discount ever since the civil war began in 1983 with the minority and rebellious Tamil community being at the receiving end. With the launch of the first Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) rebellion in 1971 and the second rebellion during 1987-90, the human rights of the majority Sinhala community also became a victim of a self-asserting state.

As the Tamil revolt continued in the north-east, each successive government in Colombo exercised extra-constitutional methods—chiefly abductions and extra-judicial killings coupled with impunity illegally and virtually granted to civilian police and armed forces personnel—to pursue its goal of winning back the lost territory. Fighting the Sinhala rebellion in the south by using the same methods the government in Colombo thus came to perpetuate the mindset and system of extra-constitutional methods all over the country. While the degree of digression from constitutionality of policy and action has differed from government to government, the Ranasinghe Premadasa period easily ranks as an example of brazen autocratic rule by a popularly elected government.

Since then, it is the Rajapaksa regime which seems to be again pushing the country back to those days of wanton human rights violations and repression of dissent. It is with good reasons that the international community has become increasingly disillusioned with and critical of the Rajapaksa Government. It is not only domestic criticism and opposition but also external assessment of its ways and means of functioning that antagonizes the government. But judging by the continuing behaviour of the government, its intention to bamboozle its way down everybody’s throat appears to be fairly well-entrenched in the minds of President Rajapaksa and his men.

Apratim Mukarji is an analyst of Central and South Asian developments. He is the author of The War in Sri Lanka: Unending Conflict? (2000) and Sri Lanka: A Dangerous Interlude (2005).

ISSN (Mainstream Online) : 2582-7316 | Privacy Policy|
Notice: Mainstream Weekly appears online only.