The Sri Lankan government has not met its pledge to curtail police abuses prior to the March 2017 session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, Human Rights Watch said today. Security sector reform was one of 25 undertakings by Sri Lanka in the Human Rights Council resolution adopted by consensus in October 2015.
The Sri Lankan government has failed to repeal the abusive Prevention of Terrorism Act or take serious measures to reduce torture in custody.
“It’s crucial that the Human Rights Council consider closely whether Sri Lanka made progress in the security sector as well as its other commitments such as transitional justice,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Nearly 18 months after making important promises to the council, Sri Lanka’s leaders appear to be backtracking on key human rights issues, including reforming the police.”
Reform of the security sector has lagged behind action on the council resolution’s four pillars of transitional justice: accountability, the disappeared, truth-seeking, and reconciliation. A recent report from the UN Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan Mendez, highlighted the ongoing “culture of torture” in the country. A 2015 report by Human Rights Watch also found that Sri Lankans routinely face torture and other ill-treatment by the police. In the vast majority of cases, the victims were unable to obtain any meaningful redress.
The government has also yet to repeal the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), which has been used to arbitrarily detain terrorism suspects and others without charge for years. During the country’s 26-year-long civil war, the government asserted that the PTA was a necessary tool in its battle against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Yet, nearly eight years after the war’s end in May 2009, the PTA not only remains on the books but continues to be used to arrest and detain people.
Lawyers and relatives of PTA detainees told Human Rights Watch in May 2016 that police arrests were still being made in the notorious white vans used by the previous government, creating fear of a return to a culture of enforced disappearances. The practice has abated somewhat after an outcry from the rejuvenated national Human Rights Commission and rights lawyers. Lawyers, families, and the Human Rights Commission report having access to PTA detainees, an improvement from past practice.
“A number of those arrested in 2016 under the Prevention of Terrorism Act were implicated in committing or plotting terrorist crimes,” Adams said. “Yet there was no good reason for not using the regular criminal code rather than an abusive law that should have been repealed years ago.”
The Special Rapporteur on torture, following a May 2016 visit to Sri Lanka, found that torture to produce confessions, including beatings, sexual violence, extreme stress positions and asphyxiation, was being committed in police stations, military facilities and detention centers throughout the country.
Human Rights Watch’s own investigations found that police routinely use torture to compel confessions for even minor offenses, such as petty theft and making illicit alcohol, and this affected all ethnicities and social groups. The Special Rapporteur described a “worrying lack of will within the Attorney General’s Department and the judiciary” to investigate and take action against those considered responsible for torture, noting that authorities kept repeating to him that there had been no complaints of ill-treatment or torture, and consequently no investigations.
“Deeply embedded practices linked to the war, like police torture, don’t just go away once the war is over,” Adams said. “Curtailing torture in Sri Lanka requires serious reforms of the security sector, prosecutions of those responsible, and sustained political will from the top.”
In June 2016, President Maithripala Sirisena issued a directive to the police and military to refrain from torture but the impact of the directive has gone unreported. Legal provisions in violation of international law remain on the books, such as permitting criminal liability at the age of 8. Ensuring the right to counsel at all stages of detention has also not been remedied.
The upcoming Human Rights Council session provides an important opportunity for UN member countries to closely examine the Special Rapporteur on torture’s report and the problem of torture and other police abuse in Sri Lanka. They should press the government to address these concerns as part of the overall reform efforts underway under the Human Rights Council resolution. And they need to be careful not to endorse measures that would set back human rights protections, such as earlier draft counter-terrorism bills to replace the PTA.
“The Mendez report on torture maps out a detailed reform proposal that the Sri Lankan government should embrace and implement,” Adams said. “The Human Rights Council can rev up this process by addressing torture and police reform in its review of Sri Lanka’s compliance with the council’s resolution.”
This article was published on HRW's website on February 20, 2017.