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Speech: Human rights abuses in Sri Lanka

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 24 Nov 2016
Wednesday, 23 November 2016
 
Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (19:39): Last week Sri Lanka was under the microscope at the UN Committee Against Torture's 59th session in Geneva. Sri Lanka's delegation included Sisira Mendis, the country's chief of national intelligence. To quote Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka:
 
Scotland Yard trained Deputy Inspector General of police Sisira Mendis, oversaw the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and the Terrorism Investigation Division (TID), during the final phase of the Sri Lankan civil war. Both bodies are accused by the UN among other organisations for systematic, routine, and widespread use of torture against suspects in police custody throughout the country.
A press release by the International Truth and Justice Project gives further details about Mr Mendis:
 
He ran what's widely referred to as "the fourth floor"—a term which Sri Lankans use as a shorthand for describing torture. A UN report last year named Mr Mendis and described interrogation rooms used for torture in CID headquarters as being equipped with "metal bars and poles used for beatings, barrels of water used for waterboarding, pulleys and apparatus" all used as torture instruments.
 
The panel's vice-chair Felice Gaer in her opening statement on day 2 said that it was very unusual for the committee to have the chance to question a person who has had the experiences Mr Mendis had. She and the other rapporteurs asked him a series of questions. He did not answer any of them. He did not speak during the whole two-day session. Ms Gaer also told the Sri Lanka delegation: The issue of impunity seems to be hanging like a sword over the entire situation in your country, and frankly over our review.
 
In the next few months the European Union will be making a decision on whether to restore the generalised scheme of preferences plus trade tax concession to Sri Lanka. Known as GSP+, this arrangement only provides concessions if a country implements core international conventions on human and labour rights, sustainable development and good governance. The leader of the recent EU delegation to Sri Lanka, member of the European parliament Jean Lambert, has urged Sri Lanka to improve its human rights conditions, including the replacement of a tough antiterrorism law, if it wants to regain the GSP+. Ms Lambert said Sri Lanka needs to replace its Prevention of Terrorism Act and amend its Code of Criminal Procedure to ensure the rights of detainees in keeping with international standards.
 
On 18 October, the draft legislation of the Counter Terrorism Act which is intended to replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act was leaked. Human rights defenders were quick to respond. In a letter to President Sirisena dated 11 November, the signatories—107 individuals and 13 organisations—rejected the leaked legislation as a viable alternative to replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act. The letter said:
 
In the way it is written, the proposed law will have a chilling effect on all forms of dissent, including legitimate democratic political activity. We have long seen how the Prevention of Terrorism Act and Emergency Regulations have disproportionately targeted the Tamil ethnic community. The administrative and executive culture, particularly the police and security forces, continues to be pre-disposed to such disproportionate treatment.
UK based human rights NGO Together Against Genocide has said:
 
The draft legislation places little emphasis on the protection of people under arrest. It places few limitations on police obligations to protect people from harm in custody. Additionally, it does not contain adequate safeguards against rape and sexual abuse during interrogation. The obligation on state security authorities to prevent these kinds of abuses—all too familiar in the post-war context—is expressed only through the ambiguous standard of "practicable measures". This is especially troubling in light of the scope of police powers and an extraordinarily broad definition of terrorism. Under the CTA advocating for change in a government policy decision may amount to terrorism.
 
Journalist Easwaran Rutnam, writing for The Sunday Leader, has said the draft gives a broad list of offences which fall under the 'terrorism' category. Mr Rutnam said:
 
Under the proposed law, a terrorism related offence includes threatening, attacking, changing or adversely affecting the unity, territorial integrity, security or sovereignty of Sri Lanka, or that of any other sovereign nation, or illegally or unlawfully compelling the government of Sri Lanka or the government of any other sovereign nation, to reverse, vary or change a policy decision or to do or abstain from doing any act relating to the defence, national security, territorial integrity, sovereignty of Sri Lanka or any other sovereign nation.
 
Terrorism is also defined as illegally causing a change of the government of Sri Lanka or of any other sovereign nation (as the case may be) and committing any act of violent extremism towards achieving ideological domination. That was from Mr Rutnam.
 
Sri Lanka lost GSP+ status in 2010 after the end of the civil war which saw more than 70,000 Tamils slaughtered in five months, thousands tortured by government officials in the aftermath, and an unknown number 'disappeared' in the Sri Lankan army's custody. The EU is Sri Lanka's largest export destination, absorbing 36 per cent of its exports. The GSP allows countries in the Global South to pay less duty or no duties on their exports to the EU; GSP+ is a full removal of tariffs offered to those countries that ratify and implement core international conventions. In announcing its decision to withdraw GSP+, the EU 2010 press release stated:
 
This decision follows an exhaustive investigation by the European Commission, which identified significant shortcomings in respect of Sri Lanka’s implementation of three UN human rights conventions relevant for benefits under the scheme.
 
Since 2010, there have been changes in the country. In 2015, President Sirisena replaced former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who oversaw the 2009 genocide of the Tamil people. President Sirisena was praised internationally when Sri Lanka co-sponsored Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1, which put in place a framework for transitional justice. Point 12 of the resolution commits to reviewing and repealing the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and to replace it with antiterrorism legislation in accordance with contemporary international best practices.
 
There was much hope that the new President would achieve this and release all the political prisoners languishing in jails under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. However, the political prisoners have not been released. The exact number of political prisoners is not known, but it is estimated to be around 160 or more8. [n.b. The President did release some political prisoners and says that 111 are still under detention.] Jaffna-based think tank Adayalam Centre for Policy Research, in their recent brief, have highlighted how the Sri Lankan police continue to use the PTA to arrest young Tamil political activists and others suspected of petty crimes. 
This creates a climate of fear in the Tamil-majority north.
 
In regards to the military occupation of Tamil lands, US-based advocacy group PEARL, in a recent report entitled Erasing the past: repression of memorialization of North-East Sri Lanka, said:
 
While most acknowledged a reduction in the visibility of the soldiers under the new government, they emphasized a continued militarization of daily life. The number of camps in the former conflict zone remains remarkably high and military and police surveillance 'remains active and often intimidating'. And although focus is often on the North, where the final phase of the armed conflict occurred, the East is also still heavily militarized. Respondents in both the North and East emphasized that in many cases, the effect of the continued military presence is that victims live side-by-side with their abusers. Soldiers implicated in mass atrocities remain deployed throughout the North-East. And even where the personnel have changed, the institutions remain.
 
The Sri Lankan Human Rights Commission has confirmed long-held suspicions of the use of secret detention cells run by Sri Lankan police. The Human Rights Commission also recognised the routine use of torture, especially in police detention. It received 420 formal complaints in 2015, and has received 208 so far this year.
 
Common methods of torture include undressing the person and assaulting them using the hand, foot, poles, wires, belts and iron bars; beating soles of the feet with poles; denial of water following beating; forcing the person to do degrading acts; trampling and kicking; applying chilli juice to eyes, face and genitals; hanging the person by the hands; rotating and/or beating on the soles of the feet; crushing the person's nails; and handcuffing the person for hours. The report also said that the prevailing culture of impunity where those accused of torture is concerned is also a contributing factor to the routine use of torture as a means of interrogation and investigation.
 
As in 2010, the EU again has the opportunity to hold the Sri Lankan government to account and end entrenched impunity. This opportunity must not be lost. 
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