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Tamils ‘disenfranchised’ and reform at a ‘virtual halt’ in Sri Lanka, says scathing UN report

File photograph: Ben Emmerson in Sri Lanka last year (Sunday Times)

 Sri Lanka’s progress towards reform has “ground to a virtual halt” with Tamils on the island “stigmatised and disenfranchised”, concludes a United Nations report on the country’s human rights record.

The report by the former Special Rapporteur on countering terrorism Ben Emmerson, says that “none of the measures so far adopted to fulfil Sri Lanka’s transitional justice commitments are adequate to ensure real progress”.

Based on a visit to the country undertaken by Mr Emmerson last year, the report examines Sri Lanka’s counter-terrorism legal framework, progress on transitional justice and discrimination in the island. It was scathing in its conclusion, stating that though Sri Lanka had committed itself to a United Nations resolution and been granted a two-year extension, “progress in achieving the key goals seems to have ground to a virtual halt”.

‘Pervasive and insidious’ stigmatization Tamils

File photograph: Tamils protest in Jaffna earlier this year, calling for justice for enforced disappearances as Sri Lanka's president visited the city.

The report highlighted the Special Rapporteur’s observation of a “pervasive and insidious form of stigmatization of the Tamil community”.

“Tamils are severely under-represented in all institutions,” it noted.

The massive presence of the Sri Lankan military in the North-East was also highlighted.

“He is particularly concerned about the very large, imposing, presence of the military in the North, which he witnessed himself in Vavuniya.”

“The pervasive lack of accountability for the war crimes that were perpetrated during the war, the climate of impunity that prevails within the security sector, the overwhelming economic weight of the military, its involvement in civilian activities, as well as the overwhelmingly Sinhalese nationality within the military all contribute to perpetuating the resentment and disenfranchisement felt by the Tamil community as a whole.”

“The Tamil community remains stigmatised and disenfranchised, while the trust of other minority communities is being steadily eroded,” concluded the report.

 

‘Deeply flawed legislation’

During his visit, Mr Emmerson and his team also met with prisoners detained under Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act, which the report describes as a “piece of deeply flawed legislation” that “includes acts which would hardly qualify as terrorist even by the most generous definition”.

“It has permitted the authorities to stigmatise, brand and prosecute entire communities and members of civil society, as well as any form of peaceful criticism or dissent,” the report said.

Some individuals had been held for over 10 years without trial, it noted.

Just this week, after 13 years imprisonment under the PTA, a Tamil political prisoner was allowed just one hour with this family at his father's funeral. He is one of dozens of Tamils held under the draconian act, which has seen several protests over the years calling for the law to be scrapped.

“Tamils have been, and still are, overwhelmingly and disproportionately affected by the operation of the Act, stated the report adding that “a picture emerges of widespread institutional stigmatisation of a single community.” 

 ‘Endemic and systematic torture’

File photograph: A Tamil torture victim's scars on his back. ITJP.

The use of torture by Sri Lankan security forces remains widespread, the report noted.

“The evidence collected by the Special Rapporteur points to the conclusion that the use of torture has been, and remains today, endemic and systematic,” it stated.

The findings come as allegations of torture – particularly targeting Tamils – continue to come from the island. Though the issued has been raised by the United Nations previously, the Sri Lankan government has failed to respond to a United Nation Committee Against Torture (CAT) report, which called for information on the “establishment of a judicial mechanism” to investigate torture.

“Despite the shocking prevalence of the practice of torture in Sri Lanka, the Special Rapporteur notes the lack of effective investigations into such allegations,” the report continued.

“All of this reflects a clear and disturbing unwillingness to recognize the problem, to take it seriously, to investigate allegations of torture and to proportionately punish perpetrators.”

 “In addition to the trauma and desperation felt by the detainees themselves, the remaining cases of detention under the PTA, as well as allegations that torture against Tamils occurred in the past two years, are an increasing source of frustration among the Tamil community at large.”

Sri Lankan state denial

Despite Mr Emmerson’s findings, his report states that several members of the Sri Lankan government continued to deny the issues they were confronted with.

“He was repeatedly assured that there was no discrimination against the Tamils,” read the report, “and that there was disproportionate attention paid to a perceived negative treatment by the authorities of the Tamil population by Tamils themselves, the international community and civil society”.

Sri Lankan officials also attempted to justify the massive periods of detention that many prisoners were kept in, under the PTA. “in the course of his official meetings, the Special Rapporteur heard that the rationale for the exception to the general rule on confessions in the Act was that terrorists were not ‘normal’ criminals, and that periods of pre-trial detention that lasted more than ten years were justified because ‘these people are guilty of committing horrible crimes’”, said the report.

“Both statements reflect a commonly held view that suspects under the PTA face an almost insurmountable credibility deficit, contrary to the principle of presumption of innocence. When viewed side by side with the figures that show that Tamils have been, and still are, overwhelmingly and disproportionately affected by the operation of the Act, a picture emerges of widespread institutional stigmatisation of a single community.”

“During his visit, his official interlocutors repeatedly downplayed the importance of the phenomenon of torture, and when confronted with the large numbers of complaints and of vastly documented cases, often simply explained that the police denied the allegations. All of this reflects a clear and disturbing unwillingness to recognize the problem, to take it seriously, to investigate allegations of torture and to proportionately punish perpetrators”

File photograph: Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena with troops at a ceremony last year.

Mr Emmerson also highlighted statements made by the Sri Lankan president Maithripala Sirisena, stating that “Unfortunately, since the Special Rapporteur’s visit, the President sought to shield a former army general from a criminal complaint which accused him of command responsibility for war crimes”.

 

‘Stigmatised and disenfranchised’

“The Tamil community remains stigmatised and disenfranchised, while the trust of other minority communities is being steadily eroded,” the Rapporteur says in the report.

"In Vavuniya, the Special Rapporteur was made aware of the threats made to a woman upon leaving a meeting with him. He was told about the surveillance of Tamil civil society, including women’s groups and of fear of reporting alleged human rights violations and sexual violence to the authorities."

“Impunity is still the rule for those responsible for the routine and systemic use of torture, and countless individuals are the victims of gross miscarriages of justice resulting from the operation of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).”

“The pervasive climate of impunity and the lack of accountability for serious human rights violations that occurred both during the conflict and in the aftermath requires immediate redress,” the report concludes.

“The price that Sri Lanka’s future generations will have to pay for the continuation of this legal repression may prove as costly or even costlier than that which has so far confronted the present generation.”

Read the full text of the report here.