South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

Published in The Sunday Leader on Jan. 12 by Megara Tegal ::

The human rights issue will remain on Sri Lanka’s agenda despite a new Government taking office. The London based human rights group, Amnesty International said that in spite of the defeat of terrorism in Sri Lanka in 2009, Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) has remained in place. Former President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, foreboded that the threat of an LTTE resurgence was very real, justifying the need for the PTA.

Amnesty International Deputy Asia Pacific Director, David Griffiths believes PTA is more of a threat to Human Rights. “Human rights should never be sacrificed in the interests of national security. Emergency measures may be used only in exceptional circumstances and should be strictly limited in severity, duration and geographic scope. Even then, there are basic rights that cannot be subject to derogation the right to life, freedom from torture or other ill-treatment, and freedom from discrimination, for example”.

“The PTA grants security forces sweeping powers and contributes to the problem of arbitrary arrest and detention in Sri Lanka, including incommunicado detention, which increases the risk of torture and enforced disappearances.  It also unlawfully restricts the human rights to freedom of expression, association, peaceful assembly and movement. It should be repealed immediately and acts which genuinely amount to criminal offences should be dealt with under ordinary criminal law. Respect for human rights is essential for a free, well-functioning society. The PTA is so sweeping and imprecise that anyone could fall foul of it, making it bad news for everyone”.

Freedom of expression is a constitutional right of every Sri Lankan citizen, however, in the recent past journalists have been intimidated and even killed. A Report of  Reporters Without Borders has placed Sri Lanka as one of the countries where journalists are not safe. Journalists aside, the public in general feared voicing their views. Speaking out the lack of freedom of expression in Sri Lanka, Griffith stated, “Since the end of the armed conflict, the authorities have led a disturbing crackdown on freedom of expression. Critics who voice opposition to the government or advocate for human rights have been targeted with threats, attacks and even killings. Those targeted include journalists, human rights defenders, political activists and many others. It’s encouraging that we have seen a reaction against this trend during this presidential campaign, even if we saw some ugly incidents during the campaign itself , it is something the new administration, whoever leads it, must address urgently”.

While lack of freedom of expression has existed for years in Sri Lanka, however, the emergence of a new wave of ethnic tension has shaken the island over the past three years. Last year the violence resulted in the loss of lives, of Muslims and Buddhists, as a Muslim town in Aluthgama was burnt to the ground.  Hardline Buddhists group, the BBS, was largely believed to have provoked the attack though they have denied involvement. Little was done under the former regime to end the violence. BBS announced their support to the former regime in the days leading up to the presidential elections, shortly after the opposition the present regime stated they did not wish to associate with the hardline group. How the present regime handles the oppression of Christians and Muslims is yet to be determined.

“There is no doubt discrimination and violence against religious minorities is a serious and growing problem in Sri Lanka. Political leaders have exploited or manufactured religious tensions, and Buddhist hardline nationalist organisations have led or incited protests and attacks against religious minorities, including their places of worship and businesses, which typically go uninvestigated and unpunished” elaborates Griffith . “Hundreds of incidents of threats, harassment and violence against Muslims, Christians and their places of worship have been documented since the violence escalated in 2013 – although of course it was not new. The new administration must commit to ending discrimination, denounce any attacks, and crucially ensure that perpetrators are punished to end the pattern of violence”.