Human Rights Defenders in Sri Lanka: 2O11
Challenges and Advances
INFORM Human Rights Documentation Centre
Colombo, Sri Lanka
INFORM was created in 199O, during a period in which large-scale human rights violations were taking place in Sri Lanka, both in the south and in the north. This was a time when the terms ‘disappearance’ ‘white van’ and ‘unidentified gunman’ first entered our vocabulary. Thousands of Sri Lankan men and women were killed, tortured and disappeared. Recently, the Peace Committee in Batticaloa reminded us of the hundreds of young Tamil men who disappeared from their villages in the east, from Satturukondan and Pillayaradi 21 years ago. In the Muslim communities of Kattankudy and Eravur, 199O was the year of the mosque massacres in which hundreds of men and boys at prayer were killed. In the south, every year in October, family members of the disappeared gather in Seeduwa to remember their loved ones who disappeared in their thousands in the years from 1987 to 199O.
Our original goal was to document the violations, since we thought it was important to have a historical record of the deaths and disappearances, for the sake of history, for the sake of future accountability and out of respect for those who had been the victims and survivors of these violations. Since then, we have also engaged in building and strengthening a human rights consciousness in Sri Lankan society, working with different sectors and communities throughout the island.
This document does not attempt to be either comprehensive or conclusive. It merely attempts to record some experiences of human rights defenders this year, in order to draw attention to the systematic erosion of the rights of expression, association and organization that we confront daily.
Our work is dedicated to all those who have given their lives for the cause of democracy and peace in Sri Lanka.
On our 21st anniversary, we salute them, and all those Sri Lankan human rights defenders who continue to risk their lives and livelihoods ever day so that truth and justice may prevail.
INFORM Human Rights Documentation Centre
December 1O, 2O11
The history of human rights defenders in Sri Lanka
Human rights defender (HRD) is a term used to describe people who, individually or with others, act to promote or protect human rights. Human rights defenders are identified above all by what they do. The actions and activities of HRDs include: defending the universality of human rights in a non-violent manner, on the principle of ‘ All human rights for all’; working at the local, national and international level to promote and protect human rights; collecting and disseminating information on human rights violations; supporting victims of human rights violations; acting to secure accountability and end impunity with regard to human rights; supporting better governance and government policy; contributing to implementation of human rights treaties; conducting human rights education and training.
The first human rights organization established in Sri Lanka in 1971 is the Civil Rights Movement, which emerged as a response to violations of human rights that took place during the JVP (Janatha Vumukthi Peramuna – People’s Liberation Front) insurrection of 1971, and the establishment of the Criminal Justice Commission to prosecute the young men and women involved in it. This period also saw the growth of interest in Sri Lanka by the international human rights community, with organizations like Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists launching campaigns abroad to draw attention to human rights abuses in Sri Lanka and to call for justice and a return to democracy.
Since then, social activists and those committed to democracy and justice for all Sri Lankans have created a wide range of organizations to defend human rights in Sri Lanka.
In the 198Os, the suppression of the Strike of July 198O led to the birth of the Movement of the Defense of Democratic Rights (MDDR) which had a special focus on the rights of workers and peasant communities. The ethnic conflict and violations associated with the conflict including the promulgation of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) led to the creation of organizations working for minority rights, such as the Movement for Inter-Racial Justice and Equality (MIRJE). Violations of the rights of the Upcountry Tamil community, especially the denial of citizenship, led to the emergence of many organizations including the Coordinating Secretariat for Plantation Areas (CSPA) and the Up Country People’s Front (Malayaha Makkal Iyakkam). Promoting democracy, justice and a peaceful resolution of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka that would recognize the equality of all Sri Lankan citizens were the core principles and values around which all these organizations and networks led their campaigns.
In addition, organizations emerged to defend the rights of groups and individuals whose rights were violated because of the conflict such as the Mother’s Fronts of the north and south and the Organization of Parents and Families of the Disappeared (OPFMD). The first visit by a UN human rights mechanism to Sri Lanka, the visit of the UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances, in 1991, was the result of the work of these organizations working in close collaboration with national human rights organizations, such as INFORM, and with international organizations such as Amnesty International.
In contemporary Sri Lanka, there are many human rights groups, working at the national and local level, as well as many groups working for specific sets of rights such as rights of women, workers, fisherfolk, children, the displaced and those with disabilities who have also organized themselves with mandates that have a specific focus on human rights and that adopt a rights-based approach to their work.
The social and political context in 2O11
Two years after the ‘end’ of the war, Sri Lanka has yet to move into a ‘post-conflict’ phase. Many issues relating to human rights violations committed during the last weeks of the war remain unresolved, and the hostile responses of the government to various initiatives taken by the United Nations and the international community to call for unbiased investigations into these allegations have made a mockery of accountability and justice in post-war Sri Lanka. While the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) appointed by the government has concluded its work, the report has not yet been made public; neither have the recommendations set out in the Interim Report of the LLRC been implemented in full.
There has been no movement towards any process of reconciliation and healing that engages with those who have been directly affected by the protracted conflict. While there is no doubt that the Tamil community suffered the most in terms of loss of life, property and livelihood, Muslims and Sinhalese, those living in the north and east and on its borders in particular, have also suffered greatly. The ‘development’ programmes that are being implemented by the government in the war-affected areas of the country often do not take note of the needs and concerns of the communities who are living in these areas, and their daily life continues to be one of insecurity and deprivation.
The Tamil political parties are marginalized within the structures of governance and decision-making; Although Parliament has approved the creation of a multiparty committee to recommend constitutional changes for ‘ethnic reconciliation’ two years, representatives of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) have said they would not participate, pointing to the fact that recommendations made by a similar Committee previously have never been implemented. There is no public discussion regarding a possible framework that would facilitate de-centralisation of decision-making and control of resources in a manner that would provide the minority communities of Sri Lanka a context in which they can feel full and equal citizens of this country.
Legal structures that restrict democratic rights and freedoms remain in place. The highly touted repeal of the Emergency Regulations is meaningless unless the Prevention of Terrorism Act is repealed as well. The National Human Rights Commission remains a body with flawed procedures of appointment, and citizens are not aware of the contents of the National Human Rights Action Plan developed by the NHRC. Freedom of opinion, expression and association are violated daily, and laws are passed without consultation or judicial review on the basis that they are ‘ urgent’ in the national interest. Members of the judiciary and of the legal profession are subject to intimidation, placing the independence of the judiciary at risk. Corruption is rampant, and there is no respect for the rule of law and due process in cases of arrest and detention.
Deaths in Police custody have become a common feature in Sri Lanka. In November alone, there were two reports of deaths in Police custody, one from Jaffna, where Skandarajah, a suspect in a robbery drowned while allegedly being taken by the Police to identify the location of the robbed items, and the other from Gampaha where the body of 29 year old Gayan Rasanga was left at the hospital in Dompe by the Police who left it there and left the hospital premises.
The restrictions on freedom of association and expression place limits on the work of human rights defenders, and the prevailing climate of impunity is heightened by systematic and consistent attacks and harassment as well as by orchestrated media campaigns against groups and individuals who call for accountability, justice and respect for human rights. The labeling of human rights defenders as ‘ traitors’ and as ‘anti-national’ elements of society creates an environment in which the work of human rights defenders becomes even more complex and risky.
Suppression of the rights of Human Rights Defenders in Sri Lanka in 2O11:
The right to promote and protect human rights, as individuals and as organizations has been regularly violated during this year. The perpetrators belong to both state and non-state sectors, including the security forces, the Police and private individuals espousing a particular ideology or political affiliation.
Among the best-known cases of harassment of human rights defenders and suppression of their rights in the year 2O11 have been:
- in May, Katunayake FTZ workers were brutally attacked by the Police, during a protest organized by trade unions and workers’ organizations against a government proposal to start a pension scheme within their ranks without any consultation with the workers; a young male worker, Roshen Shanaka, was shot dead, and many others hurt;
- in July, the NGO Secretariat, which now functions under the Ministry of Defence took over administration of the Community Trust Fund office in Puttlam, over allegations of mismanagement and corruption; CTF has been working with the Muslim community that was displaced from the north in 199O;
- in July, the Joint Secretary of the Free Trade Zones and General Services Employees Union (FTZGSEU) Anton Marcus reported that CID officers had entered the zonal office FTZGSEU in Katunayake on July 29, questioning and intimidating those present and rummaging through files and documents.
- in July, Dharmasunderam Kuganathan (57) , chief News Editor of the Uthayan newspaper in Jaffna was badly beaten by two men wielding iron bars while he was on his way home after work; he sustained severe injuries and had to be hospitalised;
- throughout August there were reports from various parts of the island about attacks by the military and the Police on civilians protesting over incidents in which a ‘grease yaka’ (grease devil, a man coated in grease) had entered homes and harassed inmates, especially women. Of the 95 persons who were detained in Navanturai, Jaffna, 5 had sustained serious injuries, requiring hospitalisation; in Puttalam, a 13 year old child and five others were injured by shooting.
- in September, the organizers of the 3th August agitation led by the Inter Company Employees Union (ICEU) to protest against the failure of the authorities to take action against those who were responsible for the killing of FTZ worker Roshen Shanaka complained of being threatened by thugs;
- in November, there was a campaign against a NGO working on HIV/AIDS prevention, Companions on a Journey, by the newspaper Rivira, accusing them of promoting homosexuality; even though the group had been working on a project supported by the National STD/AIDS campaign with sanction from the Ministry of Health and the UN, the harassment of the group reached a point where they have ceased to function;
- in November, members of the Socialist Youth League (JVP) were subjected to teargas at the Lake House roundabout, while marching in a demonstration towards the Colombo Fort, demanding rights for students;
- in November, 65 Tamil prisoners in Anuradhapura launched a hunger strike demanding protection from the Prison authorities, after an assault by prison officials on Nov 27; the NGO We Are Sri Lankans (WASL) said lawyers and representatives of their organizations were prevented from entering the prison in order to meet the striking prisoners;
- in November, Dhammika Munasinghe, spokesperson for the Combined Association of Unemployed Graduates (CAUG) reported that members of the Batticaloa branch had received death threats after holding a protest and a seminar in Batticaloa on Nov 13;
- in November, the government announced that the Telecom Regulatory Commission had been asked to block access to several websites including Lankaenews, Lankawaynews, Sri Lanka Guardian, Paparacinews, Gossip9 and Sri Lanka Mirror, for content that was described as ‘pornographic, false and malicious’ by the Media Minister.
- at the same time, the government announced that all websites reporting on Sri Lanka were henceforth required to register themselves with the Media Ministry.
Human Rights Defenders at work in 2O11
Groups affected by the decision to take back land allocated for growing sugarcane for the Sevanagala Sugar factory under the Revival of Underperforming Enterprises and Underutilized Assets Act challenged the constitutionality of the Bill in Court. Among the petitioners were a Buddhist monk, the Ven. Thinyawala Palitha Thera, employees of the Sevanagala Sugar Factory and farmers who supply sugar cane to the factory. The companies named as ‘under-performing’ had no opportunity to seek judicial redress. The Court ruled that there was no basis to grant leave to proceed with the application.
Ten workers in the Katunayake FTZ, including Pradeep Kumara Priyadarshana and Nalin Sanjaya Jayaweera, employees of Nortel Lanka Private Limited, filed fundamental rights petitions in the Supreme Court, alleging assault, illegal arrest, illegal detention and denial of their freedom of expression by officers of the Seeduwa and Katunayake police during the protests in May.
In December, the Free Media Movement filed a petition in the Supreme Court challenging the attempts to shut down access to several websites.
Tamils who bore witness to abductions and detentions that took place during their flight from the Vanni to Vavuniya in the last weeks of the war in April/May 2OO9 came forward to testify before the LLRC, despite reports of intimidation and the absence of any framework for witness protection.
One example was that of Ratnam Poongothai, a forty five year old widow of four children from Kalmunai, who was called to the Fourth Floor of the CID head quarters for an interview, following her testimony at the LLRC where she spoke of her own arrest and the disappearance of her sister. Following interventions on her behalf, the interview was later arranged to take place at the Kalmunai police station.
In June 2011 the organization We are Sri Lankans (WASL) organized a protest campaign in Kilinochchi demanding government responsibility to locate disappeared persons and inform their families of their whereabouts. Two members of WASL were detained afterwards.
In June, academics of all Universities participated in a protest march in Colombo for the first time. In July, Teachers associations from Universities in the south of the island held a demonstration and meeting in Jaffna with the participation of teachers from the University of Jaffna.
In August 31, Tamil mothers of the disappeared participated in a meeting in Colombo, under the slogan: “Help us to find our children, without looking at our ethnicity or religion.” This appeal was launched on the occasion of the World Day of the Disappeared, and was organized by a collective of civil society groups, to call on the government to investigate the disappearance of the children of these women, during the long years of ethnic conflict.
In August 2011, a group of women representing women’s organizations throughout the country came together in Colombo to call for more serious attention to be paid to the phenomenon of the ‘ grease devil’. A statement released by them on the occasions said: Many women in the north and the east have been attacked individually, and the female population terrorized more generally, by unidentified men, attackers now colloquially referred to as ‘Grease Yakas’. These incidents and the response of law enforcement and government agencies indicate a larger problem in the law and order situation in the north and east: the systemic failure of the rule of law and the consistent inability, or unwillingness, of law enforcement authorities and the state to hold the assailants accountable. While noting that there have been alleged attacks outside the north and east, this statement concentrates on this region alone. ‘
In October, family members of slain factory worker Roshen Chanaka launched a silent protest opposite the Katunayake Police Station calling for details of the report compiled by a one-man committee on the incident to be made available to them.
In August 16, over 200 media workers, politicians and activists from the North and South of Sri Lanka joined hands at the Jaffna Bus Station staging a protest Tuesday from 11:00 a.m. till noon against the brutal assault on Gnanasundaram Kuganathan, the chief news editor of Uthayan daily in Jaffna and against the prevailing suppression of freedom of expression in Jaffna.
In addition, groups of human rights defenders organized consultations and prepared collective alternative reports for the UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW, in January) and the UN Committee against Torture (CAT, in November), when these Committees were reviewing the reports submitted by the government. Both Committees have delivered their Concluding Observations to the government, which now has an obligation to implement these recommendations. The human rights networks involved in the reporting are now engaged in follow up on this process.