A number of domestic and international human rights groups continued to investigate and publish their findings on human rights cases, despite government restrictions and physical threats to their work. The government often criticized local NGOs critical of government actions, failed to respond to requests for assistance, and put pressure on those that sought such assistance. The NGO Secretariat was moved from the Social Services Ministry to the Ministry of Defense in June 2010 and remained under the Ministry of Defense at the end of the year. Several NGOs noted a lack of clarity in Ministry of Defense procedures and enforcement of regulations.
The government remained apprehensive of NGO activities in certain areas of advocacy. It particularly scrutinized organizations critical of the government on issues such as governance, transparency, and human rights.
NGOs that proposed undertaking projects in northern and eastern areas to address such matters as psychosocial counseling, good governance training for local citizens, and legal aid often had difficulty obtaining government work permits. Government officials sometimes made generic criticisms of local NGOs that accepted funding from international sources.
International personnel of NGOs often had trouble getting visa renewals to continue working in the country. For example, the Non-Violent Peace Force, an NGO with international and domestic staff, which provided protection to civil society activists and others under threat, was forced to close down operations December 31 after the government systematically refused visas to the international staff.
UN and Other International Bodies: The government continued to refuse the request by the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights for an expanded mission and an independent presence in the country.
In June 2010 UN Secretary General (SYG) Ban Ki-moon appointed a three-member panel of experts to advise him on “the implementation of the commitment on human rights accountability” made in the joint statement issued by President Rajapaksa and the SYG during the latter’s visit in May 2009. According to the UN, the panel was to look into the “modalities, applicable international standards, and comparative experience with regard to accountability processes,” taking into account the nature and scope of any alleged violations. The panel was to complete its work in four months, but the SYG extended the mandate until March 3. Although the panel of experts intended to visit the country and meet with the LLRC and other officials with accountability roles, the UN and the government were unable to come to agreement on the modalities of the visit.
The report, which the panel of experts provided to the SYG on April 12, and through him to the government, stated that there were credible allegations of serious human rights violations by the government, including large-scale shelling of “No Fire Zones,” systematic shelling of hospitals and other civilian targets, and summary execution, rape, and torture of those in the conflict zone. The report also highlighted a number of credible allegations against the LTTE, including using civilians as a strategic buffer, forced labor (including children), and summary executions of civilians attempting to flee the conflict zone. Including victims on both sides, the report estimated that there could have been as many as 40,000 civilian deaths. The report also describes the government’s LLRC as “a potentially useful opportunity to begin a national dialogue on Sri Lanka’s conflict” but as “deeply flawed” and not meeting international standards for an effective accountability mechanism. The LLRC Report had not been published during the course of the panel’s work.
The panel of experts’ report recommended, among other steps, that the government immediately begin genuine investigations into alleged violations of international law committed by both sides in the conflict, and that the government issue a public, formal acknowledgment of its role in and responsibility for extensive civilian casualties during the final stages of the war. The report also recommended that the SYG immediately establish an independent mechanism to monitor and assess the extent to which the government was carrying out an effective domestic accountability process, as well as independently to investigate credible allegations, and to collect and safeguard information relevant to accountability for the final stages of the war.
On April 25, the UN made public the panel of experts’ report and urged the government to respond constructively to its recommendations, which included the establishment of an international investigation mechanism. The government had opposed strongly an international investigatory commission and did not respond formally to the report; officials strongly criticized the report’s findings.
The ICRC closed its Jaffna offices in February and its Vavuniya offices in March at the request of the government. The government denied the ICRC access to former LTTE combatants held in rehabilitation centers (see section 1.d.), and the ICRC was unable to fulfill its protection mandate. It was nonetheless able to conduct a number of its functions, including prison visits and other monitoring from Colombo.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) held its first session as constituted under the 18th Amendment on February 22. It has jurisdiction to inquire into human rights violations. If an allegation were established, the HRCSL could make a recommendation for financial compensation to the victim and/or refer the case for disciplinary action or to the attorney general for prosecution. If an HRCSL order were not followed, a summons could be sent to both parties for explanation. If the parties continued in noncompliance, the HRCSL could report the case to the Supreme Court as a matter of contempt, a punishable offense. The Investigation and Inquiry division of the HRCSL recorded 3,116 complaints by the end of September, 664 of which did not fall within the mandate of the commission.
By statute the HRCSL has wide powers and resources and may not be called as a witness in any court of law or be sued for matters relating to its official duties. However, in practice the HRCSL rarely used its powers, and there were reports of a large backlog of cases with virtually no action by the commission during the year. In its concluding recommendations, the CAT noted its concerns “about the difficulties the HRCSL has had in carrying out its function owing in part to the lack of cooperation from other State party institutions, limited human and financial resources, which has reduced its ability to investigate specific incidents and make recommendations for redress, and failure to publish the reports of its investigations.” Rather than taking an investigative approach to determining the facts and details of human rights cases, the HRCSL took a more tribunal-like approach, weighing only the evidence brought to it in deciding whether to pursue a case. Observers expressed concerns with the HRCSL’s lack of independence and transparency, particularly with the passage of the 18th Amendment, which granted greater power to the president to oversee HRCSL appointments. In 2007 the International Coordinating Committee of National Human Rights Institutions downgraded the HRCSL to observer status, citing government interference in its work. The committee upheld its decision in a 2009 review, asserting that the HRCSL was not in compliance with the Paris Principles relating to National Human Rights Institutions.
In May 2010 the government established the LLRC, a presidential commission mandated to inquire into the breakdown of the cease-fire with the LTTE and report on lessons learned. An eight-member panel of commissioners, including one Tamil and one Muslim, was appointed to collect information and take testimony and present a report to the president. International observers criticized the country’s lack of witness protection, the limited scope of the LLRC--which did not have an explicit mandate to investigate alleged war crimes--and the alleged bias of its chairman, C.R. de Silva, who they believed was responsible in part for the failure of a previous commission of inquiry. The UN panel of experts’ report described the LLRC as “a potentially useful opportunity” to begin a national dialogue on the country’s conflict but added that it was “deeply flawed” and did not meet international standards for an effective accountability mechanism. Following two six-month mandate extensions, the LLRC handed its report to the president November 20.
On December 16, the LLRC report was tabled in parliament and posted on a government Web site. The government did not make the report available in Sinhala or Tamil in its entirety. The report made observations and recommendations for government action on issues related to the breakdown of the ceasefire agreement, security forces operations during the final stages of the war, international humanitarian law, human rights, land, restitution, and reconciliation. It acknowledged important grievances that contributed to the war, and many international and civil society groups found the report made important recommendations for government action to address serious political, cultural, social, and human rights concerns in the country. Some such recommendations included calling on the government to: phase out security forces from civilian affairs and activities; delink the police department from institution dealing with the armed forces; investigate and hold accountable those responsible for abductions, disappearances, and attacks on journalists; implement recommendations of past domestic commissions of inquiry; disarm and prosecute illegally armed groups; provide better access to detainees; ensure the right of information; implement the official trilingual policy; depoliticize the process to collect and adjudicate land claims; devolve power to local government institutions; and enact legislation to criminalize enforced or involuntary disappearances.
Many international and national observers stated that the LLRC did not adequately address accountability for alleged war crimes committed by the government and the LTTE during the final months of the conflict. The LLRC report acknowledged that hospitals were shelled and that there were considerable civilian casualties during the final stage of the conflict and recommended investigations into “possible implications of the security forces” in specific instances of civilian death or injury. Prominent international NGOs, however, stated that the LLRC report exonerated the government of any wrongdoing. They noted that the report found no systematic government wrongdoing on issues such as the “white flag” incident of the alleged killing of surrendering LTTE fighters, extensive shelling of No Fire Zones, systematic shelling of hospitals, and the withholding of humanitarian supplies from civilians entrapped by the LTTE. The report also limited its analysis of the Channel 4’s “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields,” which contains video footage of purported Sri Lankan soldiers executing bound prisoners and making lewd comments while mishandling partially clothed female bodies, to a technical discussion of the video’s authenticity (see section 1.a.).
The cabinet approved the National Action Plan for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights (NAPHR) on December 14. The five-year plan was developed per the government’s May 2008 pledge under the Universal Periodic Review to draft a human rights action plan. The NAPHR presents recommendations in eight areas: civil and political rights; economic, social, and cultural rights; prevention of torture; rights of women; labor rights; rights of migrant workers; rights of children; and rights of IDPs. It also provides timelines and assigns stakeholder ministries to implement the recommendations. The plan presents a number of specific and practical recommendations, including legislation ensuring the right to information, punitive measures against officers found by the HRCSL to be guilty of torture, and a substantive criminal offense on disappearances. Civil society activists criticized its recommendations and timelines as unrealistic for not taking into account financial or resource constraints and said many of their contributions were excluded from the final version of the plan.