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 2010 and remained under the Ministry of Defense at the end of the year. Several NGOs noted a lack of clarity in defense ministry procedures and enforcement of regulations.
The government and its supporters remained apprehensive of NGO activities in certain areas of advocacy. Government officials criticized in general terms local NGOs that accepted funding from international sources. There was particular scrutiny of organizations critical of the government on issues such as governance, transparency, and human rights. For example, on October 15, posters appeared around Colombo vilifying civil society think tank Centre for Policy Alternatives Director Paikiasothy Saravanamutthu. The think tank had filed fundamental rights petitions against the Divineguma Act in the Supreme Court, which sought to give the Ministry of Economic Development responsibilities that constitutionally belonged to the provincial councils.
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.
On October 18, Director General of the Media Center for National Security (MCNS) Lakshman Hulugalla announced that new legislation on NGOs was being drafted to strengthen the government’s ability to monitor NGO activities and take appropriate action against any irregularities.
NGO international personnel often had trouble renewing their work visas, and the government made it difficult for international staff to get visas to Sri Lanka.
UN and Other International Bodies: The government continued to refuse the request by the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) for an expanded mission and an independent presence in the country.
From September 14-20, a technical delegation from the OHCHR visited the country. The government had extended an invitation for the high commissioner for human rights to visit in April 2011, and the high commissioner requested the technical delegation visit first to do the groundwork for her visit in 2013. In light of the March 22 UNHCR resolution adopted on Sri Lanka, during its visit the OHCHR delegation also evaluated government progress to implement the LLRC recommendations.
There were eight outstanding requests from Special Procedures Mandate Holders to the government, including: the special rapporteur on independence of judges and lawyers; the independent expert on minority issues; the working group on enforced or involuntary disappearances; the special rapporteur on human rights defenders; the special rapporteur on freedom of expression; the special rapporteur on enforced, summary, or arbitrary executions; the special rapporteur on freedom of association and assembly; and the working group on discrimination against women in law and practice. During the year the government did not facilitate any visits by special procedures mandate holders to Sri Lanka.
In 2011 a panel of experts (POE) appointed by the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon published a report stating 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 recommended that the government immediately investigate 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 a UN secretary-general-established mechanism to assess the efficacy of the government’s domestic accountability process. Government officials strongly criticized the report’s findings, opposed the report’s recommendations, and did not respond formally. At year’s end there was no progress on the government’s acceptance of the POE’s recommendations.
In response to the POE’s recommendation for the UN to conduct an internal review evaluating its actions in Sri Lanka in the final months of the war, the UN secretary-general established an internal review panel headed by senior UN official Charles Petrie. The review panel reviewed more than 7,000 documents, interviewed civil society, diplomats, and UN staff, and released its findings on November 15. The review panel’s report concluded that the UN system failed to meet its responsibilities at the end of the war to the detriment of hundreds of thousands of civilians. It cited several shortfalls in the UN response, including a lack of expertise at senior levels, a failure to prepare for the humanitarian crisis, poor communication and confused direction, lack of engagement by member states, and a reluctance to anger the government as the UN coordinated assistance. The government dismissed the report and criticized it as biased for drawing on allegations raised in the POE report in arriving at its findings.
The ICRC closed its Jaffna offices in February 2011 and its Vavuniya offices in March 2011 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.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) has jurisdiction to inquire into human rights violations. After an allegation is established, the HRCSL may make a recommendation for financial compensation to the victim, refer the case for disciplinary action or to the attorney general for prosecution, or both. If an HRCSL order is not followed, a summons may be sent to both parties for explanation. If the parties continue in noncompliance, the HRCSL can report the case to the High Court as a matter of contempt, an offense punishable by imprisonment or fine. The Investigation and Inquiry Division of the HRCSL recorded 4,075 complaints by the end of 2011, 1,122 of which did not fall within the mandate of the commission. Statistics for 2012 were not published at the end of the year.
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, 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, 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 grants greater power to the president to oversee HRCSL appointments.
In 2010 the government established the aforementioned Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), a presidential commission mandated to inquire into the breakdown of the cease-fire with the LTTE and report on lessons learned. The LLRC handed its report to the president in November 2011, and the report was tabled in parliament in December 2011. On November 14, translations of the report into Sinhala and Tamil were posted on the government’s official Web site.
The LLRC 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. Many international and civil society groups found that the report made important recommendations for government action to address serious political, cultural, social, and human rights concerns. The report called on the government to phase out security forces from civilian affairs and activities; delink the police department from institutions 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 and 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.
On July 26, the government released a national action plan to implement 120 of the 167 recommendations contained in the LLRC report. The plan identifies activities, actors, and time frames for implementation, with time periods up to 36 months. Civil society organizations criticized the plan for its reliance on internal mechanisms for investigations rather than independent bodies and deferral of fundamental issues to a parliamentary select committee that had yet to be established. The government appeared to make the most significant progress during the year on recommendations relating to language issues. There was little if any progress on recommendations relating to issues of international humanitarian law, human rights, and press freedom concerns.
The government has not initiated any independent mechanisms to investigate allegations of human rights and humanitarian law violations during the war’s final stages, and the LLRC action plan rejects establishing independent investigations. Army Commander Jayasuriya on January 2 appointed a five-member “initial fact-finding inquiry” to investigate observations made by the LLRC on civilian casualties in the final stages of the war. A similar court also was convened by the Navy to inquire into relevant allegations. On November 1, former attorney general and legal advisor to the Cabinet of Ministers Mohan Peiris told the UNHRC in Geneva during Sri Lanka’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) that the army court of inquiry held 50 sittings to probe allegations of human rights abuses and recorded statements from 30 witnesses.
The cabinet approved the National Action Plan for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights (NAPHR) in December 2011 and appointed a subcommittee to oversee its implementation in February. The five-year plan was developed per the government’s May 2008 pledge under the UPR to draft a human rights action plan. There was little progress on implementation.
On November 1, Sri Lanka’s UPR occurred in an interactive dialogue at the UNHRC in Geneva. On November 5, the UNHRC adopted the draft outcome report of the working group of Sri Lanka’s UPR. Sri Lanka rejected 98 recommendations submitted by countries at its UPR and accepted 111. This constituted one of the largest absolute number of UPR recommendations rejected outright and one of the highest proportion of recommendations rejected. The government deemed unacceptable recommendations regarding right to information legislation, reducing the military’s role in civilian affairs in the north, decriminalizing same-sex relationships, criminalizing and punishing enforced disappearances, accepting jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court with respect to crimes against humanity, and an independent investigation into the 2006 killing of 17 humanitarian workers in Mutur, among others. A large number of recommendations were raised a second time in light of the government’s nonimplementation over the last four years of its 2008 UPR commitments. The adoption of Sri Lanka’s draft UPR outcome report also was characterized by irregularities initiated by the government, including changing the wording of eight recommendations related to implementation of the LLRC recommendations.