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. The government often denounced local and international NGOs, failed to respond to NGO requests for assistance, and put pressure on NGOs 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 year’s end. Several NGOs noted a lack of clarity in ministry procedures and enforcement of regulations.
The government and its supporters remained hostile to NGO activities in certain areas. 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.
The PTF for Resettlement, Development, and Security in the Northern Province continued to exist during the year as an extra-legal body with the authority to approve international and local NGO activities, along with those of the UN, in the Northern Province. The PTF, based in Colombo, superseded the authorities for development coordination and approvals, which had earlier resided with provincial- or district-level authorities, such as government agents, local councils, or ministerial representatives. The PTF’s authority also trumped that of
national-level ministries that wished to initiate development programs with international or local organizations, which complained about the PTF’s apparent role in delaying projects deemed controversial by the government, usually in areas most affected by the conflict in the north. The PTF does not have staff based in the field, nor does it conduct regular monitoring; its approval authorities are generally seen as arbitrary and misinformed. The donor community reported that PTF delays prevented vulnerable populations from timely receipt of assistance.
On November 7, Nimalka Fernando, a human rights defender with a history of being threatened by government authorities dating to the March 2012 Human Rights Council session in Geneva, reported that she filed a complaint with the HRCLS after a radio talk show hosted by the chairman of the Sri Lankan Broadcasting Corporation aired several death threats against her by call-in listeners. At year’s end HRCSL investigations into the matter continued.
A February 17 editorial in a state-run newspaper, LankaWeb, vilified some NGOs and their leaders (identified by name) for being “meddlesome,” “grossly intrusive,” and “counterproductive.” Accusing international and domestic NGOs of “hijacking domestic policy,” the editorialist questioned “whether they have any place in the future of the nation.” On May 30, the country’s deputy permanent representative to the UN in Geneva, Manisha Gunasekera, noted the “negative impact” that could result from insufficient regulation of NGO funding, adding that NGOs could “play a fundamental role in feeding terrorism and conflict.”
The government harassed and criticized the leadership of two foreign NGOs, the Friedrich Naumann Foundation (FNF) and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FEF), for their alleged support of opposition and local NGO activities. In May state-run Independent Television Network criticized FNF support of the opposition UNP and local NGO Center for Policy Alternatives, publicized the address and telephone number of the FNF’s Colombo office and released the name and photograph of its Sri Lankan office director. On June 13, authorities arrested FEF head Nora Langanbacher in Colombo on charges related to internal financial mismanagement. The government later allowed her to leave the country, and FEF closed its office permanently as a result of government intimidation and harassment.
NGOs that proposed undertaking projects in northern and eastern areas to address matters such as psychosocial counseling, good governance training for local citizens, and legal aid often had difficulty obtaining government work permits. International NGO personnel often had trouble renewing their work visas, and the government made it difficult for international staff to get visas to enter the country. In April the government began requiring all hotels and guesthouses to provide police with the passport information of any foreigners who registered.
On June 13, the government announced new rules making it compulsory for all NGOs operating in the country to register with the Office for the Registration of Nongovernmental Organizations. The director general of the Media Center for National Security, Lakshman Hulugalle, stated that strict legal action would be taken against NGOs that did not comply, adding that a “large number” of the nearly 100 NGOs operating in the country surreptitiously engaged in activities “inimical to the state.” Authorities told NGOs to submit a report to the government listing their role, staff, funding sources, expenditures, and future plans. In November authorities closed the Media Center for National Security for unspecified reasons. According to media reports, Hulugalle retained directorship of the NGO Secretariat.
UN and Other International Bodies: The UN high commissioner for human rights, Navanethem Pillay, visited the country from August 25 to 31. She met with government and civil society interlocutors and traveled to Colombo, Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu, and Trincomalee. While the government stated that it welcomed Pillay’s visit, government officials verbally attacked Pillay before, during, and after the visit. Following the visit, media reported that Secretary of Defense Gotabaya Rajapaksa stated that he believed Pillay was influenced by LTTE elements during her visit, and President Rajapaksa questioned why Pillay did not raise the human rights concerns she publicly announced during their meeting together.
Pillay and UN officials expressed particular concern about the questioning of human rights defenders who met with her during the visit. For example, media reported that authorities interrogated V. Yogeswaran, the Trincomalee-based director of the Center for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, multiple times regarding the content of his one-hour meeting with Pillay. Following her visit Pillay stated that “the United Nations takes the issue of reprisals against people because they have talked to UN officials as an extremely serious matter.”
On November 12, the Bar Association of Sri Lanka officially canceled a November 13 conference, “Making Commonwealth Values a Reality: The Rule of Law and Independence of the Legal Profession,” because the government revoked the visas of key speakers. The bar association reported that UN special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers Gabriel Knaul, former special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers Dato Para Cumaraswamy, and an International Bar Association representative were granted visas in August to attend the conference but were then told that they would not be allowed to enter the country. In a November 7 statement, the Ministry of External Affairs claimed the visits were never approved and blamed the bar association for failing to follow proper procedure in applying for the visas. They added that a ban against all “such events” before and during CHOGM was enacted due to resource limitations. The conference was cosponsored by the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute, which has criticized the country’s human rights record.
At year’s end there were eight outstanding requests for visits from UN special procedures mandate holders to the government, including: the special rapporteur on the 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 set dates for visits by the special rapporteur on the rights of internally displaced persons in December and the special rapporteur on the right to education in January 2014. During her August visit, High Commissioner Pillay urged the government to move forward with the visits by the independent expert on minority issues and the special rapporteur on enforced and involuntary disappearances.
In 2011 a panel of experts appointed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon published a report stating that there were credible allegations of serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law 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, using forced labor (including children), and committing summary executions of civilians attempting to flee the conflict zone. The report estimated that there could have been as many as 40,000 civilian deaths, including victims on both sides of the conflict. The report recommended, inter alia, that the government immediately investigate alleged violations of international humanitarian and human rights law committed by both sides involved in the conflict and 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 UN Secretary-General establish a mechanism to assess the efficacy of the government’s domestic accountability process. Government officials issued statements strongly criticizing the report’s findings and opposing the report’s recommendations, but refused to respond formally to the UN. At year’s end there was still no progress on the panel’s recommendations.
In response to the panel of expert’s recommendation that the UN conduct an internal review evaluating its own 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 panel reviewed more than 7,000 documents; interviewed civil society representatives, diplomats, and UN staff; and released its findings in November 2012. 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 panel of experts report in arriving at its findings.
The ICRC closed its Jaffna and Vavuniya offices in 2011 at the government’s request. The government had denied the ICRC access to former LTTE combatants held in rehabilitation centers, but in May it reinstated ICRC access, which has continued through year’s end.
In November an Australian senator and a New Zealand MP planned to hold a press conference in Colombo to call attention to the country’s human rights record, but immigration authorities detained them in their hotel room. After three hours of questioning, authorities released them and said they had violated the terms of their visas.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The 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, with presidential approval. 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. According to the most recent data available, the HRCSL’s Investigation and Inquiry Division recorded 4,075 complaints by the end of 2011, 1,122 of which did not fall within the mandate of the commission.
During the year reports emerged that Colombo-based HRCSL officials advised its branch offices in the north to accept complaints of human rights violations only if complainants provided specific information about the alleged perpetrators. Observers expected the new requirement would reduce the number of persons willing to come forward with details regarding potential human rights violations.
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. The HRCSL rarely used its powers, however, and there continued to be reports of a large backlog of cases with virtually no action by the commission during the year. In its concluding recommendations in November 2011, the UN Committee against Torture noted 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 continued 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 LLRC, a presidential body mandated to inquire into the breakdown of the cease-fire with the LTTE. The LLRC provided its report to the president in 2011, and it was subsequently tabled in Parliament. In November 2012 the government posted translations of the report in Sinhala and Tamil on official government websites.
The LLRC report made observations and recommendations for government action on issues related to the breakdown of the cease-fire agreement, operations by security forces 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 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 of collecting and adjudicating land claims; devolve power to local government institutions; and enact legislation to criminalize enforced or involuntary disappearances.
Many international and national observers criticized the LLRC report for not adequately addressing accountability for alleged war crimes committed by the government and the LTTE during the final months of the conflict and for exonerating the government of any wrongdoing. Such observers noted that the report found no systematic government wrongdoing in connection with incidents, such as the alleged killing of surrendering LTTE fighters, extensive shelling of no-fire zones, systematic shelling of hospitals, and withholding humanitarian supplies from civilians entrapped by the LTTE.
In July 2012 the government released a national action plan to implement 120 of the 285 recommendations contained in the LLRC report. The plan identified activities, actors, and time frames for implementation, with time periods of 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. As in 2012 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 international humanitarian law, human rights and democratic governance, and press freedom concerns. On July 5, the government published a new LLRC website that it claimed would track progress on the LLRC recommendations through the National Action Plan. Civil society observers, however, stated that many of the claims of government progress were incomplete, misleading, or unverifiable. Updates from the government regarding implementation of the LLRC’s recommendations were only being posted in English at year’s end.
In January 2012 Army commander Jagath Jayasuriya 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. In November 2012 former attorney general and then legal advisor to the Cabinet of Ministers Mohan Peiris stated that the army court of inquiry held 50 sittings to probe allegations of human rights abuses and recorded statements from 30 witnesses (see section 1.a.).
Following a 2008 pledge, in 2011 the cabinet approved the five-year National Action Plan for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights. In February 2012 the cabinet appointed a subcommittee to oversee its implementation, and in December 2012 the plan was posted on the internet in English, Sinhala, and Tamil. The government did not update the website during the year, and there continued to be little progress on implementation.