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 of attack, including death threats. The government often denounced local and international NGOs, failed to respond to NGO requests for assistance, and pressured NGOs that sought such assistance. The NGO Secretariat moved from the Social Services Ministry to the Ministry of Defense in 2010 and remained under the ministry 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.
In May the government eliminated the Presidential Task Force for Resettlement, Development, and Security in the Northern Province, an extralegal body that since 2009 had the authority to approve international and local NGO activities along with those of the United Nations in the Northern Province. As of year’s end, it was unclear if this action had a positive effect on NGOs delivering services in the Northern Province, and NGOs in the field continued to report extensive harassment and surveillance of their activities by security forces. Some NGOs reported that the Northern Provincial Council, elected in September 2013, provided support to NGOs and had opened spaces for engagement with the government that did not exist previously.
Authorities frequently harassed, followed, and arbitrarily detained human rights defenders for their activities (see section 1.d.). On March 16, security forces detained human rights defenders Ruki Fernando and Praveen Mahesan for their effort to gather details regarding the March 13 arrest of Balendran Jeyakumari at her Kilinochchi home (see also section 1.d.). Following international criticism of the arrests, authorities released the two on March 19 after 51 hours in detention.
As in previous years, poster campaigns by anonymous government supporters continued to threaten human rights defenders and NGO activists engaged in what the government considered more sensitive areas. On October 23, a poster criticizing the “unpatriotic NGO lot” that sought “destruction” under the “guise of media freedom, human rights and democracy” was plastered along key intersections of one of Colombo’s busiest roadways. On October 25, posters appeared in Colombo and Negombo with photos of prominent human rights defenders and NGO activists, particularly members of Brito Fernando’s Right to Life and Families of the Disappeared organizations, two days before their commemoration of the 24th annual National Day of Disappearances on October 27. The posters referred to the activists as “dollar ravens” and “devils” who were “selling people’s misery” for profit. On October 27, in the middle of the night, unidentified assailants threw two stones through the front window of Fernando’s private home. The attack injured no one; as of year’s end, police had not made any arrests in the case.
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. The government also required additional new approvals for foreign staff to travel to the Northern Province. In April 2013 the government began requiring all hotels and guesthouses to provide police with the passport information of any foreigners who registered, a practice that continued throughout this year. On October 15, the government imposed travel registration requirements for an “indefinite” period of time on all travel by foreigners (even if they were of Sri Lankan origin) to the Northern Province without obtaining prior approval for travel from the Ministry of Defense. The foreign staff of UN agencies received blanket approvals for travel until the end of the year, but the measure’s effect on restricting foreign staff of NGOs remained unclear.
In June 2013 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. One government official stated the government would take strict legal action against NGOs that did not comply.
In June the government announced plans to regulate more carefully both NGO visas and the interaction of government officials with NGOs and foreign missions. Under a proposed new code of conduct, ministers, government members of parliament, and high-ranking government officials--including senior officers of state-owned enterprises--would need to seek permission from the government whenever participating in a program sponsored by foreign governments or NGOs and whenever they planned to leave the country. Furthermore, the request for travel and/or participation would have to include information about funding sources and objectives. The code would also cap officials’ number of foreign trips, both for official and personal reasons, and limit them to a total of 10 days outside the country per year. For the NGOs the government stated it would create a new visa category specifically for conferences and workshops and would require all NGOs to follow strict procedures when applying for visas for participants in these events. This requirement would apply to all civil society organizations, including professional bodies, chambers of commerce, think tanks, NGOs registered with the NGO Secretariat, and NGOs registered under the Companies Act. The government did not implement the new code of conduct by year’s end, nor did it announce plans to do so, although some groups said individuals began to self-censor based on the plan.
On July 1, the Ministry of Defense issued a press release from its NGO Secretariat warning NGOs not to hold “press conferences, workshops, training for journalists, and dissemination of press releases, which is beyond their mandate.” In response the Lawyers Collective issued its own statement asserting the ministry had no authority to restrict freedom of association and expression and calling the notice an indication that the country was becoming an “authoritarian state.” On July 10, media reported concerns from NGO Secretariat director general D.M.S. Dissanayake that nonprofit organizations registered under the Companies Act were “acting out the role of NGOs” and would be required to register with the NGO Secretariat.
On July 15, the government-owned Daily News reported the government initiated an investigation into at least three NGOs for violating NGO regulations but did not name the organizations. Under the headline “Probing Wild-Ass NGOs,” the article quoted Dissanayake as saying that he expected new legislation to force all nonprofits to register with the NGO Secretariat and limit the amount of foreign funding the NGOs could accept annually. On July 18, the Ministry of Finance published a statement in the Daily News regarding the use of foreign funding in development projects. The notice expressed concern that “civil society, NGOs, and private sector” elements were undertaking development projects “funded by foreign agencies without proper approvals.” It noted special concern about election and microfinance programs, adding that the government had instructed all government agencies to not seek “donor assistance for activities for which local expertise is available and funds can be allocated” by the central government. The directive advised that any private-sector agency, NGO, or individuals that received “foreign aid…is required to have prior approval from the relevant government agencies.” The edict advised “the general public to refrain from participating” in programs that “undermine the smooth functioning of country-owned management systems” and stated that participants should consult government officials to confirm activities were “legitimate.” It concluded that all organizations utilizing foreign funds needed prior approval from the Ministry of Finance’s External Resources Department. The government did not take any visible steps to punish NGOs for the activities mentioned in the July 1 press statement by year’s end, nor did it pass legislation requiring new registration procedures for NGOs.
The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The UNHRC passed resolution 25/1 in March, to promote “reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka,” and asked the OHCHR to begin a comprehensive investigation into “alleged serious violations and abuses of human rights and related crimes by both parties” during the period covered by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. The government refused to assist the OHCHR in its inquiry. In response to subsequent UN requests for the government to cooperate with the investigation, the government publicly rejected the investigation and declined to cooperate in any way, including denying visas to members of the OHCHR investigation team. In September, UN high commissioner for human rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein’s oral update to the UNHRC reiterated the OHCHR’s request for government cooperation with the investigation; asked the government to “initiate a comprehensive truth seeking process”; and urged it to “end the climate of intimidation, threat and harassment against civil society actors advocating for justice and human rights.”
On November 7, in response to repeated public statements by the government questioning the credibility and integrity of the OHCHR investigation on Sri Lanka, as well as mounting evidence of the government’s efforts to intimidate potential witnesses, the high commissioner issued a press release that “condemned the intimidation of human rights defenders and individuals who may wish to cooperate with the investigation” and asked, “Why would governments with nothing to hide go to such extraordinary lengths to sabotage an impartial international investigation?” He called the government’s actions “unacceptable conduct for any Member State of the United Nations which has committed to uphold the UN Charter” and criticized “the wall of fear” the government was creating “to deter people from submitting evidence.” On November 8, permanent representative to the United Nations, Ravinatha Aryasinha, wrote to the high commissioner, calling the press release “regrettable” and claimed the government had made no attempt “to deter and intimidate individuals from submitting evidence” to the OHCHR investigation. He stated that the government had continuing concerns regarding the OHCHR investigation process and questioned the high commissioner for having “challenged the right of a sovereign State to raise concerns regarding procedural aspects of an Investigation which impacts its persons and their future in the context of the ongoing sensitive reconciliation process.”
From June to October, the government detained and deported hundreds of asylum seekers and did not provide the UNHCR access to the detained asylum seekers. After four months of receiving no cooperation from the government, authorities finally granted the UNHCR full access to all asylum seekers in November (see section 2.d.).
On May 16-26, Francois Crepeau, the UN special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, visited the country. In a May 27 statement, he highlighted the serious issues confronting Sri Lankan migrants traveling abroad, especially to the Middle East for manual and domestic labor, and called upon the government to do more to protect its citizens. In December 2013 Chaloka Beyani, the UN special rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons, visited the country and issued a final report in June (see section 2.d.).
At year’s end there were nine outstanding requests for visits to the country from UN special procedures mandate holders, including on the independence of judges and lawyers; minority issues; enforced or involuntary disappearances; human rights defenders; freedom of expression; extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions; freedom of peaceful assembly and association; discrimination against women in law and practice; and truth, justice, reparation, and guarantees of nonrecurrence. The UN high commissioner for human rights reiterated former high commissioner Pillay’s August 2013 request that the government move forward with the visits by the independent expert on minority issues and the special rapporteur on enforced and involuntary disappearances, in particular.
In 2011 a panel of experts appointed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon published a report stating 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 in 2009 as the conflict came to an end. 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 there could have been as many as 40,000 civilian deaths, including victims on both sides of the conflict. Government officials issued statements strongly criticizing the report’s findings and opposing the report’s recommendations but refused to respond formally to the United Nations. In October the government reiterated its rejection of the panel’s findings. At year’s end there was still no progress on the panel’s recommendations.
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 2013 reinstated ICRC access. The government claimed to be working closely with the ICRC and the UN Development Program regarding the commission on missing persons’ procedures, and both organizations noted that consultations regarding best practices had taken place.
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 the government does not follow an HRCSL order, 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. In 2013 the number of complaints received by the HRCSL’s head office totaled 4,979, of which 1,539 were out of the HRCSL’s scope. HRCSL’s 11 regional offices received an additional 4,236 complaints.
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 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 his May 27 statement, Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants Crepeau called upon the government to “strengthen the independence of the Sri Lankan Human Rights Commission, provide it with adequate resources, systematically consult it on all issues with human rights implications, and implement its recommendations.”
In 2010 the government established the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), a presidential body mandated to inquire into the breakdown of the cease-fire with the LTTE. The commission 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. The report called on the government to: phase out security forces from civilian affairs and activities; delink police departments 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 inadequately addressing accountability for alleged war crimes reportedly 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 of humanitarian supplies from civilians trapped 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. 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. Throughout the year there was little, if any, progress on recommendations relating to international humanitarian law, human rights, democratic governance, and press freedom concerns. In July 2013 the government established a new LLRC website that it claimed would track progress on the commission’s recommendations through the national action plan. The website was translated into English, Tamil, and Sinhala by year’s end. Civil society observers, however, stated that many of the claims of government progress were incomplete, misleading, or unverifiable. Government claims of the percentage of fully implemented LLRC recommendations ranged from 25 percent to 99 percent. In October the government stated that it had fully implemented 46 of 144 recommendations accepted by the government, placing the implementation percentage at 32 percent. Observers could not verify most of the claims of completion, however.
In 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. The navy also convened a similar court to inquire into relevant allegations (see section 1.a.).