Sri Lanka has taken steps towards legal, institutional and security sector reforms, but more action is still needed, according to a report issued on Feb. 26 by the UN human rights office, OHCHR, which examines developments over the past year.
Although UN Human Rights High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet has recognized the authorities’ efforts to initiate reforms, the report said that she has also expressed deep concern over a number of violations in the country
Setbacks to accountability
OHCHR noted setbacks to accountability for past human rights violations and the recognition of victims’ rights, Spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani told journalists in Geneva.
“The High Commissioner highlights particularly the continuing precarious situation of the families of the disappeared—the majority of whom are represented by women,” she said.
“We urge the government to acknowledge their sufferings, urgently determine the fate or whereabouts of victims, provide reparations, and bring perpetrators to justice.”
Surveillance and harassment
The report, which was prepared for the UN Human Rights Council, also makes note of continuing trends toward militarization and ethno-religious nationalism that “undermine democratic institutions, increase the anxiety of minorities, and impede reconciliation.”
Additionally, the pattern of surveillance and harassment by security forces of civil society organizations, human rights defenders, journalists, and victims, highlighted in previous reports, has also continued, particularly in the North and East.
Ms. Shamdasani said the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) Amendment Bill, presented to Parliament earlier this month, is an important initial step.
“The High Commissioner welcomes the proposed increase of magistrates’ powers to visit places of detention, the speeding up of trials and the repeal of section 14, which imposes serious limitations on publications,” she added.
Towards peace and reconciliation
However, Ms. Shamdasani said that other proposed amendments do not comply fully with Sri Lanka’s international human rights obligations, leaving some of the most “problematic” provisions of the PTA intact.
This has led to alleged human rights violations, including arbitrary detention and torture.
Since June, more than 80 suspects detained under the PTA have been released. OHCHR has welcomed this development, while urging the authorities to impose a moratorium on continued use of the law.
“Sri Lanka will only achieve sustainable development and peace and lasting reconciliation if it ensures civic space, independent and inclusive institutions, and puts an end to systemic impunity,” said Ms. Shamdasani.