The Sri Lankan government has been making frantic efforts to meet the expectations of the Western countries on the human rights issue in the country, ahead of the February-March session of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva, where Sri Lanka will be discussed.
The government is to present a bill in parliament amending the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) of 1979, in ways that would match international best practices, Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris told Colombo-based diplomats on Wednesday.
Law Minister Ali Sabry had been touring the war-affected Northern Province collecting information on missing persons with an intention to give death certificates and compensation to the next of kin in case they could not be traced.
Earlier, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had told parliament that he intends to address the question of ethnic reconciliation by promoting the economic development of the war-affected Northern and Eastern provinces. He also expressed a wish to the talk to the Tamil Diaspora to secure their cooperation in his development plans for the Tamil areas. The Tamil Diaspora has been a firm supporter of the Lankan Tamils, funding their campaigns and giving them political directions.
Pressing him to take action was Lord Tariq Ahmad of Wimbledon, the British Minister for South Asia who has just ended a three-day tour of Sri Lanka. Lord Ahmad said: “ Building lasting and inclusive peace in Sri Lanka, based on reconciliation, justice and protecting human rights is key to a stable Sri Lanka, which can attract foreign investment and achieve its economic potential. We are pleased to announce continued support to Sri Lanka through the Conflict, Stability, and Security Fund (CSSF) to address legacies of conflict, promote human rights and build cohesion across all communities through program funding of up to £3.7m in 2022/23.”
In his interaction with the diplomatic community, Lankan Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris recalled that at the September 2021 Session of the UNHRC he had reiterated Sri Lanka’s commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights and to remain engaged with the United Nations, including the UNHRC. In this context, the Minister referred to the constructive engagement with the international community in a spirit of cooperation and dialogue.
Peiris said that the government has taken substantial steps with a view to accountability, restorative justice and meaningful reconciliation. These have been done through domestic institutions.
The Office for Reparations (OR) Chairperson Dhara Wijayatilake, the Sustainable Development Council (SDC) Director-General Chamindry Saparamadu, the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR) Director-General Deepthi Lamahewa, the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) Head of Protection and Legal J. Thatparan, and Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) Director – Research and Monitoring Nihal Chan: drasiri briefed the diplomats on the work done by their institutions.
The Minister said that he was particularly pleased to say that after 43 years, the Prevention of Terrorism Act is being amended with the objective of bringing it in line with international norms and best practices. He said that Cabinet approval has been obtained to gazette the Bill containing the proposed amendments and thereafter to table the Bill in Parliament for final approval.
Giving hints about what is in the bill, the Minister said that substantive amendments envisaged include progressive amendments to sections on: detention orders, restriction orders, judicial review of orders, and disposal of cases of those charged to avoid long-term detention. Sections impinging on freedom of expression will be repealed. Provisions on access by magistrates and judicial medical officers, prevention of maltreatment and torture during the detention period, the right to communicate with the family, the grant of bail to long-term detainees and day-to-day hearing of cases, will be introduced.
The Foreign Minister also referred to the establishment of an Advisory Board under Section 13 of the PTA to advise the Minister of Defense on long-term detainees. Any person who has been issued a Detention Order or a Restriction Order under the PTA is to be provided with an opportunity to request a review of the Order.
The Minister pointed out that Presidential pardons were granted to 16 Tamil Tiger cadres serving sentences under the PTA in June 2021 and a legal and administrative process has been set in motion to release detainees who have been in judicial custody for extended periods under the PTA. Accordingly, 13 more persons were discharged as of 13 January, 2022.
Minister Peiris also referred to the recent developments relating to lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah. The Attorney General has informed the Court of Appeal that he will not object to bail being granted to the accused. With regard to the Presidential Task Force on Archaeological Heritage Management, the Minister said that representatives of the Tamil and Muslim communities had been included in the management.
The Foreign Minister pointed out that he had undertaken visits to the Eastern, Southern and Central provinces and his forthcoming visit to the Northern province of Sri Lanka with the objective of engaging in consultations with various stakeholders, including politicians, government officials, intellectuals and academics, members of civil society at the grassroots to discuss and obtain feedback on various measures the government has already taken to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and on human rights and reconciliation efforts.
The United Nations Resident Coordinator in Sri Lanka, Hanaa Singer-Hamdy appreciated the work done by the relevant national institutions in the areas of transitional justice, achievement of the SDG’s and amendments to the PTA. The Ambassador of Egypt Maged Mosleh highlighted the importance of the international community working with Sri Lanka to promote human rights and reconciliation and observed the impressive achievements made by Sri Lanka in combating terrorism and dealing with its aftermath.
However, the victims of the government’s human rights violations complain that the measures are inadequate. The exact nature of the amendments to the PTA are not public knowledge yet. The Muslims complain that the De-radicalization Regulations had not been mentioned by the Minister. The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) had condemned the regulations, which allow for the arbitrary administrative detention of people for up to two years without trial. The regulations could disproportionately target minority religious and ethnic communities, the ICJ pointed out. The Catholic church is sore that the government is dithering over getting to the bottom of the 2019 Easter Sunday bombing of churches which claimed 270 lives.
The Tamil political parties have rejected President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s plan to address reconciliation issues only through economic development, avoiding the question of devolution of power to the Tamil provinces. Those Tamils whose family members were allegedly made to disappear during the war told the visiting Justice Minister Ali Sabry that they did not want compensation or death certificates but the location and production of their missing relations.
The government’s plea is that it will be presenting the draft of a new constitution for Sri Lanka in mid-2022 which will address all issues including devolution of power. But for COVID-19, the country would have progressed economically and enabled all communities to prosper. As regards the missing persons, the government says.
The President has said many times that many of the missing persons may have died during the 30 year-long war or slipped out of the country secretly. He has also said that foreign government have not deigned to give information on the missing when sought.
In response to the Lankan government’s complaint that the UNHRC is basing its allegations on unconfirmed reports or on information provided by interested parties, and not on field studies, the UNHRC had set up an institution to collect authentic information. The Sri Lankan government has welcomed and facilitated visits of UN-mandated rapporteurs, but it insists that any structures to implement the recommendations will have to be fully domestic with foreign help provided only where it is sought by the host government.