The British Government says it will continue to press for further progress on human rights in Sri Lanka this year, including efforts to improve press freedoms, tackle gender inequality, and encourage the reform of discriminatory laws.
The UK says it will also continue to urge the Government to deliver on its commitments reflected in HRC resolution 34/1.
The British Foreign Office today released the 2018 Foreign and Commonwealth Office human rights report.
On Sri Lanka, the report said that the human rights situation in Sri Lanka was mixed in 2018. Key concerns included increased inter-communal tensions, the slow delivery of key reconciliation commitments, delays in introducing new human-rights compliant counter-terrorism legislation, and a stalled transitional justice process.
The report said that a 51-day constitutional crisis, which began in October, further disrupted effective delivery on these points, although it ultimately confirmed the resilience of parliament and the judiciary.
In February and March, anti-Muslim riots took place in Ampara and Kandy, resulting in three associated deaths, the damage or destruction of over 400 Muslim-owned properties, and a 12-day State of Emergency, during which some social media platforms were blocked by the government. Over 100 arrests were made, although no trials have taken place as yet. In May, a prominent extremist Buddhist monk was convicted on multiple counts of harassment and intimidation of witnesses. We continued to support district inter-religious dialogue, including through our Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF) programme, to help mediation in inter-communal tensions.
In May, the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka was upgraded to ‘A’ status by the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions, in recognition of its efforts to promote and protect human rights and its full compliance with the Paris Principles relating to NHRIs.
The report said that the constitutional crisis which began in October further highlighted the important role of independent institutions, with the judiciary delivering a number of important determinations, upholding and safeguarding the Constitution. Reports of intimidation of the media and civil society increased during this period, while throughout the year human rights defenders in the north and east raised increased concerns of surveillance and harassment.
Notwithstanding political rhetoric threatening the re-introduction of the death penalty in the second half of 2018, Sri Lanka voted in favour of the UN moratorium on the death penalty in December. The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka and a number of international NGOs continued to report allegations of torture and other ill-treatment by the security forces. Sri Lanka acceded to the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture on 5 December 2017. It entered into force for Sri Lanka in January.
A draft Counter Terrorism Act, intended to replace the much criticised Prevention of Terrorism Act, was tabled in parliament in October. Following several petitions related to human rights, the Supreme Court determined that specific clauses in the act would need to be amended, further delaying its adoption.
The Government of Sri Lanka remained committed to combating human smuggling and trafficking. In August, the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister attended the 7th Bali Process Ministerial Conference, reiterating commitments to combat people smuggling.
At the UN Human Rights Council in September, the UK welcomed the progress of the Government of Sri Lanka in implementing HRC resolution 34/1, while identifying a number of areas for improvement, including a need to show more progress on constitutional reform, the establishment of transitional justice mechanisms, and the repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act.
In January, the report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights acknowledged some improvement in the overall situation in Sri Lanka, but noted a lack of progress on accountability for conflict-related violations. The long-awaited Office of Missing Persons began operations in February, and submitted an interim report with recommendations in September. In October, parliament passed the Office of Reparations Bill, although it is yet to be operationalised. There was some further return of military occupied land, but the size of the military presence in the north remained similar to 2017. Throughout the year, including at CHOGM in April, and during a visit to Sri Lanka in October, Mark Field urged the government to make more progress on its HRC commitments.
In August, Mark Field announced an extra £1 million of funding to help with the resettlement of displaced families in the north and east of Sri Lanka, followed by an additional £400,000 in October to add to existing UK support for de-mining work in the north.
The UK has provided Sri Lanka with a total of £8.3 million CSSF funding from 2016 to 2019, including for police reform, de-mining, inter-faith dialogue, and support to the UN’s Peacebuilding work. (Colombo Gazette)