The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s (FCO) 2017 Annual Human Rights and Democracy Report covering the period from January to December 2017 was released on 16 July 2018.
The report reviews the global human rights picture with particular emphasis on the FCO’s 30 Human Rights Priority Countries. The report also focuses on how the UK is working to protect and promote human rights across the world.
The 30 HRPCs are: Afghanistan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Burma, Burundi, Central African Republic, China, Colombia, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Israel and the Occupied Territories, Libya, Maldives, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, Yemen, and Zimbabwe.
It said Sri Lanka is one of 30 ‘Human Rights Priority Countries’ (HRPCs); countries where the UK has serious human rights concerns and hopes to engage positively to develop human rights performance.
Particular concerns highlighted by the report include attacks on minority communities and the slow delivery of key human rights and reconciliation commitments.
In its country specific report on Sri Lanka the FCO said:
Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka
2017 saw limited progress in the human rights situation in Sri Lanka. There were particular concerns around inter-communal tensions and the slow delivery of key human rights and reconciliation commitments, including delays in introducing new human rights compliant counter-terrorism legislation and in the Office of Missing Persons becoming operational.
There were a number of allegations that the security forces continued to resort to torture, including in reports published by the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission, by the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) Special Rapporteur on Torture, Nils Melzer, and by the HRC Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin. Work continued on a draft Counter Terrorism Act, intended to replace the much criticised Prevention of Terrorism Act, but the government failed to advance the new legislation through parliament.
Civil society and journalists continued to report concerns about surveillance and harassment in the north and east of the country, albeit at a lower level than in previous years. Military involvement in civilian life in the north reduced, and the military released approximately 550 acres of private land.
Communal tensions increased, with incidents of violence and intimidation against Muslims and Evangelical Christians. The Government of Sri Lanka established inter-religious committees to address the issue, and committed to hold to account those responsible for inciting violence.
The International Organization for Migration assessed that human trafficking remained common within the large numbers of Sri Lankans migrating for employment, with men, women and children being trafficked for labour and commercial sexual exploitation. The Government of Sri Lanka established new anti-trafficking units in order to help address the issue and endorsed the Call to Action to end Modern Slavery which was announced by the Prime Minister, Theresa May, at the UN General Assembly in September.
In January, the Cabinet rejected a move, spearheaded by civil society, to decriminalise homosexuality following opposition by some members of the government and by some conservative religious groups. Although there have been no recent prosecutions for homosexual acts, members of the LGBT community face harassment and discrimination in society. Supported by UK funding, the 13th Colombo Pride Week was held successfully in June.
There was progress on legislative reforms and improving institutional and policy frameworks designed to prevent discrimination against women. This included the finalisation of the National Human Rights Action Plan (2017-21) and the introduction of a quota for female candidates in local elections. There are continued concerns around issues affecting gender equality, including discriminatory laws and policies, access to justice, marginalisation of war- affected women, and violence against women. Civil society continued to call for the reform of the Muslim Marriages and Divorce Act, which does not stipulate a minimum age of marriage for women of the Muslim community. 3.6% of Sri Lanka girls are not in primary school compared to 1.8% of boys45.
In January, the then Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, met former Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera. They discussed constitutional reform, HRC resolution 30/1, the repeal and replacement of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and accountability and reconciliation issues. The Minister for Asia and the Pacific, Mark Field, visited Sri Lanka in October. He emphasised the UK’s support for reconciliation and accountability, and urged greater progress towards delivering the commitments made to the HRC.
In March, the OHCHR published its assessment of Sri Lanka’s progress in the implementation of HRC resolution 30/1. While acknowledging positive steps taken, the report described progress towards establishing transitional justice mechanisms as “worryingly slow” and noted reluctance by the government to address difficult issues. The UK welcomed the Government of Sri Lanka’s co-sponsorship of a new HRC resolution 34/1, rolling resolution 30/1 commitments over for another 2 years. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Guarantees of Non- recurrence, Pablo de Greiff, visited Sri Lanka in October. His report concluded that the Government of Sri Lanka was making slower progress than hoped on transitional justice issues, and questioned its commitment to a comprehensive transitional justice programme.
Sri Lanka had its Universal Periodic Review at the HRC in November. The UK recommended that Sri Lanka should design and implement strategies to tackle sexual violence; mandate companies to ensure supply chain transparency as part of efforts to combat human trafficking; and take steps to implement the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT), following its ratification earlier in November. The Government of Sri Lanka made a voluntary commitment to designate the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka as the national preventive and monitoring mechanism to fulfil OPCAT obligations.
The UK is providing £6.6 million from the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (2016 to 2019) for projects in Sri Lanka, including support for police reform, demining, inter-faith dialogue and mediation, and support for the UN’s Peacebuilding Priority Plan.
In 2018, the UK will continue to encourage progress on human rights issues, including modern slavery, gender inequality including girls’ education, and reform of discriminatory laws. The UK will also continue to press for the release of private land occupied by the military or the payment of suitable compensation to landowners.