Reform has ‘ground to a halt’ with torture used freely – UN

Sri Lanka’s progress towards reform has “virtually ground to a halt” and brutal torture is used with impunity, the UN concludes in a scathing report on the country’s human rights record.

The report, which comes three years after the country appeared to have turned a corner in its history by electing a new coalition government, is published on Monday following a UN visit to Sri Lanka at the request of the government. “None of the measures so far adopted to fulfil Sri Lanka’s transitional justice commitments are adequate to ensure real progress,” it says.

Ben Emmerson QC, the UN rapporteur on countering terrorism, met most senior members of the government, military judiciary and prison staff – including inside high security Anuradhapura prison.

Sri Lanka suffered three decades of civil war as Tamil fighters fought for a separate state, culminating in 2015 in the election of a national unity government.

Emmerson concluded on the basis of his visit that progress towards reconciliation and a fair judicial system had virtually ground to a halt. The British barrister said “impunity is still the rule for those responsible for the routine and systemic use of torture, and countless individuals are the victims of gross miscarriages of justice resulting from the operation of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA)“.

He added: “The Tamil community is stigmatised and feels disenfranchised, while the trust of many minority communities that the government is able to deal with all forms of nationalism equally, is eroding.”

Emmerson said he had heard “distressing testimonies of very brutal and cruel methods of torture, including beatings with sticks, the use of stress positions, asphyxiation using plastic bags drenched in kerosene, pulling out of fingernails, insertion of needles beneath the fingernails, use of various forms of water torture, suspension of individuals for several hours by their thumbs, and mutilation of genitals”.

He added: “The pervasive climate of impunity and the lack of accountability for the serious human rights violations that occurred both during the conflict and in the aftermath needs to be addressed and those responsible for human rights violations, sanctioned.”

Although the number of arrests under the PTA was falling, the law was still being used and needed to be repealed as the government had promised in 2015. It was difficult to resist the conclusion that the inertia “reflects the continuing influence of certain vested interests in the security sector, who are resistant to change, and above all, to accountability”.

The definition of terror in the PTA and proposed replacement legislation was too broad, vague and all encompassing, suggesting the PTA in effect allowed for indefinite detention. Emmerson said he had met “a significant number of individuals detained under the PTA whose length of detention ran into double figures in terms of years”.

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