Releasing a 59-page report, ‘“In a Legal Black Hole’: Sri Lanka’s Failure to Reform the Prevention of Terrorism Act,” Human Rights Watch documents misuse of the PTA against minority communities. The report is based on Human Rights Watch research on the Prevention of Terrorism Act carried out since 2018, interviews conducted between January and December 2021, and a review of newly available court documents.
The Government of Sri Lanka should conduct meaningful and inclusive consultations with civil society groups and adopt the “necessary prerequisites” set out in December 2021 by seven United Nations human rights experts for meeting international human rights obligations, Human Rights Watch said. The UN experts noted that the PTA contradicts Sri Lanka’s obligations under several international human rights conventions. Sri Lanka’s participation in GSP+ includes a commitment to implement these conventions.
In June 2021, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling on the European Commission to “push for advancement on Sri Lanka’s human rights obligations and demand the repeal or replacement of the PTA” when assessing Sri Lanka’s eligibility for GSP+ status and a review is currently underway.The European Parliament adopted a resolution in June that called for the withdrawal of Sri Lanka’s trading privileges under the GSP+ scheme if it continued to fail to meet its human rights commitments, particularly in relation to the PTA.
Faced with the prospect of the UN Human Rights Council adopting a resolution, and calls from the European Union to meet human rights commitments linked to GSP+, the government announced on January 25, 2021, that it would review and amend the PTA to bring it into compliance with its human rights obligations.
This task was given to the Presidential Commission of Inquiry for Appraisal of the Findings of Previous Commissions and Committees, which the government had mandated to review previous reports as a supposed alternative to the international evidence gathering process then under discussion at the Human Rights Council.
On June 21, 2021, President Rajapaksa received an interim report on PTA reform from the presidential commission of inquiry and ahead of the September session of the Human Rights Council, the government circulated a briefing document to foreign diplomats, claiming progress on human rights. The Amendment Bill was published by the government on January 27, two weeks ahead of a joint commission meeting between Sri Lanka and the EU, at which Sri Lanka’s compliance with its human rights obligations under the GSP+ trading scheme would be discussed.
On December 9, 2021, seven UN special procedures wrote to the Sri Lankan government noting the repeated findings by their mandates that the PTA contravenes Sri Lanka’s obligations under international human rights law, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
The UN experts set out five benchmarks for PTA reform that are “necessary prerequisites” to making the law compliant with international law:
- Employing definitions of terrorism consistent with international norms.
- Ensuring legal certainty, especially where it may impact rights to freedom of expression, opinion, association, and religion or belief.
- Including provisions to prevent and halt arbitrary deprivation of liberty.
- Including provisions to prevent torture and enforced disappearance.
- Guaranteeing due process and fair trials, including judicial oversight and access to legal counsel.
HRW in its report states that the EU should hold Sri Lanka to its commitment to end all abuses under the PTA. The many years of unfulfilled government promises to reform the PTA have merely provided cover for continuing violations. The PTA should be repealed. Those currently detained under the PTA should promptly be brought to trial on internationally recognizable charges, if there is an evidentiary basis to do so–or they should be released, and charges dropped. Convictions under the PTA should be reviewed and quashed if they rely on confessions made under torture or other ill-treatment, or otherwise disregarded fundamental due process standards.
The PTA was enacted in 1979 as a temporary measure and was presented in parliament, debated, and enacted all in one day. It allowed the authorities to carry out arrests without warrant for unspecified “unlawful activities,” and permits detention for up to 18 months without producing the suspect before a court.