Sri Lanka's assault on dissent

April 30, 2013

Sri Lanka's assault on dissent

Dissent is a dangerous undertaking in Sri Lanka. Following the end of the armed conflict new forms of political and social activism are beginning to emerge but intolerance of criticism is still very much the modus operandi of Sri Lankan government officials. Mounting evidence that violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, in some instances amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity, were committed by parties to Sri Lanka's protracted armed conflict has fuelled both domestic and international criticism of Sri Lanka's human rights record and calls for accountability. Sri Lankan officials and those working at their behest assault, jail, abduct and even kill those who challenge their authority; to avoid the legal and political consequences of their war-time actions, they attempt to silence those who could expose the truth.

During the armed conflict between Sri Lankan government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) gross and large-scale violations of international human rights and humanitarian law were committed by both sides with impunity. In the final years of the conflict, which ended in May 2009 with Sri Lankan forces defeating the LTTE, there were credible allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity having been committed by government forces and the LTTE. During the conflict both sides also used threats and violence to silence detractors. Thousands of Tamils were denied rations, services, or the permission to leave LTTE territory, charged fines, detained and killed by the LTTE as "traitors" for acts of perceived disloyalty. For many years, government repression of dissent in Sri Lanka focused on silencing those who opposed the way the war was fought, particularly those who were critical of violations of international humanitarian law by the Sri Lankan forces. Members of the security forces and government-allied paramilitaries have arrested, threatened and killed critical journalists, and used intimidation and violence to silence witnesses to government violations.

One of the holdovers from Sri Lanka's armed conflict is a security regime that criminalizes freedom of expression, and an official attitude that equates dissent with treason. Sri Lankan officials and state-owned media employ the term "traitor" with alarming frequency against detractors, often threatening death or injury to the person accused. Threats and vicious smear campaigns have featured in state-owned media and media sympathetic to the government in advance of important international meetings where Sri Lanka's human rights record has been discussed, and state intelligence services have increased scrutiny of local activists, attacking what it calls the "internationalization" of post war accountability, by which it means discussion and debate of Sri Lanka's human rights record at the UN and in other international meetings and calls for an independent international investigation of alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sri Lanka.

If anything, Sri Lankan officials are now intensifying their efforts to eradicate dissent, striking out against prominent national institutions, including the judiciary, and public figures who express opposition to government policies and practices. In January 2013, after months of increasing tension between the executive and the judiciary which had made a number of rulings in favour of victims of human rights violations and against pet projects of the government, the Chief Justice was impeached and removed from office sparking widespread protests by lawyers (see section III). There has been deepening surveillance and intimidation of dissenting lawyers and a broad range of lesser-known community-level activists, and the blocking of websites and discouragement of public discussion of issues the authorities view as "controversial."