Sri Lanka's assault on dissent

Report
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."

Advocates for the human rights of women and minorities (including Tamils and Muslims), student leaders and university lecturers, clergy, trade unionists and other advocates for workers' rights, political party activists, judges and lawyers, and journalists, as well as the staff of Sri Lankan policy and human rights organizations have been subjected to intimidation, vilification, and physical attacks for their comments or actions deemed critical of the government. Aid workers providing care and support to victims of the armed conflict or collecting data on their experiences risk retaliation for their work.

Pressure on critics was acute in early 2012 as the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) negotiated and then adopted Resolution 19/2 calling on Sri Lanka to ensure accountability for alleged violations under international law. Participants in UN meetings and Sri Lankan journalists covering the events were verbally attacked repeatedly in Sri Lankan government media and even physically threatened. A similar intensification of pressure began in the lead-up to the 22nd Session of the HRC which adopted follow-up Resolution 22/1 on Sri Lanka on 21 March 2013. Sri Lankans with a track record of international advocacy again found themselves the targets of vilification, rumour campaigns and slurs. On 21 January 2013, the Sri Lanka-based Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) condemned a disinformation campaign against one of its senior researchers, which it said was "active over various online fora including blogs, Facebook and Twitter as well as via email." It noted that "such attempts to vilify the institution and its staff are not new. In pursuing its organisational mandate within a charged context, CPA is likely to face repeated attempts to broadcast spurious allegations."

In Sri Lanka's north and east, where much of the armed conflict played out and where large concentrations of Tamils live, the army remains vigilant against even minor acts of dissent. Human rights defenders there report heavy police surveillance and repeated interrogation about their activities, international contacts and donors. Many victims of this new repression are not prominent activists engaged in advocacy at the international level, but local community workers providing assistance to people struggling to recover from decades of armed conflict.

Journalists continue to suffer intimidation, threats, and attacks for critical reporting; since 2006, at least 15 have been killed (according to media freedom groups, nine of the killings can be definitively identified as a direct consequence of the journalist's reporting) and more than 25 have fled the country since 2001. Access from within Sri Lanka to Tamilnet, a news website that has often taken a pro-LTTE stance, has been blocked since June 2007; in 2011 the government blocked Sri Lankan access to five other websites which had been publishing content critical of the authorities.

Since then Amnesty International has received reports that websites with articles criticizing the government have been plagued by repeated "denial of service" attacks; their offices have been raided by police and burned by unknown arsonists; their staff have been assaulted, arrested and some have felt they had no choice but to flee the country. When such measures failed to silence them, the state imposed new regulations aimed at closing websites with news content unacceptable to the authorities. There have been, in the course of the conflict and its aftermath, many instances of official censorship of reporting, but the years of repression have also led many journalists to self-censor. According to Swami Natharajan of the BBC, threats and denial of access to places and information has resulted in the media not reporting certain events. In interviews with 20 Sri Lankan journalists, Natharajan was told by 12 journalists that their safety had not improved since the war.

Opposition political activists and less prominent community activists organizing locally have reportedly been subjected to threats and intimidation, physical attacks, arrest, repeated interrogations and enforced disappearance. Such attacks have been carried out with impunity: there have been no effective investigations and no prosecution of suspected perpetrators.

International criticism of Sri Lanka's human rights record has intensified with the emergence of credible allegations that senior Sri Lankan officials committed crimes under international law during the latter stages of the conflict. Meanwhile, since 2011, significant popular protests have erupted in Sri Lanka over alleged abuses of official power, the spiralling cost of living, and persistent militarization in areas of the north and east with large Tamil populations. In the four years since the end of the conflict a volatile situation has built up as popular demands for reform are met with continued repression of critical voices and further demands for reform have been met by further repression.

For decades Sri Lanka attempted to justify its heavy-handed treatment of critics in terms of national security, then, as it faced growing challenges to its human rights record internationally, by denying that it was suppressing dissent at all — just as it also denied that its forces were responsible for any of the violations of human rights and humanitarian law many of its critics were trying to expose. Amnesty International believes such denials must be brought to an end; both Sri Lanka, and the international community must ensure that human rights defenders and others raising dissenting voices are protected, and that there is finally accountability for the war-time atrocities Sri Lanka has tried so hard to hide.

Amnesty International continues to call on the Government of Sri Lanka to bring an end to attacks, including harassment, threats, detention and killings, of journalists, lawyers, human rights defenders, civil society activists and others for exercising their right to freedom of expression, and to ensure that all cases of such attacks on individuals, irrespective of the identity of perpetrators or victims, are immediately and credibly investigated.

Amnesty International stresses the urgent need for the UN and the Commonwealth to take further action to ensure that significant progress is made towards holding Sri Lanka genuinely accountable for alleged violations of international human rights and humanitarian law before the UN HRC meets in September 2013 and the Commonwealth Heads of Government meet in November 2013. Such action includes the UN's responsibility, following the 2011 report of the UN Secretary General's Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka, to make a start without any further delay, and regardless of any efforts by Sri Lanka itself in this regard, on investigating allegations of crimes under international law committed in the closing months of the conflict. All investigations should be conducted independently and in accordance with international standards and where sufficient admissible evidence is found, should lead to the criminal prosecution of individuals found responsible in full conformity with international standards of fair trial.