Sri Lanka


Sri Lanka Human Rights

Learn about AIUSA’s Sri Lanka campaign

Human Rights Concerns

Over the past year, Sri Lanka has faced a catastrophic economic crisis with severe shortages in essential medicines, food and cooking gas.  Fuel shortages have resulted in daily power cuts.  Inflation has sharply increased the cost of living.  Thousands have protested the government’s mismanagement of the economy.  In response, the government has used unlawful force against protesters and attempted to stifle dissent through arbitrary arrests, detention and torture.  Following massive protests on July 9, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country a few days later and then resigned.  Acting President Ranil Wickremesinghe was elected as President by Parliament on July 20.  The government has subsequently arrested over 140 protesters and protest organizers, routinely ignoring due process and using the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) to detain three protesters.  The PTA has been used in the past to target minorities, journalists and dissenting voices.  Amnesty International USA has recently launched a campaign to protect the right to protest in Sri Lanka, specifically calling on the Sri Lankan government to repeal the PTA.  Click on the link above to go to the campaign landing page, with more information and several online actions.  Please read the campaign materials, take the online actions and share them widely.  For the latest AIUSA press releases on the campaign, please see the links below in the Newsroom section.

The current AIUSA campaign on Sri Lanka now also includes a photo action.  We would like as many people as possible to take a photo of themselves holding one of the signs we’ve created for this action (or using the sign as background in the photo) and to share their photos on social media.  Directions for how to participate in the photo action and a link to the signs for the photo action can both be found below.

On March 22, 2023, the Sri Lankan government published the draft Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA), which is proposed to replace the PTA.  The bill does not comply with international standards.  Offenses under the ATA are not precisely defined but are broad, vague and subjective.  The ATA retains provisions to enable prolonged detention (up to one year) without charge or trial. It facilitates torture, especially in a context that is rife with allegations of torture in custody.  It gives the military arrest and detention powers that should only be provided to the police. It retains unchecked powers of the executive without sufficient judicial oversight.  The ATA must not be enacted in its current form; it must be substantially revised or dropped.

The situation of human rights in Sri Lanka needs to be understood in the context of its recent history.  Over the past 40 years, two separate internal armed conflicts resulted in war crimes and human rights abuses being committed by both sides in both conflicts.  In the vast majority of cases, no one has been held accountable for these crimes.  Apart from these armed conflicts, torture of detainees in custody is widespread and systemic.  Up to 100,000 enforced disappearances have been reported, both in connection with the conflicts and in their aftermath.  While no executions have been carried out in Sri Lanka since 1976, the death penalty remains on the books.  Use of the PTA has facilitated arbitrary detention and torture.  Buddhist extremists in the Sinhalese majority community have attacked Christian and Muslim minorities in recent years, causing some deaths and extensive property damage, with the security forces standing by or on occasion being complicit in some attacks.  The Easter Sunday bombings in April 2019 saw the emergence in Sri Lanka for the first time of violence by members of a local Islamist group against members of the Christian minority and foreign tourists.

In the late 1980s, the People’s Liberation Front, a Sinhalese chauvinist group (known by their initials in Sinhala as the JVP), carried out an armed insurrection against the government.  The conflict saw targeted and indiscriminate killings of civilians, thousands of enforced disappearances of suspected JVP supporters, and arbitrary detentions and torture.  The insurrection ended with a government victory in 1990.

During 1983 – 2009, Sri Lanka was wracked by a civil war between the security forces (who are mostly Sinhalese) and the armed Tamil opposition group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who were seeking an independent state for the Tamil minority in the north and east of the island. The war ended in May 2009, with a government military victory over the LTTE.  A war crimes investigation by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights found in 2015 that both government forces and the LTTE had committed war crimes, crimes against humanity and other human rights violations.  One emblematic case of war crimes committed by the security forces is the murder of five Tamil students by the security forces in 2006 in the northeastern town of Trincomalee; see below for more information on the students (known as the “Trinco Five”).

Since 2009, cases of torture have continued to be reported, with no one being held responsible.  Journalists, activists and human rights defenders have been attacked.  At least 14 media workers have been the victims of unlawful killings since the beginning of 2006; one has allegedly disappeared in the custody of the security forces (see below for more information on the case of Prageeth Eknaligoda), while others have been tortured and arbitrarily detained.

The United States should include Sri Lanka in an inter-agency atrocity prevention board review to create a set of policy recommendations that will prevent a return to grave human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. U.S. officials must reiterate to the Sri Lankan government the importance of upholding human rights, including by repealing the PTA and by attending court hearings in key cases such as the Trinco Five students and Prageeth Eknaligoda.  Congress should speak out about the need for PTA repeal and should substantially increase civil society assistance for Sri Lankan human rights groups that are working on truth and reconciliation issues and protecting human rights defenders.

For the 16th anniversary on Jan. 2, 2022 of the killing of the Trinco Five students, some AIUSA activists created a 1:31 video about their case.  A link to the video is given below.

For the 12th anniversary on Jan. 24, 2022 of the enforced disappearance of journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda, activists from Amnesty International USA and Amnesty International Aotearoa New Zealand created two short videos about his case.  Links to both videos follow below.

On Feb. 10, 2023, Jim McDonald, AIUSA Sri Lanka Country Specialist, was interviewed on WRFI about AIUSA’s current campaign on Sri Lanka.  A link to that interview is given below.

Please see the links below for all the actions.  Thanks for any help you can give on these actions.

Sri Lanka Newsroom

May 29, 2023 • Press Release

Global: Misuse of Tear Gas Killing and Injuring Protesters Worldwide – Updated Interactive Website

The horrific misuse of tear gas by security forces during brutal crackdowns on protests in Iran, Peru and Sri Lanka last year are among many new incidents detailed in Amnesty International’s updated Tear Gas: An Investigation.

May 2, 2023 • Press Release

Widespread Protests in Sri Lanka Highlight Unified Opposition to Anti-Terrorism Act

“The ATA poses an urgent threat to human rights in Sri Lanka. If enacted, the law could be used to levy charges of terrorism against people simply for exercising their human right to protest peacefully."

April 14, 2023 • Press Release

Sri Lanka: Biden Must Respond to Dangerous Anti-Terrorism Act

“The draft Anti-Terrorism Act categorically fails on every human rights benchmark. If the Biden administration values the rights of the Sri Lankan people, they need to send a clear message to President Ranil Wickremesinghe that this law must be overhauled entirely or scrapped altogether.”

September 15, 2021 • Press Release

Minister in Sri Lanka Accused of Holding Tamil Prisoners at Gunpoint Must Face Investigation

Responding to reports that Sri Lanka’s State Minister for Prison Management and Prisoners Rehabilitation, Lohan Ratwatte, forcibly entered a state prison in Anuradhapura on 12 September and held Tamil prison inmates incarcerated under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) at gunpoint and threatened to kill them, Yamini Mishra, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Director said: “These dumbfounding reports go to show that our ongoing concerns regarding Sri Lanka’s treatment of prisoners, especially the authorities’ torture and other inhumane and degrading treatment of PTA detainees are all too valid. They also demonstrate the level of impunity for criminal behavior that is indulged at the highest levels of government. There must be a prompt, impartial and effective inquiry and the Minister must be held to account for his actions.

January 25, 2019 • Report

Hope flickers as justice still proves elusive in Sri Lanka

In 2015, Sri Lanka co-sponsored Resolution 30/1 at the UN Human Rights Council to demonstrate the newly elected government’s commitment to break with impunity for a past marked by serious human rights violations. While the Resolution was welcomed both domestically and internationally, three years on, progress has been slow and political will, dimming. In 2017, the government was granted a two-year extension to implement the Resolution. A detailed report on Sri Lanka’s implementation of Resolution 30/1 will be submitted to the Human Rights Council, by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, during its 40th Session in March 2019. This report stands as Amnesty International’s evaluation of the commitments made by the Government of Sri Lanka in Resolution 30/1.

June 1, 2016 • Report

Written Statement to the Human Rights Council on Sri Lanka

This written statement to the 32nd session of the UN Human Rights Council concerns truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence to victims of human rights violations and other crimes under international in Sri Lanka.

February 18, 2016 • Report

Amnesty International State of the World 2015-2016

International protection of human rights is in danger of unravelling as short-term national self-interest and draconian security crackdowns have led to a wholesale assault on basic freedoms and rights, warned Amnesty International as it launched its annual assessment of human rights around the world. “Your rights are in jeopardy: they are being treated with utter contempt by many governments around the world,” said Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International.

February 25, 2015 • Report

State of the World 2014/2015

This has been a devastating year for those seeking to stand up for human rights and for those caught up in the suffering of war zones. Governments pay lip service to the importance of protecting civilians. And yet the world's politicians have miserably failed to protect those in greatest need. Amnesty International believes that this can and must finally change.

May 23, 2013 • Report

Annual Report: Sri Lanka 2013

Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka Head of state and government Mahinda Rajapaksa Unlawful detentions, torture and enforced disappearances remained rife and went unpunished. Government officials and supporters harassed and …

May 20, 2013 • Report

Sri Lanka’s assault on dissent

Sri Lanka is failing to comply with its international obligations to respect and protect the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association, as well as other rights. Sri Lanka must end its assault on critics, publicly acknowledge human rights abuses by its forces and supporters, and ensure accountability.