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Sri Lanka Human Rights

Human Rights Concerns

Sri Lanka faces serious human rights challenges.  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.  Draconian security legislation 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 (subsequently, no one has been held accountable).  The Easter Sunday bombings in April 2019 saw the emergence in Sri Lanka for the first time of violence by Islamic fundamentalists 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, reconquering LTTE-held territory and killing or capturing the LTTE leadership.  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 and enforced disappearances 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.

Over the past year, dissident voices and critics of the current government, including lawyers, journalists, human rights defenders, and victims of past abuses, have been targeted by the police, intelligence agencies, and pro-government media. In the months following the November 2019 presidential election, a number of organizations reported visits from intelligence officers who sought details of staff, programs and funding, in particular, organizations in the war-affected Northern and Eastern provinces of the country. Such visits are blatant attempts to harass and intimidate Sri Lankan civil society. 

On April 14, 2020, Hejaaz Hizbullah, a lawyer who has represented victims of human rights violations, was arrested under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act. He has had limited access to his lawyers and family members and remains in arbitrary detention. The day before he was taken into custody, Hizbullah joined others in submitting a letter criticizing the denial of burial rights to the Muslim community under Sri Lanka’s COVID-19 regulations.   In the same month, Ramzy Razeek, a social media commentator, was arbitrarily detained for a Facebook post in which he called on fellow Muslims in Sri Lanka to peacefully counter hate propaganda against Muslims by extremists from the Sinhalese majority community.  Although Razeek was released on bail on September 17, the charges against him remain pending; if convicted, he could face up to 10 years in prison.

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. representatives must reiterate to the Sri Lankan government the importance of upholding human rights, including by attending court hearings in key cases such as the Trinco Five students, Prageeth Eknaligoda and Hejaaz Hizbullah.  Congress 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.

On May 14, 2021, Amnesty issued an Urgent Action appeal on behalf of Ahnaf Jazeem, a Sri Lankan poet who has been arbitrarily detained since May 16, 2020.  On July 14, 2021, Amnesty named Hejaaz Hizbullah a Prisoner of Conscience.  Hejaaz’s family has launched a photo action to publicize his case; Amnesty is supporting their photo action.

Amnesty International USA has launched a web page for the International Day of the Disappeared (observed on Aug. 30), which contains information and actions on enforced disappearances in several countries, including Sri Lanka.

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

Sri Lanka Newsroom



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.

September 6, 2011 • Report

Sri Lanka: Inquiry into armed conflict fundamentally flawed

Thousands of civilians were killed and other serious human rights violations committed during Sri Lanka’s decades-long internal conflict, particularly during the final months. The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) is the latest in a log line of failed domestic mechanisms putatively aimed at securing justice in Sri Lanka. In this report Amnesty International examines the many failures of the LLRC’s proceedings. The organization is calling for an international, independent investigation that can deliver truth, justice and reparations to the thousands of victims of violations committed during Sri Lanka's bloody war.

June 20, 2011 • Report

Annual Report: Sri Lanka 2011

Head of state and government: Mahinda Rajapaksa Death penalty: abolitionist in practice Population: 20.4 million Life expectancy: 74.4 years Under-5 mortality (m/f): 21/18 per 1,000 Adult literacy: 90.6 per cent …

May 12, 2011 • Report

Forgotten prisoners: Sri lanka uses anti-terrorism laws to detain thousands

Forgotten prisoners: Sri lanka uses anti-terrorism laws to detain thousands Available in PDF only