Sri Lanka


Sri Lanka Human Rights

Human Rights Concerns

Sri Lanka is facing a catastrophic economic crisis with severe shortages in essential medicines, food and cooking gas.  Fuel shortages have resulted in power outages of up to 13 hours per day.  Inflation has sharply increased the cost of living.  The government has defaulted on external debt due to its lack of revenue (caused in part by COVID lockdowns and pre-pandemic tax cuts).  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.  On May 6, Amnesty issued a briefing, “From Bad to Worse:  Rights Under Attack During Sri Lanka’s Economic Crisis.”  Following massive protests on July 9, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country a few days later and then resigned.  The 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.  On September 9, Amnesty issued two new briefings, one entitled “Penalized for Protesting:  Sri Lanka’s Crackdown on Protesters,” and the other entitled “The UN Human Rights Council must strengthen its oversight of Sri Lanka during the crisis triggered by the political and economic collapse.”  That same day, Amnesty also launched a global petition calling on the Sri Lankan government to end the crackdown on peaceful protests.  On October 4, Amnesty issued a new report, “‘We Are Near Total Breakdown’:  Protecting the Rights to Health, Food and Social Security in Sri Lanka’s Economic Crisis.”  On October 6, Amnesty issued a press release welcoming the adoption that day by the UN Human Rights Council of a resolution on Sri Lanka.  Links to the May 6 briefing, the two September 9 briefings, the global petition, the October 4 report and the October 6 press release are given below.

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.  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.  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.

On April 14, 2020, Hejaaz Hizbullah, a lawyer who has represented victims of human rights violations, was arrested under the PTA. 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.  He was finally granted bail by the Court of Appeal on Feb. 7, 2022.  Amnesty has called for the charges against him to be dropped.   Also in April 2020, 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, 2020, 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, Hejaaz Hizbullah, Ramzy Razeek and Ahnaf Jazeem (see below).  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 had been arbitrarily detained since May 16, 2020; he was subsequently released on bail on Dec. 16, 2021.

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 Mar. 28, 2022, Amnesty International released its 2021/22 annual report detailing events and concerns around the world during 2021.  A link to the Sri Lanka entry can be found below.

On Sept. 30, 2022, Jim McDonald, AIUSA Sri Lanka Country Specialist, was interviewed on WRFI about the current human rights situation in Sri Lanka.  A link to that interview is given below.

On Nov. 8, 2022, Amnesty International issued an Urgent Action appeal on behalf of two detained student leaders, Galwewa Siridhamma Thero and Wasantha Mudalige.  Please write on their behalf; see the link below.

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

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