(New York) – Sri Lanka’s government should ensure greater transparency and progress in meeting its undertakings to the United Nations Human Rights Council, Human Rights Watch said in its 2017 World Report. The president and other senior officials have downplayed the government’s commitment to international involvement in key transitional justice mechanisms, and need to make justice a top priority.

In the 687-page World Report, its 27th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that a new generation of authoritarian populists seeks to overturn the concept of human rights protections, treating rights as an impediment to the majority will. For those who feel left behind by the global economy and increasingly fear violent crime, civil society groups, the media, and the public have key roles to play in reaffirming the values on which rights-respecting democracy has been built.

Women conduct a silent protest to commemorate the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances in Colombo, August 30, 2016. 

© 2016 Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters

In October 2015, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a consensus resolution in which Sri Lanka pledged to undertake many human rights reforms, including resolving the many transitional justice demands arising out of the country’s two-decade long civil war, which ended in 2009. Although Sri Lanka promised a special court “integrating international judges, prosecutors, lawyers and investigators,” the president, the prime minister, and other officials have since backtracked on that commitment.

“Sri Lanka won domestic and international support by promising accountability for war crimes and addressing other human rights concerns,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “For victims who have sought justice all these years, the promise of an international presence is key to achieving accountability, and there should be no walking that pledge back.”

Having boldly signed on to important human rights reforms, Sri Lanka needs to act decisively to fulfill them.

Brad Adams

Asia Director

The government disregarded inclusive decision-making by announcing the framework for the office on missing and disappeared just as a state-appointed task force began public consultations on the four transitional justice mechanisms set out in the Geneva resolution. A proposed delay in setting up a special war crimes court by “sequencing” transitional justice mechanisms deepened concerns about the process being independent.

The government charged or released several people detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and disclosed numbers of those still in custody. However, the government not only failed to repeal the draconian law in 2016, but security forces made new arrests under the PTA throughout the year. Two draft anti-terrorism bills, designed to replace the PTA, both fell far short of Sri Lanka’s obligations under international law.

In addition, the government failed to initiate reforms to the criminal justice system, including accountability for police abuse, particularly against ethnic and religious minorities and LGBT people. The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and the Committee Against Torture both found that torture in police custody remains a widespread practice in Sri Lanka.

“The Sri Lankan government, after getting off to a positive start, should not falter in its promises to the international community – and above all to the victims,” Adams said. “Having boldly signed on to important human rights reforms, Sri Lanka needs to act decisively to fulfill them.”