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Sri Lanka: Impunity Continues in the Country Amidst Multiple Crises

HRW Oral Statement - Item 6 Universal Periodic Review Outcome - HRC53

Sri Lankan police disperse protesters in Colombo with tear gas and a water cannon, September 24, 2022. © 2022 Tharaka Basnayaka/NurPhoto via AP

We welcome the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) on Sri Lanka, which contains important recommendations to address a legacy of near complete impunity for grave rights violations, continuing discrimination against minorities, and violations of the rights to freedom of expression, association, and religion, and freedom from arbitrary detention. We deeply regret that Sri Lanka has rejected many of the most urgent recommendations, and that despite repeated assurances by the government of Sri Lanka, including in previous UPRs, violations continue without any accountability or meaningful systemic reform.  

The Office of Missing Persons (OMP), established in 2017, remains central to the government’s purported intention to establish the fate of thousands of victims of enforced disappearance. However, it has failed to complete an investigation in even a single case, and has widely lost the confidence of victims’ families. Members of Tamil communities in particular continue to face harassment, intimidation and at times arrest for conducting events to memorialize victims of the conflict, or for staging protests demanding accountability for abuses. In July 2023, another mass grave was discovered in Mullaitivu in the North-East. Families believe these graves might contain the remains of their loved ones who were victims of enforced disappearance. 

Various state agencies continue to seize lands belonging to Tamil and Muslim communities, frequently including religious sites, on a variety of pretexts.  

Despite repeated promises to repeal it, the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) remains in force, notwithstanding minor amendments made in 2022 that did not address its most abusive provisions. In 2022 the PTA was used to detain student activists protesting the government’s economic policies. An Anti-Terrorism Bill, which has been proposed to replace the PTA, would potentially criminalize a wide range of legitimate activism while granting sweeping arbitrary powers to the police, military and president. Since President Wickremesinghe came to office in July 2022, protests in Colombo and elsewhere have been routinely suppressed with force. We are particularly concerned that overdue local elections have been indefinitely postponed. 

A Rehabilitation Act adopted by parliament in 2022 allows the detention without trial of alleged drug users. The government is misusing the ICCPR Act to arbitrarily detain people accusing them of threatening communal harmony. It is used to target minorities, and speech that is allegedly offensive to the majority community. Incitement against minorities is however tolerated by the authorities.  

We urge the Sri Lankan government to recognize that rights-respecting laws and their implementation is essential to address Sri Lanka’s multiple crises. 

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