The New York-based global rights organisation, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called on the Sri Lankan Government to repeal the draconian counterterrorism law and uphold pledges made to United Nations and European Union.
The Sri Lankan Government should abide by its commitments to replace the abusive Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) with legislation that respects its international human rights obligations, the Human Rights Watch said.
The Cabinet of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced on 4 January that it would withdraw a proposed replacement law, reneging on pledges to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and the European Union.
The HRW in a statement said, Rajapaksa, who took office on 18 November 2019, has also taken other steps that threaten human rights protections in Sri Lanka. He appointed Army commanders implicated by the UN in attacks on civilians and other grave abuses during the civil war to defence secretary and other senior positions.
He placed the Police and other civilian agencies under the Defence Ministry. In addition, he appointed a military officer as the head of the civilian intelligence agency without requiring him to resign from the armed forces, and repeatedly said he would place the intelligence agencies at the heart of his administration.
“President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and senior appointees linked to wartime abuses are wasting no time dismantling the human rights gains of recent years,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia Director. “The EU, which offers Sri Lanka preferential trading terms in return for human rights guarantees, should demand the repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act.”
According to the right organisation, the PTA, introduced in 1978 as a temporary measure, has resulted in countless arbitrary detentions and facilitated torture of detainees. In 2017, the UN special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism found that the law “has fostered the endemic and systematic use of torture. Entire communities have been stigmatized and targeted for harassment and arbitrary arrest and detention.”
In 2015, then-President Maithripala Sirisena joined a unanimous resolution at the UN Human Rights Council that committed Sri Lanka to a series of measures to uphold human rights that included replacing the PTA with counterterrorism legislation that respects international legal standards. Many of these undertakings were never met, but in early 2019 the government and UNHRC renewed the commitment.
In 2018, an alternative counterterrorism law, the Counter-Terrorism Act, was submitted to parliament. Despite shortcomings, the draft act would have replaced many of the most abused provisions of the PTA, but it was never passed into law.
The new Rajapaksa Government has declared its intention to keep the PTA in force. The Cabinet Spokesman Minister Bandula Gunawardena said: “The PTA is back in the statute book, empowering the police and armed forces to face any threat posed to national security from any quarter.”
In 2010, the EU withdrew Sri Lanka’s Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+), its preferential trading arrangement, due to “significant shortcomings in the country’s implementation of three UN human rights conventions”.
The arrangement gives Sri Lanka largely tariff-free access in exchange for undertakings to ratify and put into effect international human rights conventions. During the Sirisena Government, the EU restored the preferential trading arrangement.
However, the agreement includes a monitoring component to ensure that human rights obligations are effectively met. At the annual meeting of the EU and Sri Lanka in February 2019, the joint communique stated that “the EU reiterated the need to repeal and replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) in order to bring counterterrorism legislation in line with international standards”.
Human Rights Watch said it recognises Sri Lanka’s international legal obligation to protect everyone on its territory. However, any counterterrorism measures should reflect international best practice and uphold basic principles of the rule of law.
“For decades, Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act provided a legal fig leaf for grotesque human rights abuses and the suppression of peaceful dissent,” Ganguly said. “The new Rajapaksa Government’s embrace of this abusive law is just one of many signs that the rights of Sri Lankans are at grave risk.”