Sri Lanka: Human rights must be 'at the heart' of the next presidency

Ahead of Sri Lanka’s presidential election this weekend, Amnesty International has called on the country’s next president to put human rights at the heart of their policies.

Amnesty is appealing to all candidates to prioritise key human rights issues, including commitments on transitional justice made in the aftermath of the country’s bloody conflict.

The organisation is also calling on candidates to commit to repealing repressive laws, abolishing the death penalty and protecting essential human rights - including the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association.

Biraj Patnaik, South Asia Director at Amnesty International, said:

“Human rights must be at the heart of the next Sri Lankan president’s policies. The authorities have made slow and limited - but important - progress when it comes to addressing human rights violations and abuses, including the areas of truth, justice, reparations and guarantees of non-recurrence.

“The families of the disappeared, the victims of torture and sexual violence, the people forced off their land, and others who have suffered grave human rights violations, must not be forgotten. The suspected perpetrators must be held accountable.

“More than a decade since the end of the conflict, Sri Lanka continues to live with its legacy. The next president must commit to a decisive break with the past, starting by repealing the notorious Counter Terrorism Act that enabled so many violations and by returning land to the people who rightfully own it.”

Protect religious and sexual minorities

A worrying trend in Sri Lanka in recent years has been a rise in anti-Muslim violence. In the wake of this year’s Easter Sunday massacre, where hundreds were killed in churches and hotels in different parts of Sri Lanka, violent mobs unleashed their rage against Sri Lankan Muslims as well as refugees and asylum seekers from Muslim-majority countries.

The attacks follow similar violence in 2018, 2017 and 2014, when armed mobs attacked and torched Muslim-owned homes, businesses and places of worship. These mobs included hardline Buddhist monks who took part in the attacks and incited violence against Muslims.

Sri Lanka continues to criminalise homosexuality using an archaic, colonial-era penal code. LGBTI people routinely face harassment and discrimination at the hands of the police and other state officials.

Biraj Patnaik said:

“The next Sri Lankan president must represent all people living in Sri Lanka. That means standing up for the human rights of people from every background, regardless of their religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or any other characteristic.

“It means protecting them from those who wish them harm and holding accountable anyone suspected of violating their rights.”

Abolish the death penalty

Sri Lanka has not executed anyone for more than four decades, but the death penalty remains legal, including for drug-related crimes. Prisoners remain on death row with the terrible uncertainty that they may yet face a cruel and irreversible punishment.

The next Sri Lankan president must consolidate the country’s positive record by introducing an official moratorium on executions, moving towards the abolition of the death penalty for all crimes.

Biraj Patnaik said:

“It is about time that Sri Lanka joins most of the world’s countries in decisively turning its back on this ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading of punishment. The death penalty is not a uniquely effective deterrent against crime, and it violates the most fundamental right of all, the right to life.”

Protecting human rights

The rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association have been under assault in Sri Lanka over recent years. Laws that are supposed to protect human rights have instead been used to punish people for exercising their human rights.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Act was supposed to enshrine into domestic law Sri Lanka’s international obligations. Instead, the law has been repeatedly abused to silence people for what they say or write. The Sri Lankan cabinet has recently been considering amendments to the country’s penal code that would criminalise freedom of expression under the guise of combating “false news”.

The next Sri Lankan president must commit to ensuring that people are able to exercise their human rights freely and without fear of reprisal.

Transitional justice

In 2015, Sri Lanka made commitments to pursue truth, justice, reparations and guarantees of non-recurrence for victims of the 26-year-long conflict that ended in 2009.

There has been dismayingly slow progress on these commitments over the past four years, but there have been some important advances, including the operationalisation of an Office of Missing Persons, the Office for Reparations, and the return of some of the land occupied by the Sri Lankan military.

Amnesty is calling on the next Sri Lankan president to build on these gains. The next president should push for the repeal of the notorious Prevention of Terrorism Act, one of main drivers of human rights violations to this day. It should be replaced by a law that meets international standards.

While tracts of civilian-owned land have been returned to their owners, many families are still struggling to get their land back. Land still occupied by the Sri Lankan military should be returned and there should also be reparations for their decades-long dispossession.

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