Sri Lanka is today seen, both within the country and internationally, as having turned the corner, at least on human rights issues. One of the most common defences of the government’s overall performance is that the sense of freedom from fear has diminished greatly and the space for political opposition has increased. Partly as a result, Sri Lanka is seen as a more successful third world country in terms of democracy and human rights. It is in this context that the allegations of continuing torture come as a surprise. If the allegations of torture had come during the period of the previous government, it would not have come as a surprise. The previous government had scant respect for the Rule of Law and engaged in the practice of impunity for both political and personal reasons. This was publicly visible, as the disappearance of journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda and the murder of Sri Lankan rugby captain Wasim Thajuddin demonstrated.
What is particularly disturbing about the current allegations is that the torture has occurred during the period of the present government which was voted into power on a platform of good governance and respect for human rights. The electorate that voted for the government did so primarily to seek a restoration of a government with a conscience who would take steps to ensure that the past would not return and take the country on a new trajectory of social and economic development. However, there was an early indication that all was not well. This came during the visit by UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and counter terrorism, Ben Emmerson. He said that Sri Lanka’s tolerance of torture, was a “stain on the country’s international reputation”. The UN Special Rapporteur had conflicts with government members, especially the Minister of Justice at that time, Dr Wijedasa Rajapaksa, who denied all the claims made by Mr Emmerson, and instead accused him of being biased and having a hidden agenda.
In his strongly worded report, the UN Special Rapporteur noted that the practice of torture was continuing. His report stated. “Since the authorities use this legislation disproportionately against members of the Tamil community, it is this community that has borne the brunt of the state’s well-oiled torture apparatus.” However, this report was effectively neutralized within the country by Minister Wijedasa Rajapaksha, who denounced the report as being biased and the product of anti-Sri Lanka manoeuvering. This attack in the context of much worse incidents of torture and violence coming from other parts of the world, including the Middle East where the Western countries are heavily involved, effectively displaced public attention away from the issues of in-country torture and human rights violations. But it now appears that the chickens have come home to roost.
The AP news story, which gives the impression of being well researched, gives prominence to the views of one South African expert in the area of torture reporting. He has said that in the 40 years he has investigated cases of torture, this is the worst he has come across. There also appears to be hard evidence, including physical evidence, that those who are now claiming asylum in the Western countries have actually been subjected to the torture that is described. The question is who did it. The scars are for real. The AP report itself says that there are some commentators who say that the complainants themselves may have inflicted the injuries upon themselves, or got someone to do it to them, in order to make their asylum applications more convincing. Human Rights officials in Sri Lanka have confirmed that there are many cases of forgeries of their reports by those claiming asylum abroad.
The government statement in response to the story published in the New York Times acknowledges the gravity of the allegations and the damaging impact of the story on the international community’s confidence in the Sri Lankan democratic and good governance process. Both business investors and higher spending foreign tourists tend to be sensitive to human rights issues and to public opinion. They also have a concern that if a country is not protecting human rights and the Rule of Law, then their own safety can be jeopardized. The government’s response is a model of diplomatic restraint. The government did not go all out to attack and discredit those who were making the complaints against them or the news agencies that published the information. Instead the government statement gives a comprehensive account of the government’s commitment to ensure a torture-free regime.
Responding on behalf of the government, Foreign Secretary Prasad Kariyawasam said that in 2017 disciplinary action had been taken against 33 members of the police for assault and torture, while one officer was dismissed. Disciplinary matter pertaining to 100 police officers he said were currently pending. He added that the government “strongly condemns any act of torture, and will ensure that allegations of torture committed in the country will be investigated and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.” His statement also highlighted the government’s willingness to host visits by special rapporteurs and other members of the international community who wish to do fact finding and make recommendations to improve the prevailing situation. The government statement acknowledges the seriousness of the situation instead of simply issuing a point by point refutation or blanket denial as was the case with the former government.
However, the seriousness of the allegations contained in the AP story warrant a further government response beyond that of issuing a statement and asking for assistance. The government would do well to appoint a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the issue of torture, specifically with regard to the AP report, but also with a wider mandate. It is necessary to know the truth before a solution can be designed. The government needs to appoint commissioners of the caliber of those appointed to the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the Central Bank bond scam which has shown themselves to be highly competent and unafraid to probe all possible sources of evidence to get to the truth. It is not only Tamils and LTTE suspects who are tortured. The most recent report of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka shows that most cases of torture that have been reported are outside of the North and East of the country and affect members of all communities.
The way that Sri Lanka treats the Tamil people of the North and East will be the litmus test of how it will treat all its disempowered and marginalised people. The reality is that as long as the North and East of the country remain in a state of poverty and underdevelopment after the three decades of war, and so long as the military forces remain there in large numbers, there are bound to be human rights violations and other forms of abuse that accompany any serious imbalance in power between civilians and military. There will not only be torture, there will be prostitution, sexual bribery and rape cases that will tend to be under-reported because the victims are afraid and too ashamed to come out into the open and give evidence. All this points to the need for a special commission of inquiry, and one that is not second to the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the Central Bank bond scam in its competence and prestige.