Tamils continue to face discrimination in Sri Lanka, a UN committee stated recently, and questioned the island-country if Indian Tamils were allowed to get back to their homeland – while reviewing a report on the anti-discrimination efforts undertaken by the country.
No cases of sexual violence – during the horrific civil war in Sri Lanka – had been submitted, even though this had affected thousands of women, said Jose Francisco Cali Tzay, committee member and country rapporteur for Sri Lanka, during a review of Sri Lanka in the 90th session of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD).
Last week, CERD concluded the examination of the combined tenth to seventeenth periodic report of Sri Lanka – on its implementation of provisions of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD).
The Tamil population continues to suffer discrimination, including through lack of access to public services in their own language, and the fact that police agents in the north of the country did not speak Tamil, he noted. People continue to live in fear due to the big military presence.
The recently-promulgated Law for Witness and Victim Protection had no dedicated funds for the mechanism to facilitate its implementation on the ground.
What measures have been taken to protect Tamil women from multiple discrimination, the Guatemalan expert who has been on the Committee since 2004, asked, warning that discrimination against Tamils, particularly for not having access to public spaces to bury their dead would continue to hinder lasting peace and reconciliation.
Since 2009, there have been several issues that have remained unaddressed, brought about by violations of humanitarian laws and human rights by both sides, leading to anxiety, fear and suspicion, said Ravinatha Aryasinha, Sri Lankan Ambassador to the UN office at Geneva, while presenting his country report. Successive governments have failed to reach a political settlement with the groups.
Aryasinha referred to the various steps that have been taken since the Maithripala Sirisena government assumed power in January 2015, including the introduction of the nineteenth amendment to the Constitution – which imposed a two-term limit for the mandate of President and recognized national reconciliation as a duty of the President. The amendment also established a special Presidential Task Force on Reconciliation and an Office for National Unity Commission for Truth, Justice, Reconciliation that would consult with South African authorities.
Both Sinhala and Tamil were made the languages of administration and of the courts, he added. Article 22, per the provisions of the 16th amendment to the Constitution, ensures that Sinhala will be the official language in all provinces except in the north and east where Tamil will also be used.
Replying to questions by experts on application of customary laws, the Sri Lankan delegation said that any change of customary law had to change from the communities themselves. As such, those people of Islamic faith have the option of subscribing to Muslim personal laws (including statutes) while Tamils hailing from the Jaffna Peninsula fall within the ambit of the ‘Thesavalame Law’.
Any Sri Lankan had the right to return – and the Government had re-established the possibility for dual citizenships – said the Sri Lankan delegation, replying to a question from a human rights expert that if Indian Tamils were allowed to return to their country.
The CERD members said that the situation of refugees and internally displaced persons, war widows, inter-ethnic violence, reconciliation, the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and the lack of human rights education were all “issues of concern” for the Committee.
Reports presented by civil society organisations and the UN human rights mechanisms along with UN resolutions, offered a very different picture of the current situation than that presented by the Sri Lankan government – the discrepancies were concerning, Tzay stated.
The UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Juan E. Méndez, and the UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Mónica Pinto, were on an official visit to the Buddhist nation this year.
Both the experts had said that “more reforms are needed before Sri Lanka can be considered to be on a path to sustainable democratisation”.
“Severe forms of torture continue to be used, although probably less frequently, while both old and new cases of torture continue to be surrounded by total impunity,” Méndez had said.
Reiterating her concerns on the issue of massive rape by the military, a CERD expert noted that many of the perpetrators were still in the north of the country, and emphasised the need for newly-recruited Tamil elements there.
Experts were concerned about the 18-month period for pre-trial detention, and raised a number of questions in relation to the application of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).
“Suspects are subjected to lengthy remand periods with many being detained for years, some even up to 15 years before trial,” Méndez had said after his Sri Lankan tour.
The Act allows for arbitrary detention without charges, admissibility of statements obtained under duress in courts and limits access to a lawyer.
The Sri Lankan government, however, maintained that persons arrested under the PTA were entitled to all safeguards, including visits by family members and the National Human Rights Commission.
Questions were also raised by the UN committee on risks of political interference, referring specifically to the removal of judges for politically-motivated reasons, urging the country to adopt better provisions for ensuring the independence and impartiality of the judiciary.
Pinto had also stated that the government needs to “reinforce the independence and impartiality of the justice sector” during the drafting of its new Constitution.
This is the first interaction between the Sri Lankan government and the CERD experts since August 2001, when the last formal meeting took place in the midst of hostilities perpetrated by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
CERD is a body of independent human experts monitoring the implementation of ICERD by the state parties.