Header image for news printout

Sri Lanka routinely tortures security suspects amid stalled reform process, UN expert finds

GENEVA (18 July 2017) – Sri Lanka continues to use torture against people detained on national security grounds, and its progress on human rights, reforms and justice remain woefully slow, a United Nations rights expert has concluded at the end of an official fact-finding mission.

All the evidence points to the fact that the use of torture was “routine and endemic” against people held under the deeply-flawed Prevention of Terrorism Act, said the Special Rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism, Ben Emmerson.

“The Tamil community has borne the brunt of the State’s well-oiled torture apparatus, as the law is used disproportionately against them,” said Mr. Emmerson. 

“The use of torture is deeply ingrained in the security sector. I heard deeply disturbing, first-hand accounts of brutal torture.

“These included beatings with sticks, stress positions, asphyxiation using plastic bags drenched in kerosene, pulling out of fingernails, insertion of needles beneath the fingernails, various forms of water torture, suspension for several hours by the thumbs, and mutilation of the genitals.”

Mr. Emmerson said 80% of suspects arrested under the anti-terror legislation in late 2016 had reported torture and other physical ill-treatment.

“Despite the shocking prevalence of torture I note the lack of effective investigation,” he added.

Mr. Emmerson said a dozen prisoners had been detained without trial for more than 10 years under the anti-terror act, and 70 others for more than five years.

“These staggering figures are a stain on Sri Lanka’s reputation,” he said, urging immediate release of the 81 suspects and announcing a dialogue with the government on the shape of proposed draft legislation which is due to replace the act.

Mr. Emerson said he recognized that Sri Lanka had faced “tremendous security challenges” in recent years, but said progress towards reform, justice and human rights was at a virtual standstill despite government promises.

“The Government has committed itself to ending the culture of impunity, ensuring accountability, peace and justice, achieving lasting reconciliation and preventing further human rights abuses. These steps were set out in a Human Rights Council resolution.

“But more than two years on, progress seems to have ground to a virtual halt.  Sri Lanka must honour its international commitments to ensure lasting peace, establish a meaningful system of transitional justice and urgently reform the security sector,” Mr. Emmerson said.

The Special Rapporteur welcomed small signs of progress but said failing to deliver justice and reform risked prolonging grievances and even reigniting the conflict.

“It seems some small steps are now being taken in the right direction,” he said.  “The Government and people must not allow the process to be diverted by retrograde elements in the security establishment and their allies in Government.”

During his five-day mission, Mr. Emmerson had high-level meetings with representatives of the Government, including the ministries responsible for foreign affairs, law and order, Southern development, justice, defence, finance, media, prison reforms, rehabilitation, resettlement and Hindu religious affairs.

He also met law enforcement officials, members of parliament, members of specialized police departments, the National Police Commission and the Human Rights Commission, as well as people suspected or convicted of terrorist crimes.

Mr. Emmerson also held talks with representatives of the international community, lawyers, academics, and non-governmental organizations. He visited Colombo and spent several days in other areas of the country, including Anuradhapura and Vavuniya.

The Special Rapporteur will present a comprehensive report with his findings and recommendations to the UN Human Rights Council in March 2018.

Mr. Ben Emmerson (United Kingdom) is the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism. On 1 August 2011, he took up his functions on the mandate that was created in 2005 by the former UN Commission on Human Rights, renewed by the UN Human Rights Council for a three-year period in December 2007, in September 2010 and again in March 2013.

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.
Check the UN 2006 Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy

UN Human Rights, country page: Sri Lanka

For more information and media requests please contact Mr. Sharof Azizov (+41 22 917 9748 / sazizov@ohchr.org) or write to srct@ohchr.org

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Xabier Celaya, UN Human Rights – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / xcelaya@ohchr.org)  

Concerned about the world we live in? Then STAND UP for someone’s rights today #Standup4humanrights and visit the web page at http://www.standup4humanrights.org