Human Rights

UN report exposes Sri Lanka’s structural inability to deliver justice

The much-awaited report of the UN special rapporteur on torture, Juan Mendez, says there is still a “culture of torture” in Sri Lanka. The report was made public on Wednesday (25) and should now be now considered by the European Parliament debating whether to ratify the recommendation to reinstate the GSP+ trade incentives for Sri Lanka. These preferential trade tarrifs depend on implementation of 27 Conventions, including the Convention Against Torture. Mr Mendez’s report raises some very serious concerns about Sri Lanka’s record on torture and its inability to mend its ways.

Significantly the report recommends the Government immediately shut down the Poonthotam “rehabilitation” centre, releasing all in the programme detained there or elsewhere. Given the UN Committee Against Torture in December already recommended a prompt impartial and effective investigation of the allegations of torture in the “rehabilitation” camps, this should be the final death knoll of this discredited programme. No longer can the Government trumpet this as an achievement.

Lack of independence

Juan Mendez also corroborates the reports of ongoing “white van abductions”, torture and sexual violence under the new Government of President Sirisena. He describes well-documented accounts of extremely brutal torture methods including burnings and beatings, stress positions, asphyxiation, rape and sexual violence occurring over several days if not weeks. These are the kinds of cases documented by the International Truth and Justice Project.

What emerges clearly from Mr Mendez’s report is the complete breakdown of the justice system in Sri Lanka – its structural inability to investigate allegations against the security forces and the unwillingness of the Attorney General’s department to prosecute because of its lack of independence. As the report points out, judges in Sri Lanka almost exclusively rely on evidence gathered by the police and in most cases convictions are still based on a confession alone as the main evidence.

“Impunity is directly attributable to the entire criminal justice system, and particularly the judiciary,” states Mr Mendez.

‘Extremely alarmed’

To take one example, the official who ran the country’s “rehabilitation” camps at the end of the war is now the second most senior official in the Attorney General’s department – how could he manage an impartial investigation into his own role?

Mr Mendez said he was “extremely alarmed” that allegations of torture were not investigated. He said even a strengthened national Human Rights Commission does not seem capable of remedying impunity. As such his report is a timely reminder for the international community of what the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, said in September 2015 about Sri Lanka’s security sector and justice system being distorted and corrupted by decades of impunity. It is for this reason that the UN High Commissioner recommended, “the establishment of an ad hoc hybrid special court, integrating international judges, prosecutors, lawyers and investigators, mandated to try notable war crimes and crimes against humanity, with its own independent investigative and prosecuting organ, defence office and witness and victims protections programme ”. We’ve come a long way from that brave declaration with even the optimistic Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka now setting for a purely domestic judicial mechanism, rather than hybrid.

Many still argue international judges are needed to win the trust of the victims in any future process, obscuring the fact that they’re also needed because the current system is actually incapable of investigating or prosecuting torture. Mr. Mendez’s report reminds us it’s not just the brave and vocal Families of the Disappeared who have to at the centre of the country’s future transitional justice process, but also those who suffer silently and invisibly after torture and sexual violence – and the UN rapporteur is clear that should also include survivors living outside the country.

© JDS