Amresh Lavan Gunasingham
On 22 March 2022, Sri Lankan lawmakers have approved a range of reforms to the country’s controversial anti-terror law. Activist groups, some Western governments and international bodies continue to press the current government to improve its human rights record amid a worsening domestic economic crisis.
The Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) was modified to allow suspects to challenge their detention in court and to expedite hearings to reduce the length of pre-trial detention periods. Rights groups allege that the law has been used over the past four decades to arbitrarily arrest and detain individuals for years without due process and to extract confessions through torture. Sri Lankan authorities have denied these claims.
First enacted in 1979, successive administrations dominated by the Sinhalese majority have used the law to arrest minority Tamils linked to the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) group during the country’s prolonged civil war, which ended in 2009. More than a decade on, the act has been maintained in order to target dissidents, scores of individuals from the ethnic Tamil and Muslim minorities, and civil society activists. Following the 2019 Easter attacks, members of the Muslim community were also subjected to targeted attacks and discriminatory policies.
Sri Lanka has been on a diplomatic charm offensive in recent weeks to win international support for reforms to its anti-terror law. Sri Lanka’s human rights record drew scrutiny at a recent session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister GL Peiris defended the revisions to the PTA as an initial step to bring it in line with international norms and practices.
Several detainees have also been released in recent months, including the prominent lawyer Hejaz Hizbullah. But nearly 300 individuals continue to be detained under the PTA — some for over a decade — without charge or access to legal recourse.
Opposition lawmakers and activists say the proposed reforms to the law do not go far enough.
Some have called for it to be repealed altogether, arguing that the PTA still allows for the arbitrary arrest of suspects and the use of confessions obtained through torture as evidence in court. Observers have also questioned the necessity of the law, citing alternative laws that the government can use to tackle security threats.
In a February report, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights observed that several individuals have been subjected to arbitrary detention, torture and enforced disappearances. The continued fostering of militarisation and ethno-religious nationalism by the state also undermines ‘democratic institutions, increases the anxiety of minorities, and impedes reconciliation’.
In response, Sri Lanka has repeatedly claimed it will address grievances through its own domestic mechanisms. Government officials also point to measures already taken such as rehabilitating former Tamil Tiger rebels and the activation of an office to determine the status of those still missing from the civil war. Critics say little has come of such initiatives.
While previously rejecting attempts by the UN and global rights groups to repeal the PTA and address allegations of past rights abuses, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) led coalition has since softened its stance as it seeks to shore up trade ties with the European Union amid the country’s worsening economic and debt crisis.
The EU has threatened to withdraw Sri Lanka’s access to the lucrative Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+) — a system of tariff-free access accorded to developing countries — if it does not improve its human rights record. As the island state’s garment industry exported over US$2 billion in goods to the EU in 2020, the loss of the GSP+ would represent a significant political and economic setback.
In recent months, the country has been tormented by chronic food shortages and soaring inflation. Several regions have faced hours-long electricity blackouts due to the lack of foreign exchange currency to pay for fuel imports. Amid its worst economic crisis in decades, anti-government protests have roiled the country in recent weeks, with tens of thousands of people led by supporters of the opposition party United People’s Force demanding the resignation of President Rajapaksa and his elder brother Mahinda Rajapakse. The latter is currently the country’s prime minister.
Efforts in the past to repeal or reform the PTA have failed amid resistance from parts of the Sinhala-Buddhist majority and the powerful security establishment. Security officials maintain that strong laws are still needed to prevent and prosecute future terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka inspired by the so-called Islamic State (IS). According to the 2022 Global Terrorism Index, the South Asian region remains vulnerable to potential IS-linked attacks — a threat starkly highlighted by the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks.
While the organisational capabilities and operational sophistication of regional terrorist groups remain potent and will need to be effectively countered, the government should still consider committing to further reforms of aspects of the PTA that are susceptible to abuse, including long-term detentions and incidents of torture.
This could also go some way towards addressing the country’s long standing ethno-nationalist cleavages, even as a comprehensive reconciliation and accountability process remains elusive to heal the wounds of its 26 year-long civil war.