The Sri Lankan Government should abide by its commitments to replace the ‘abusive’ Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) with legislation that respects its international human rights obligations, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) said today.
In a statement, it said the cabinet of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced on January 4 that it would withdraw a proposed replacement law, reneging on pledges to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and the European Union.
It said President Rajapaksa has also taken other steps that threaten human rights protections in Sri Lanka.
“He appointed army commanders implicated by the UN in attacks on civilians and other grave abuses during the civil war to defence secretary and other senior positions. He placed the police and other civilian agencies under the Defence Ministry. In addition, he appointed a military officer as the head of the civilian intelligence agency without requiring him to resign from the armed forces, and repeatedly said he would place the intelligence agencies at the heart of his administration,” the HRW said.
HRW South Asia Director Meenakshi Ganguly said President Rajapaksa and senior appointees linked to wartime abuses are wasting no time dismantling the human rights gains of recent years.
“The EU, which offers Sri Lanka preferential trading terms in return for human rights guarantees, should demand the repeal of the PTA,” she said.
In 2015, then-President Maithripala Sirisena joined a unanimous resolution at the UN Human Rights Council that committed Sri Lanka to a series of measures to uphold human rights that included replacing the PTA with counter-terrorism legislation that respects international legal standards. Many of these undertakings were never met, but in early 2019 the government and UNHRC renewed the commitment.
In 2018, an alternative counter-terrorism law, the Counter-Terrorism Act (CTA) was submitted to parliament.
The new Rajapaksa government has declared its intention to keep the PTA in force. In 2010, the EU withdrew Sri Lanka’s Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+), its preferential trading arrangement, due to “significant shortcomings in the country’s implementation of three UN human rights conventions.”
However, the agreement includes a monitoring component to ensure that human rights obligations are effectively met. At the annual meeting of the EU and Sri Lanka in February 2019, the joint communique stated that “the EU reiterated the need to repeal and replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) in order to bring counter-terrorism legislation in line with international standards.”
The Human Rights Watch said it recognizes Sri Lanka’s international legal obligation to protect everyone on its territory. “However, any counter-terrorism measures should reflect international best practice and uphold basic principles of the rule of law,” it said.
Ganguly said, “For decades, Sri Lanka’s PTA provided a legal fig leaf for grotesque human rights abuses and the suppression of peaceful dissent. The new Rajapaksa Government’s embrace of this abusive law is just one of many signs that the rights of Sri Lankans are at grave risk.”