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Sri Lanka needs to deliver on important reforms - EU report

The European Commission this month called on the Sri Lankan government to deliver on important reforms, expressing concerns over the failure to repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act, ongoing reports of routine torture, impunity, hate speech, military occupation of land and the difficulties faced by minorities. 

"The Government has to urgently deliver on a number of important reforms that are of direct relevance for the effective implementation of the human rights conventions listed in the GSP+ Regulation," the European Commission concluded in its report entitled 'The EU Special Incentive Arrangement for Sustainable Development and Good Governance ('GSP+') assessment of Sri Lanka covering the period 2016 - 2017', released on January 19. 

The report follows the EU's decision to grant Sri Lanka the preferential trade tarriff (GSP+) in May 2017, examining development and implementation of pledged reforms. A GSP+ monitoring mission visited Sri Lanka and Jaffna in the North-East in September 2017.  

Read full report here.

Extracts reproduced below: 

The Committee was concerned about reports of hate speech, incitement to violence and violent attacks, including riots, against minority groups and religious communities for which there seemed to be impunity as well as a lack of accountability. 

The Committee was concerned about the difficulties faced by minority groups in freely practising their right to freedom of religion. The Government has established an InterReligious Council to mediate between different religious and belief communities and to promote peaceful relations. The Committee also expressed concerns about the respective situations of Tamils of Indian origin, Adivasi people, internally displaced people, and minority women in war-affected areas, and recommended measures to address the challenges faced by these groups.

Though the situation has shown marked improvement since the end of the civil war, the economy in the affected areas, particularly the Northern Province, has been slow to recover. People living in former conflict areas continue to face difficulties with employment and effective access to public services. The Government has offered tax holidays to investors in these areas, but those incentives have not attracted significant capital investment. Investors report significant bureaucratic challenges in obtaining the necessary business permits.
Problems are also related to the release of land that is still occupied by the military, as well as commercial activities of the military which crowd out local business and livelihood opportunities.

Clarifying the fate of thousands of missing persons, most of whom went missing during and immediately after the end of the civil war, is also an essential element in truth-seeking, reconciliation and accountability. 

There are also reports of incidents of surveillance and harassment of civil society actors and human rights defenders, particularly in the North, including people protesting about land returns and missing persons. 

Land release is a key issue for reconciliation and long-term peacebuilding efforts. The Committee expressed concerns that, although significant areas of land have been released since 2015, the military still controls substantial areas of private and state land in the North and East and continues to engage in commercial activities deriving from control of this land. While the military continues to release land, it is yet to present a release plan with benchmarks and timelines.

The Committee expressed concerns that a comprehensive anti-discrimination law has not yet been adopted and also recommended that Sri Lanka amends the Penal Code with a view to decriminalizing consensual same-sex conduct.

The Committee expressed serious concern about consistent reports indicating that torture is a common practice in normal criminal investigations, as observed by the Special Rapporteur on torture following his visit to Sri Lanka in 2016. The Committee also expressed concern about several instances of deaths in police custody under suspicious circumstances, and the insufficient amount of compensation awarded by the Supreme Court to victims of torture since 2011. 

The Committee expressed serious concern about the failure to carry out an institutional reform of the security sector. The Committee was also deeply concerned that, according to numerous reports from the UN and non-governmental sources, impunity prevails in most cases of torture. The Committee recommended that a body independent of the police hierarchy be established to investigate complaints against law enforcement officers.

The Committee expressed alarm at the preliminary assessment of the Special Rapporteur on torture following his visit to Sri Lanka that the conditions of detention in prisons and detention facilities, in particular those of the Terrorist Investigation Division, could amount to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. 

The Government is engaged with the UN system. With the co-sponsorship of UNHRC Resolution 30/1, Sri Lanka has made far-reaching commitments on promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights. Nevertheless, according to UN reports, relevant reforms have stalled or slowed down considerably. Measures taken so far to fulfil Sri Lanka's transitional justice commitments have brought insufficient progress, including bringing perpetrators of war crimes to justice and resolving longstanding 'emblematic cases'. 

The Government has to urgently deliver on a number of important reforms that are of direct relevance for the effective implementation of the human rights conventions listed in the GSP+ Regulation. The Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) must be repealed and if needed replaced by legislation that is fully in line with international human rights law, including CCPR and CAT. The Code of Criminal Procedures Act needs to be amended to ensure fundamental legal safeguards. The Government should ensure that alleged torture by the police and security forces comes to an end, that perpetrators are brought to justice and that its policy of zerotolerance to the use of torture is implemented. This is essential in addressing reports of prevalent impunity in most cases of torture.

The operationalisation of the Office on Missing Persons (OMP) is welcome and should deliver truth and accountability to the families of those that disappeared during and at the end of the armed conflict. The OMP needs to be equiped with the necessary resources and capabilities to fully carry out its functions and mandate. Transposing the Convention on Enforced Disappearances into national law will contribute to this process. Whilst progress has been made in the return of land in the former conflict areas, the Government should speed up this process.