Ruki Fernando is a human rights activist based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. This interview has been edited lightly.
Three years on, what’s your broad take on the coalition government’s performance? Where does the reform agenda currently stand?
Some reforms have happened since 2015 to varying degrees, but many of the promised reforms have come to a standstill and seem unlikely to happen by next year.
The release of some lands occupied by the military after months of protests, the release and indictments of some political prisoners, more space for free expression and assembly compared to years under the previous regime, arrests of some Navy and Army personnel in relation to a couple of disappearance cases, convictions of Police and Army personnel (for torture, killing of civilians and rape), are also some positive things seen since 2015. The passing of the 19th amendment to the constitution reducing the powers of the executive president and strengthening independent institutions and checks and balances, the ratification of the International Convention Against Enforced Disappearances and making this a crime in Sri Lanka, the passing of the Right to Information Act were some progressive legislative changes – while the proactiveness and independence displayed by the leadership of the Human Rights Commission and the Right to Information Commission were also positive features.
But the reluctance of the government and lack of leadership by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to carry forward the reform agenda overshadows these gains. Much of the land occupied by the military during and after the war still remains in their hands. Releases were often due to long drawn out overnight protests and direct action by affected communities. The possibilities of reconciliation through land releases was negatively affected by the arrogance and viciousness of the military – who after benefitting from decades of occupation, called the return of lands “gifts,” organized ceremonies for themselves where military leaders were glorified and had destroyed and damaged some properties just before handing them over.
Political prisoners acquitted by courts after up to 15 years in detention have received no apology or reparations and many still languish in prison, including based on confessions made during detention, which are likely to have been under duress. The Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) has not been withdrawn despite the commitment to do so three years ago. Alternatives to the PTA were drafted in utmost secrecy from the citizenry and leaked versions contained draconian provisions. Abduction, assaults, death threats, intimidation, discrediting and surveillance of activists continues. An attempt to bring in a draconian amendment to the Voluntary Social Services Organizations Act was only withdrawn in the face of stiff opposition from civil activists and organizations. Violence against Muslims and Christians continued, including on a mass scale, such as in March this year around Kandy. Debt has reached life-threatening proportions.
Three years after ambitious promises to set up institutions to deal with wartime abuses, only one, the Office on Missing Persons (OMP) has been set up, and that too is limping forward. A draft bill was rushed through the cabinet to establish an Office for Reparations. There is not even draft legislation for the two other institutions promised – a truth commission and judicial mechanism with a special counsel. The president, prime minister and other politicians have backtracked on the promise to include foreign judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers and investigators in the judicial mechanism.
More specifically, what do you expect to happen in terms of constitution-building?
There has been some progress, with some public consultations, six subcommittee reports and a steering committee report from the Constitutional Assembly, consisting of all the parliamentarians. However, there is a lot of uncertainty about whether a new constitution will see the light of day. Even if it does, there are serious concerns about whether it will bring substantial changes – such as the inclusion of economic, social and cultural rights as justiciable rights, doing away with ancient laws that facilitate the applicability of discriminatory laws against women and children, providing the foremost place to the majority religion and a lesser place to other religions, abolition of the executive presidency and power-sharing arrangements, which is also crucial for resolving the ethnic conflict that led to war.
How effective will the Office on Missing Persons be?
The OMP has been functioning for just over six months, but it’s too early to tell how effective it will be. OMP members tried make up for a lack of consultations before it was set up, by having a series of consultations about how it should function. It has stronger enabling legislation than previous Commissions of Inquiry and the chairperson and members have shown sensitivities in acknowledging the frustration, disappointment and anger of many families of the disappeared and missing who have approached multiple commissions, police, courts, et cetera and not received the answers they are seeking. But other than passionate appeals to give the OMP a chance and stating that they will try to do better than previous government initiatives, and publishing an interim report, I have seen nothing to indicate the OMP will be more effective than the large number of previous Commissions of Inquiry. The inclusion of a senior retired Army officer as a member of the OMP, in a context where many families believe their relatives were taken away by the Army (and where Army personnel have been convicted by courts and both Army and Navy personnel have been arrested on suspicion in relation to disappearances), has also contributed to making many families of the disappeared lose confidence in the OMP and be skeptical. It is this anger, suspicion and frustration that have led to protests against the OMP by some families of disappeared, leading to even the unacceptable situation of them blocking other families of the disappeared from engaging with the OMP.
The first major specific public promise made by the OMP was to release an interim report on the 30th of August – the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances. But instead of fulfilling this promise, the OMP postponed the release of the report – in order to hand over the report first to the president, though they have no legal obligation to do so. Though this may be a strategic decision by the OMP, it has led to concerns that the OMP is prioritizing presidential appeasement and not giving primacy to the families of the disappeared and missing. The report dated the 30th of August was presented to the president on the 5th of September and released to the public on the 6th.
Despite the history of reports and recommendations by previous Commissions of Inquiry, much of which have been ignored by successive governments, the OMP too has opted to prioritize another report with observations and recommendations. This is despite the OMP being legally empowered to provide welfare services, trace the disappeared and inform the families.
The recommendations in the report include amendments to existing laws to strengthen the legal framework in criminalizing and prosecuting enforced disappearances, that state officials including members of the armed forces and police who are named as suspects or accused in relation to abductions and enforced disappearances should be suspended and not transferred, promoted or offered any other office, publishing a list of detention centers and detainees, designating a national day for the disappeared, preserving sites of mass graves as memorial spaces and restoring a monument for Sinhalese youth that disappeared in late 1980s that was destroyed by the previous government.
Disappointingly, the OMP has not called on the government to release a list of those who surrendered to the Army at the end of the war, many of whom disappeared afterwards. The release of this list has been a central demand made to the president and also to the OMP by Tamil families who have been at continuous roadside protests for more than 550 days. The OMP has also opted to call for reform of some provisions of the draconian PTA instead of total repeal, without questioning the need for counterterrorism legislation, which has a history of abuse in Sri Lanka and across the world.
The report also has some constructive and practical recommendations on “interim relief,” including a monthly cash payment and other facilities related to debt relief, housing, education, employment and livelihood development.
Observations and recommendations in the interim report are significant and important, but unlikely to impress families of the disappeared. What would have made a difference is if the OMP had done in the first six months or will do in the next few months what many families of disappeared have asked them to do and that they have a legal mandate to do: Establish the fate and whereabouts of a few of the disappeared and inform their families. Or at least start providing information relating to the status of investigations, on individual cases, to respective families. The interim report says the OMP started to carry out inquiries with relevant authorities on specific cases. However, even statistical and general information about progress made is not mentioned in the report.
Would you talk about some of the criticisms surrounding the creation of the Office for Reparations?
As is the usual custom of this government, the draft bill had been drafted in secret, without adequate consultations before it was approved by the cabinet. On the draft bill, there are concerns about unnecessary powers being granted to the cabinet and parliament, making the awarding of reparations a long drawn, politicized process and the office not being an independent one with decision-making powers.
What about President Sirisena’s plan to reinstate the death penalty?
This was a shock, as for more than 40 years, through civil war and insurrections, Sri Lanka was one of 29 countries that had maintained a moratorium on the death penalty. Another 106 countries had abolished it fully by 2017, and only 23 countries were known to have carried out executions in 2017. There is no evidence in Sri Lanka, or in other countries, that the death penalty has reduced crime by having a deterrent effect. In Sri Lanka, there are serious deficiencies in the criminal justice system, including a lack of easily accessible, quality legal aid.
The death penalty is an irreversible form of punishment which grants no space to consider new evidence that may emerge after a conviction is made, for example through new technology, indicating a wrongful conviction. It has been pointed out that in countries such as America, Canada and the United Kingdom, people wrongly convicted have been released from death row decades after they were put there as new evidence has shown they were wrongfully imprisoned.
If some detainees are engaged in drug-related offences from within prison grounds, cited as a reason to reintroduce the death penalty, security in prisons must be strengthened, including by using new technology, without infringing on the rights of detainees. Prison officials responsible for such crimes from within prisons must be held accountable.
What Sri Lanka must do is ratify the 2nd Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that calls for the abolition of the death penalty and abolish the death penalty from our books, as about 85 countries had done by the end of 2017.
How concerned are you about reports of abduction and torture since Sirisena became president?
Abductions have continued since President Sirisena took office – in the war-affected North, and even in Colombo in 2017, such as the abduction of the trade union leader and attempted abduction of a student activist. However, many abducted appear to have been released, though I’m also aware of those who have disappeared under this government and not been found.
Attacks, threats, intimidation and surveillance of families of the disappeared campaigning for truth and justice have also continued under President Sirisena. Their supporters, including activists and journalists have also been attacked, threatened, obstructed and interrogated. Several such incidents were reported in July this year; I had mentioned two in an article I wrote last month.
The continuation of torture too has been a major concern under the Sirisena presidency.
Will provincial council elections be held this year?
There is no certainty when provincial elections will be held.
What’s your assessment of a possible Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidential campaign? Who do you see as viable candidates for the presidency?
Rajapaksa political forces have always been strong, even in 2015, and appear to be gaining ground in the face of failures by the present coalition government. Despite much hype beforehand, the “Jana Balaya” (People’s Power) rally in Colombo on the 5th didn’t indicate mass public support for Rajapaksa-led political forces and there didn’t even appear to be a clear and strong political message from the rally. Though Gotabaya was seen participating in the rally, he didn’t play a leading role and there is also uncertainty about whether he will be a presidential candidate for the Joint Opposition, representing Rajapaksa political forces. There is also no clear indication whether Sirisena – Wickremesinghe and their allies will contest together or separately, and if together, who might be a “common candidate.” But the rather unexpected emergence of Sirisena as a successful presidential candidate, with a broad alliance of political and civil forces’ support, makes me wonder whether there could be another person who could gain widespread support, across political and civil forces – but I only hope it would be one that will not let us down like Sirisena has done.