HRW: EU must step up pressure on Sri Lanka to reform its controversial counter-terrorism laws
© WikiMedia (Anton Croos)
HRW: EU must step up pressure on Sri Lanka to reform its controversial counter-terrorism laws

The Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged the EU on Thursday to increase pressure on the Sri Lankan government to reform its controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and ensure its compliance with international standards.

The Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry (“the Ministry”) announced a proposed amendment to the PTA on Monday, which it hailed as the “most progressive step…in advancing, securing and protecting the rights of persons subject to investigation and judicial review under the said law and is an important move towards the realization of enforcing international best practices to address counter terrorism legislation.”

HRW does not think the EU is fooled by this apparent “attempt to salvage Sri Lanka’s tariff-free access to the EU market” which is conditioned on respect for international human rights. During their 24th meeting of the Joint Commission in Brussels on Tuesday, the EU stressed that “important elements” are missing in the proposed PTA amendment and urged Sri Lanka to continue reducing application of the PTA and take other additional steps as necessary to make the PTA “fully compliant with international norms.”

The EU also took note of the Sri Lankan government’s arbitrary detention practices involving its citizens who, according to another HRW report, are often held in custody for months or years and called for “practical and administrative steps to release on bail those detained under the PTA without charges.”

According to HRW, the “flimsy set” of proposed amendments to the PTA was hurriedly published by the administration of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa only days before the Joint Commission meeting in Brussels and only when the government feared losing benefits under the EU Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+). HRW highlighted the Ministry’s release of a “grossly inaccurate and threatening statement” earlier this month against the January 27 testimony by a prominent Sri Lankan human rights lawyer, Ambika Satkunanathan, to the European Parliament Subcommittee on Human Rights. Satkunanathan was quick to respond to the Ministry’s statement herself, which she said contains “numerous misrepresentations and insinuations…aimed at silencing critique of government policies and actions.”

Because of these developments after the Joint Commission meeting, HRW called on the EU needs to do more to get Sri Lanka to abide by its international human rights obligations:

In December, UN experts identified five “necessary prerequisites” for Sri Lanka’s counterterrorism legislation to comply with international standards. The EU should continue to insist that those benchmarks be met: the freedom of countless Sri Lankans hangs in the balance, as does the country’s GSP+ status, which is vital to the economy. To safeguard it, the Rajapaksa government needs to uphold its human rights obligations, starting with genuine reform of the PTA, accompanied by a moratorium on its use and the release of those unjustly jailed in its application. Cosmetic interventions won’t suffice.

The five necessary prerequisites referred to above ask the Sri Lankan government to employ definitions of terrorism that comply with international norms; ensure precision and legal certainty, especially where the PTA may impact the fundamental freedoms of expression, opinion, association and religion or belief; implement provisions and measures to prevent and halt arbitrary deprivation of liberty; ensure measures are in place to prevent tortures and enforced disappearances and adhere to their absolute prohibition; and enable overarching due process and fair trial guarantees, including judicial oversight and access to legal counsel.

HRW noted that Sri Lankan activists, lawyers, and victims of past abuses and their families have been pushing for decades to repeal the PTA, which allegedly empowers the government to arbitrarily detain and torture targeted minority Tamil and Muslim communities and suppress civil society. Promises by previous governments to repeal the law have gone unfulfilled. HRW hopes that the EU can leverage the benefits offered by its trading scheme to pressure the Sri Lankan government into finally fulfilling that promise.