(Editor’s Note: This is the latest in a series on the spotlight placed on allegations of war crimes and other abuses in Sri Lanka during the Feb. 22 to March 23, 2021, session of the United Nations Human Rights Council. The series includes voices from former U.N. officials, international NGOs, human rights litigators, and researchers. Find links to the full series, as installments are published, at the end of the first article, Spotlight on Sri Lanka as UN Human Rights Council Prepares Next Session.) 

The United Nations Human Rights Council’s current review of Sri Lanka gives the body an opportunity to re-examine and consolidate the recommendations made by previous U.N. efforts towards accountability, and to give a clear indication of what response is needed now from the government. In so doing, they should build on the concerted initiatives over the years by many NGOs to encourage accountability for gross human rights violations in Sri Lanka by thoroughly documenting crimes and advocating for justice.

Various civil society groups have worked with individual survivors and their communities. The HRC session allows civil society groups that are involved in accountability efforts to highlight the remedies, reparations, and recommendations that have previously been promulgated by the U.N. Committee Against Torture and the U.N. Human Rights Committee—expert treaty bodies charged with evaluating state parties’ compliance with the Convention Against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, respectively. These bodies also consider complaints from individual survivors, as Sri Lanka accepted the right of individual petition to the U.N. Human Rights Committee by accession to the First Optional Protocol in 1997, and made a declaration on Aug. 16, 2016, accepting the right of individual petition under Article 22 of the Convention against Torture.

Civil society engaged with the U.N. Committee Against Torture in its periodic review of Sri Lanka in 2017. On that occasion, the committee in its concluding observations remained seriously concerned that torture was a common practice carried out in relation to regular criminal investigations in a large majority of cases by the Criminal Investigation Department of the police, regardless of the nature of the suspected offence (at para. 9). The committee also noted the information received that “numerous individuals suspected of having a link, however remote, with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam [LTTE] have been abducted and then subjected to brutal torture, often including sexual violence and rape of men and women. According to the information received, such practices are carried out by both military and police in unacknowledged places of detention, which have included law enforcement headquarters, Army installations, internally displaced person camps, and “rehabilitation centres” (at para.11).

The committee also examined the lack of accountability for past cases of torture and disappearance. The panel recommended that Sri Lanka should fulfill the prior recommendations for the establishment of a judicial mechanism with special counsel to investigate such allegations, and to ensure that all investigations into violations during the conflict and post-conflict eras were concluded promptly and led to prosecutions when warranted.

Strategic Litigation Brings Cases to Light

In addition to participating in the periodic review of Sri Lanka’s compliance with the Convention Against Torture, civil society groups – including my organization, REDRESS, which assists victims of torture bringing legal cases – have used strategic human rights litigation to challenge impunity for torture and other gross violations of human rights before the U.N. Human Rights Committee. For example, Amarasinghe Arachchige Simon Amarasinghe brought a case to the committee on behalf of his brother, David, who had been brutally beaten by police in 2010 and died at the National Hospital in Colombo the following day.

An eyewitness described how he was hit with a rod, his head was struck against the door of a police vehicle, and he was then put into the vehicle where he was severely kicked and beaten to the head with iron rods. The police claimed that he had been arrested for being drunk and obstructing traffic and had received his injuries while attempting to jump out of a moving police vehicle. A magistrate found that he had been unlawfully killed. But the Sri Lankan Solicitor General declined to prosecute the implicated police officers.

In 2017, the U.N. Human Rights Committee concluded that his brother had been tortured, and that the authorities had provided no proper explanation for his arrest or for his death in custody. The committee called for remedies in the case, including a through and effective investigation, prosecution of those responsible, and adequate compensation. The applicant in that case had asked for measures to ensure such abuses are not repeated against others, and the committee called on Sri Lanka to take steps to prevent similar violations in the future, in particular by conducting a review of the compliance of its anti-torture legislation with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Impunity and Ongoing Violations

Such litigation highlights that the ongoing impunity for atrocities committed during the civil war has emboldened the Sri Lankan authorities to continue to torture and disappear people. Velauthapillai Renukaruban (known as Renu) brought a case to the U.N. Human Rights Committee in 2020. He had fled Sri Lanka in 2001, claimed asylum in the United Kingdom, and later obtained British citizenship. The submission alleges that in 2016, while visiting Sri Lanka to get married, he was detained and tortured. The submission alleged specifically that within 24 hours of arriving, Renu was abducted from his mother’s home and taken to a secret facility nearby. He was severely beaten and interrogated about his alleged ties to the LTTE, which he denied. When Renu refused to “confess,” the officials threatened to kill him.

On his third day in prison, four officials dragged Renu from his sleep and beat him until he lost consciousness. The attack left him with severe injuries. He was eventually taken to Jaffna Hospital, after an intervention from the British High Commission. During his seven-day stay in hospital, he was watched by a guard and handcuffed to his bed at all times. He was taken before a magistrate and charged with fabricated offenses. The charges were ultimately dismissed when the police presented no evidence.

Renu has tried to seek justice in Sri Lanka, but to no avail. The Sri Lankan police have failed to investigate his claim of torture. He filed a complaint with the Sri Lankan Human Rights Commission, but they failed to provide him with any update. There is little hope of his achieving justice in Sri Lanka. As a result, he is asking the U.N. Human Rights Committee to make a finding that he was tortured and that there was a failure to investigate his torture. The claim, filed in June 2020, seeks reparation in the form of compensation, rehabilitation, an effective investigation, and the introduction of anti-torture safeguards to prevent violations like this from happening again. These include the establishment of an independent judicial mechanism, the closing down of unofficial detention centers, the introduction of an effective torture prevention program, and reform of the justice sector.

In these cases and others, the U.N. Human Rights Committee is able to make specific recommendations for the introduction of reforms that will eliminate the use of torture and increase the possibility of accountability. These remedies mirror the recommendations made by the U.N. Committee against Torture in their Periodic Review.

In reviewing Sri Lanka during this session, the Human Rights Council should seize the opportunity to respond to ongoing incidents of torture and impunity with concrete proposals, consolidating the remedies and recommendations promulgated by the U.N. Human Rights Committee. The council also should restate previous calls from other United Nations bodies for an independent investigative mechanism to deal with allegations of torture from the conflict era.

 IMAGE: A police officer crosses a street as military personnel take part in a rehearsal for the Independence Day Parade in Colombo on February 3, 2021. (Photo by ISHARA S. KODIKARA/AFP via Getty Images)