UN Experts Urge Reform of Sri Lanka’s Counterterrorism Law

Prevention of Terrorism Act Long Used to Target Minorities, Activists

South Asia Director
A Police Special Task Force is deployed after eight inmates were killed in a prison incident in Mahara, on the outskirts of Colombo, Sri Lanka, November 30, 2020. © 2020 Akila Jayawardana/NurPhoto via AP

Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa carries little credibility when he tells foreign diplomats he will reform the country’s Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). After all, earlier this year, he acted to make the law, which permits long-term detention without trial, more repressive, not less.

Amid growing domestic and international pressure, his administration set up a committee to propose amendments to the PTA, chaired by Defense Secretary Kamal Gunaratne, a retired general whose forces were implicated in war crimes. The draft has not been released, but comments by the justice secretary seem to rule out meaningful civil society consultations.

Sri Lankan activists have been scathing about the process, pointing out in a joint statement that reported revisions “already exist in law and do not address any of the shortcomings in the PTA that enable grave human rights violations.”

Seven United Nations human rights experts on December 9 published five benchmarks that are “necessary prerequisites” for making the law compliant with Sri Lanka’s international human rights obligations. Like Sri Lankan activists, they have also called for an immediate moratorium on the PTA’s use.

The matter is all the more relevant as the European Union is conducting an assessment of Sri Lanka’s compliance with its human rights obligations. The country’s tariff-free access to the EU market depends on a trade scheme called GSP+. When Sri Lanka regained GSP+ in 2017, it pledged to repeal or reform the PTA, among many other rights commitments that remain unfulfilled.

A European Parliament resolution in June and the GSP+ assessment have created unprecedented momentum for meaningful human rights reform in Sri Lanka. But the outcome will ultimately depend on the EU’s level of ambition and assertiveness. The EU should not allow itself to be hoodwinked by a sham PTA reform.

As respect for human rights in Sri Lanka has been declining alarmingly under President Rajapaksa, Brussels has an historic opportunity to help reverse this trend and press the government to meet its human rights obligations. The EU should also work with international partners – the United States this month sanctioned two more Sri Lankans linked to grave rights violations – and act to prevent further abuses in Sri Lanka.