Freedom in the World 2004

Ratings Change: 

Sri Lanka's civil liberties rating improved from 4 to 3 due to a significant decline in violence and modest improvements in the rule of law resulting from an ongoing, though tenuous, cease-fire with the Tamil


Progress on the peace talks between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tiger separatist rebels ground to a halt as 2003 progressed, largely because of worsening tensions between Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe's coalition government and President Chandrika Kumaratunga, whose People's Alliance (PA) coalition serves as the opposition in parliament. The two long-time political rivals differ mainly on their approach to the peace process, with Kumaratunga repeatedly criticizing the government's willingness to make concessions to the Tigers as negotiations have progressed. Although the February 2002 cease-fire continued to hold, the Tigers pulled out of participating in formal talks in April and did not attend a donors' conference held in June. The absence of armed conflict led to a further reduction in human rights violations by security forces in the north and east of the country. However, the Tigers continued to commit abuses, including the forcible conscription of child soldiers, politically motivated killings, and restrictions on freedom of expression and of association, throughout the year.

Since independence from Britain in 1948, political power in this island nation has alternated between the conservative United National Party (UNP) and the leftist Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). While the country has made impressive gains in literacy, basic health care, and other social needs, its economic development has been stunted and its social fabric tested by a long-standing civil war that has killed an estimated 65,000 people. The conflict initially pitted several Tamil guerrilla groups against the government, which is dominated by the Sinhalese majority. The war, although triggered by anti-Tamil riots in 1983 that claimed hundreds of lives, came in the context of long-standing Tamil claims of discrimination in education and employment opportunities. By 1986, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, or Tamil Tigers), which called for an independent Tamil homeland in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, had eliminated most rival Tamil guerrilla groups and was in control of much of the northern Jaffna Peninsula. At the same time, the government was also fighting an insurgency in the south by the leftist People's Liberation Front (JVP). The JVP insurgency, and the brutal methods used by the army to quell it in 1989, killed 60,000 people.

In 1994, Kumaratunga ended nearly two decades of UNP rule by leading an SLFP dominated coalition to victory in parliamentary elections and then winning the presidential election. Early in her term, she tried to negotiate a peace agreement with the LTTE, but following a renewal of hostilities by the LTTE, she reverted to focusing on a military solution to the conflict. Kumaratunga won early presidential elections in 1999, but in parliamentary elections held in December 2001, the UNP and its allies won 114 out of a possible 225 seats. Wickremasinghe, the UNP leader, became prime minister, although Kumaratunga remains in office as president.

In response to an LTTE cease-fire offer in December 2001, the new government declared a truce with the rebels, lifted an economic embargo on rebel-held territory, and restarted Norwegian-brokered peace talks. A permanent cease-fire accord with provisions for international monitoring was signed in February 2002. Shortly before the first round of talks took place in September, the government lifted its ban on the LTTE, and by December 2002, the government and Tigers had agreed to share political power in a federal system. Although the LTTE suspended their participation in peace talks in April 2003, they stated that they remained committed to a political solution. In June, bilateral and multilateral donors at a conference held in Tokyo pledged a total of $4.5 billion over a four-year period to support Sri Lanka's reconstruction, although much of the aid is conditionally tied to further progress in reaching a settlement with the Tigers.

However, such progress remained constrained in 2003 by growing tensions between the president and the UNP-led government. On November 4, Kumaratunga declared a state of emergency, sacked three cabinet ministers--of defense, the interior, and information--assumed their portfolios, and temporarily suspended parliament. In order to justify these steps, she expressed concern that proposals made public by the LTTE on October 31 concerning the establishment of a Tiger-dominated interim authority in the northeast were a threat to national security. However, analysts noted that an equally compelling impetus for her actions was the declaration by UNP members that they intended to put forward in parliament an impeachment motion against the chief justice, whom the president views as a key ally.

The state of emergency was pulled back, and parliament resumed functioning on November 19, but Sri Lanka remained at a political impasse. Meanwhile, the 20-month old cease-fire with the LTTE continued to hold, despite an increasing incidence of violations since March 2003, the majority of which have allegedly been committed by the LTTE. The government refused to enter into further negotiations with the Tigers, claiming that it was pointless to do so while the president controlled the defense ministry. Although all three actors insist that they are committed to a peaceful resolution of the conflict, observers believe that meaningful peace talks will not resume until the political standoff between the PA and UNP is resolved.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Sri Lankans can change their government through elections based on universal adult suffrage. The 1978 constitution vested strong executive powers in a president who is directly elected for a six-year term and can dissolve parliament. The 225-member unicameral parliament is directly elected for a five-year term through a mix of single-seat, simple-plurality districts and proportional representation. Elections are open to multiple parties, and fair electoral laws and equal campaigning opportunities ensure a competitive political process. While elections are generally free, they are marred by some irregularities, violence, and intimidation. The independent Center for Monitoring Election Violence recorded 2,734 incidents of election-related violence during the December 2001 parliamentary election campaign, including 47 murders and more than 1,500 assaults, threats, and other abuses. The LTTE refuses to allow elections in the areas under its control and continues to intimidate rival nonmilitarized Tamil political parties.

In recent years, the fact that the executive and legislative branches of government have been controlled by competing parties headed by long-standing political rivals has led to tension and, at times, an inability to effectively resolve issues and construct coherent state policies. The cohabitation between the two rival leaders--President Chandrika Kumaratunga of the SLFP and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe of the UNP--became increasingly tense throughout 2003. In particular, differences of opinion over the correct way to approach the peace process have led to an inability to formulate a united strategy toward the LTTE and its specific demands during the ongoing negotiations. In addition, the fact that the president can dismiss the government at any time limits the latter's ability to be a strong and effective negotiator who can follow through on its commitments.

Official corruption is a growing concern. In response to increasing pressure from the media and from members of the government, Wickremasinghe appointed a committee in May to look into charges of corruption against ministers and senior ruling coalition politicians, suspended four politicians at the local government level, and attempted to introduce a code of ethics for members of his party. However, the legal and administrative framework currently in force is inadequate in terms of either promoting integrity or punishing the corrupt behavior of public officials. No current or former politician has thus far been sentenced for bribery or corruption, although more than a dozen cases were under investigation or prosecution during the year.

Freedom of expression is provided for in the constitution, and independent media outlets can generally express their views openly. However, the LTTE does not permit freedom of expression in the areas under its control and continues to intimidate and threaten a number of Tamil journalists and other critics. The government controls the largest newspaper chain, two major television stations, and a radio station; political coverage in the state-owned media favors the ruling party. During the state of emergency declared in November, Kumaratunga briefly deployed troops outside government-run media outlets and sacked the chairman of the government-owned Lake House media group. Reporters, particularly those who cover human rights issues or official misconduct, continued to face harassment and threats from the police, security forces, government officials, political activists, and the LTTE. In July 2003, Fisheries Minister Mahinda Wijeskera threatened to kill Lasantha Wickrematunga, the editor of The Sunday Leader, after the newspaper published a series of articles accusing the minister of corruption. Business interests wield some control over content in the form of selective advertising and bribery.

Religious freedom is respected, and members of all faiths are generally allowed to worship freely, although the constitution gives special status to Buddhism and there is some discrimination and occasional violence against religious minorities. The LTTE discriminates against Muslims in the areas under its control and has attacked Buddhist sites in the past. According to the U.S. State Department's 2003 Report on International Religious Freedom, evangelical Christian missionaries are occasionally harassed by Buddhist clergy and others opposed to their work.

The government generally respects academic freedom. However, the LTTE has a record of repressing the voices of those intellectuals who criticize its actions, sometimes through murder or other forms of violent intimidation. Groups such as the University Teachers for Human Rights-Jaffna (UTHR-J) have faced particularly severe harassment at the hands of the LTTE.

Freedom of assembly is generally respected, although both main political parties occasionally disrupt each other's rallies and political events. Except in conflictaffected areas, human rights and social welfare nongovernmental organizations generally operate freely. However, the LTTE does not allow for freedom of association in the regions under its control and reportedly uses coercion to force civilians to attend pro-LTTE rallies.

Trade unions are independent and engage in collective bargaining. Except for civil servants, most workers can hold strikes. However, under the 1989 Essential Services Act, the president can declare a strike in any industry illegal. Kumaratunga has used the act to end several strikes. Employers on tea plantations routinely violate the rights of the mainly Tamil workforce.

Successive governments have respected the constitutional provision for an independent judiciary, and judges can generally make decisions in an atmosphere free of overt intimidation from the legislative or executive branches. However, there is growing concern about the perceived politicization of the judiciary, in particular regarding the conduct of the present chief justice. According to the Colombo-based Free Media Movement, he has narrowed the scope of human rights litigation, dismissed a number of judges without holding an inquiry or disciplinary hearing, and consistently defended the president and her party in legal actions relating to political disputes. At the lower levels of the judiciary, corruption is fairly common among both judges and court staff, and those willing to pay bribes have more efficient access to the legal system.

Despite an overall reduction in the number of human rights abuses committed by police and security forces since the February 2002 cease-fire, the rule of law remains weak, and torture and prolonged detention without trial continue to be issues of concern. Such practices are facilitated by legislation such as the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), under which security personnel can arrest and detain suspects indefinitely without court approval. Although no new arrests under the PTA were reported during the year, many of those detained previously under the PTA remain in detention.

There has been little progress in reducing acts of torture by the security forces and police, particularly of detainees during routine interrogations. In August, the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission demanded action against policemen in the central province of Kandy, who allegedly tortured two teenage boys in July and then framed false charges against them. Cases of custodial death and custodial rape continue to be reported. A lack of aggressive prosecution of the majority of past abuses contributes to a climate of impunity for those who have overstepped the bounds of the law.

The LTTE has effective control on the ground in large sections of the north and east of the country and operates a parallel administration that includes schools, hospitals, courts, and police and other law enforcement personnel. The Tigers raise money through extortion, kidnapping, theft, and the seizure of Muslim property, and have used threats and attacks to close schools, courts, and government agencies in their self-styled Tamil homeland. Despite their involvement in the peace process, the rebels continued to be responsible for summary executions of civilians, "disappearances," arbitrary abductions and detentions, torture, and the forcible conscription of children to be used as soldiers during the year. Press reports as well as a report issued by the UTHR-J in March indicated that the Tigers continued to recruit teenage children in 2003 despite promises to end the practice. The LTTE has also targeted Tamil political parties that challenge its claim to represent the Tamil people, particularly the Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP) and the Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front-Varathar (EPRLF-V), with several dozen party members and supporters having been killed since February 2002, according to a briefing paper released by Human Rights Watch in August.

Tamils maintain that they face systematic discrimination in several matters controlled by the state, including government employment, university education, and access to justice. Thousands of Tamils whose ancestors were brought from India to work as indentured laborers in the nineteenth century did not qualify for Sri Lankan citizenship and faced discrimination and exploitation by the native Sinhalese. However, in October, the parliament approved legislation granting citizenship to about 170,000 previously stateless "Indian" Tamils. Tensions between the three major ethnic groups (Sinhalese, Tamil, and Muslim), which lead to occasional violence, remain a concern. In April, rioting between the Tamil and Muslim populations of the northeast left a number of people dead or injured and hundreds displaced. Overall, nearly a third of the estimated one million internally displaced refugees have returned to their homes since February 2002, but many more remain unwilling or unable to return to the northeast and continue to live in camps throughout the country, according to Refugees International.

Women are under-represented in politics and the civil service. Female employees in the private sector face some sexual harassment as well as discrimination in salary and promotion opportunities. Rape and domestic violence against women remain serious problems, and authorities weakly enforce existing laws. Although women have equal rights under national, civil, and criminal law, matters related to the family, including marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance, are adjudicated under the customary law of each ethnic or religious group, and the application of these laws sometimes results in discrimination against women.

2004 Scores


Partly Free

Freedom Rating

(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Civil Liberties

(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Political Rights

(1 = best, 7 = worst)