The 1978 Constitution of Sri Lanka (as amended through 2015) stipulates in its Article 11 that: “No person shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Surprisingly, the right to life is not included in its enumeration of fundamental rights.
Under Article 14(1)(b), every citizen is entitled to the freedom of peaceful assembly.
1966 Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)
|ICCPR Optional Protocol 1||State Party|
|1984 Convention against Torture (CAT)||State Party|
|Competence of CAT Committee to receive individual complaints||Yes|
|CAT Optional Protocol 1||State Party|
|1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court||Not party|
There is no regional human rights treaty to which Sri Lanka can become a party.
Police Use of Force
The actions of the Sri Lanka Police are still regulated by the 1883 Penal Code and an 1866 Police Ordinance, as amended through 1984. There is no comprehensive national legislation that governs use of force by law enforcement agencies and officers, and that which does exist is woefully out of date. The Penal Code, for instance, specifies that any person who does "any act so rashly or negligently as to endanger human life" shall be liable to a maximum term of three months' imprisonment.
In November 2002, the National Police Commission was created to act as an independent police oversight body. The Police Force was under the control of the Ministry of Defence until 2014 when it was moved to civilian control within the Ministry of Law and Order and Prison Reform. In 2018, the Commission was declaring as its mission
To transform Sri Lanka Police into an efficient, transparent and responsive service that respects and protects Human Rights, ensures Public Accountability and upholds the Rule of Law.
The Commission affirms that most of the complaints it receives "are resolved by way of mediation between the two parties".
Views and Concluding Observations of United Nations Treaty Bodies
In March 2021, the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution calling upon the Government of Sri Lanka to ensure the prompt, thorough and impartial investigation and, if warranted, prosecution of all alleged crimes relating to human rights violations and serious violations of international humanitarian law, including for long-standing emblematic cases.
In its 2020 List of Issues for the authorities in relation to the ICCPR, the Human Rights Committee asked for a response to
reports of interference with the exercise of freedom of peaceful assembly, including intimidation of families and activists against organizing and participating in memorial ceremonies for persons who have disappeared, the allegedly biased and routine use of court injunctions to prevent assemblies, and disproportionate force against protesters, including the use of water cannon and tear gas.
In its Concluding Observations on Sri Lanka published in 2017, the Committee against Torture stated that it remained
seriously concerned at consistent reports from national and United Nations sources, including the Special Rapporteur on torture, indicating that torture is 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.
The Committee was also concerned
that the broad police powers to arrest suspects without a court warrant has led to the practice of detaining persons while conducting the investigations as a means to obtain information under duress. The Committee notes allegations that police investigators often fail to register detainees during the initial hours of deprivation of liberty or to bring them before a magistrate within the time limit prescribed by law, during which time torture is particularly likely to occur.Committee against Torture, Concluding Observations on Sri Lanka, UN doc. CAT/C/LKA/CO/5, 27 January 2017, §9.
The Committee further expressed concern
at credible reports indicating that the practice of so-called “white van” abductions of Tamils has continued in the years following the end of the armed conflict. The Committee notes allegations of this practice documented by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Investigation on Sri Lanka during the period 2002-2011 as well as by non-governmental organizations, which have identified 48 sites where torture allegedly occurred or which were used as transit points to torture locations between 2009 and 2015.Committee against Torture, Concluding Observations on Sri Lanka, UN doc. CAT/C/LKA/CO/5, 27 January 2017, §11.
The Committee urged Sri Lanka to ensure "that all allegations of unlawful detention, torture and sexual violence by security forces are promptly, impartially and effectively investigated by an independent body" and "that no one is detained in unofficial detention facilities, as this practice is per se a breach of the Convention".Committee against Torture, Concluding Observations on Sri Lanka, UN doc. CAT/C/LKA/CO/5, 27 January 2017, §12.
In 2014, the Human Rights Committee, in its Concluding Observations on Sri Lanka, expressed its concern
about reports of the unlawful use of force and violations of the right to life by State agents and/or by paramilitary groups, including extrajudicial killings, deaths in custody, enforced disappearances and disproportionate civilian casualties at the end of the conflict. In that context, it is also concerned at the continued lack of effective investigations and prosecutions of perpetrators of human rights violations, including those relating to the 2006 killings that took place in the towns of Muthur and Trincomalee.Human Rights Committee, Concluding Observations on Sri Lanka, UN doc. CCPR/C/LKA/CO/5, 21 November 2014, §14.
The Committee called on Sri Lanka to take "all measures necessary to vigorously investigate all allegations of unlawful use of force and violations of the right to life promptly, transparently and impartially, with the aim of bringing those responsible to justice by prosecution and punishment, and provide adequate remedies to victims and their relatives."Human Rights Committee, Concluding Observations on Sri Lanka, UN doc. CCPR/C/LKA/CO/5, 21 November 2014, §14.
In the Sanjeevan case before the Human Rights Committee,Human Rights Committee, Sanjeevan v. Sri Lanka, Views (Comm. No. 1436/05), 8 July 2008.the authors’ son, Sathasivam
Sanjeevan, had been arrested by the Sri Lankan police without apparent reason. When his parents visited him in police custody, he was in poor physical health and he alleged he had been tortured. Four days after his arrest, the parents found their son’s body in the morgue. The previous night, the police had told them to go to the hospital. An inquest concluded that Mr Sanjeevan had died of gunshot wounds.
The police claimed he had been injured in crossfire when the convoy transferring him to another police station had come under attack from Tamil Tiger rebels. The Sri Lankan authorities themselves did not believe the police officers’ account but took only disciplinary measures against them. The Human Rights Committee found that the right to life under Article 6 of the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights had been violated:
As to the claim under article 6 that the death of the victim is directly attributable to the State party, the Committee recalls that according to the uncontested material the victim was in normal health before being taken into police custody, where he was shortly thereafter seen by eyewitnesses suffering substantial and severe injuries. The alleged reasons for his subsequent death, namely that he died during an LTTE [Tamil Tiger] attack, have been dismissed by the State party’s own judicial and executive authorities. In these circumstances, the Committee must give due weight to the presumption that injury and, a fortiori, death – suffered in custody must be held to be attributable to the State party itself.Human Rights Committee, Sanjeevan v. Sri Lanka, Views (Comm. No. 1436/05), 8 July 2008, §6.2.
In the instant case, the State party’s own authorities dismissed the explanation for the victim’s death advanced by the police in whose custody the victim died, and its judicial authorities directed criminal proceedings against the offending police officers. In the absence of any explanation by the State party and in view of the detailed evidence placed before it, the Committee must conclude that the Attorney-General’s decision not to initiate criminal proceedings in favour of disciplinary proceedings was clearly arbitrary and amounted to a denial of justice. The State party must accordingly be held to be in breach of its obligations under articles 6 and 7 to properly investigate the death and torture of the victim and take appropriate action against those found guilty.Human Rights Committee, Sanjeevan v. Sri Lanka, Views (Comm. No. 1436/05), 8 July 2008, §6.4.
There is no regional human rights treaty to which Sri Lanka is a party.
On 17 June 2016, President Maithripala Sirisena issued directions requiring the Security Forces and the Police to ensure that fundamental rights of persons arrested or detained are respected, and that such persons are treated humanely; and to assist and facilitate the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka to exercise and perform its powers, functions and duties.
In 2019, Sri Lanka reported that, since January 2015, there were three cases reported on custodial torture and 13 cases of custodial deaths. The Special Investigation Unit of the Sri Lanka Police has conducted the initial inquiry into all 16 cases, and of the 13 cases of custodial deaths, disciplinary action has been taken against the perpetrators in seven cases. Moreover, judicial proceedings have been commenced against the perpetrators in five cases. Upon the initial inquiry, it has been noted that one incident of custodial death amounted to a case of self-defence. Of the three cases of custodial torture, one case was ongoing at the Colombo Magistrates Court, and two cases were awaiting indictments at the Attorney General’s Department.