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FOCUS December 2001 Volume 26

The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka

S. Wijegoonawardena

The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka was established in March 1997 under the Human Rights Commission Act No. 21 of 1996. The first three months were devoted to preparatory work. Actual operations commenced from July 1997 when the Head Office of the Commission was set up.

The enabling Act of Parliament gave the Commission a mandate which combines the functions of two other institutions which preceded it, i.e., the Commission for the Elimination of Discrimination and Monitoring of Human Rights, and the Human Rights Task Force. The Commission is, however, vested with more powers and responsibilities.

The activities of the Commission are carried out from its Head Office and the ten regional offices spread throughout the country. The mandate of the Commission is couched in relatively broad terms. It provides for

  1. A complaint-based jurisdiction (power to dispose complaints regarding alleged violations of human rights caused by Executive and administrative action)
  2. A proactive (role) function
    1. Review of legal procedures to ensure compliance with the Constitutional guarantees of fundamental rights;
    2. Advise the government in formulating legislation and administrative procedures for the protection of fundamental rights and ensuring that existing and proposed legislation conform with international human rights norms, etc.;
    3. Undertake human rights awareness activities.

The first Board of Management of the Commission (consisting of a Chairperson and four members) was preoccupied with the resolution of complaints relating to alleged violations of fundamental rights contained in Chapter Three of the Constitution of Sri Lanka. A greater a part of these complaints relate to allegations of human rights violations such as deprivation of personal liberty, unlawful arrest and detention, torture, and inhuman and degrading treatment.

The activities of the Commission are carried out in the context of an on-going internal armed conflict in the Northern and Eastern parts of the country. Two concomitant factors exist, namely, military security operations and the police work under the Emergency Regulations (ER) and the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).

In these circumstances, the Commission tries to

  1. Safeguard human rights and minimize their derogation in an emergency/conflict situation.
  2. Protect and promote human rights to meet the challenges and constraints of a multi-ethnic society.
  3. Pay attention to disadvantaged/vulnerable groups to facilitate full enjoyment of their human rights.

The Commission regularly receives complaints of alleged violations of fundamental rights. The average annual inflow of complaints during the last three years is about three thousand six hundred cases. About forty percent of these complaints relate to violations of rights of the government employees mainly by denial of right to equal protection of the law or equality before the law. Other complaints relate to alleged violations by members of the police and the armed forces. Most of these complaints relates to enforcement of the PTA and ER. Some allegations are of a serious nature and include illegal arrest and detention, abduction, torture, homicide, and disappearances.

The highest number of complaints received by the Commission relate to arbitrary arrest and detention. This number exceeds two thousand cases a year. Majority of them are received from areas suffering from internal armed conflict in the northern and eastern parts of the country.

The Commission also receives complaints relating to torture. These range from complaints of simple assault to more brutal forms of physical violence while in custody. Cases of simple injury as a general rule are settled at the preliminary inquiry stage giving some measure of relief to the victims. More serious cases are inquired fully and the findings are reported to the relevant authorities and to the Attorney General where appropriate.

The victims in some cases have gone before the Supreme Court and obtained relief in the form of compensation. In many cases, the compensation was borne by the State. But in a couple of cases, the respondents (government officials) were made to pay compensation personally.

The Commission has also investigated cases of deaths while in the custody of the government authorities. Two important cases investigated by the Commission are the killing of twenty-seven detainees in a rehabilitation camp at Bidunuwewa (Bandarawela) and the killing of a prison inmate at Kalutara Prison.

The investigation officers of the Commission regularly visit police stations and detention centers to monitor their condition under the powers vested with the Commission. The Commission set up a twenty-four hour telephone "Hotline" to enable the public to reach it with complaints requiring prompt intervention such as unlawful arrest, detention, etc. The Commission Act requires every person who arrests or detains another under the PTA or ER to make a report to the Commission in any case not later than forty-eight hours from such arrest or detention.

The Commission also holds regular meetings with the police and armed forces officials to discuss important issues relating to alleged human rights violations concerning those agencies. A directive has been issued by the President of Sri Lanka, as the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, ordering those agencies to cooperate with the Commission.

All these measures have contributed to reducing human rights violations in the country.

During the last one and a half years, the Commission has addressed the problem of several special population groups, namely, internally displaced persons (IDPS), migrant workers and the disabled persons. It called the attention of the relevant government authorities on some problems faced by these groups. A project has been formulated by the Commission with the assistance of the Colombo office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to address the grievances of the IDPS based on the studies carried out jointly by human rights NGOs and the UNHCR.

The regional officers of the Commission carried out a series of education and awareness activities during the last four years. These activities were held based on the belief that creating rights consciousness among the government personnel (including members of the police and the armed forces) and the public could help reduce human rights violations. Several NGOs are involved in these activities. As a concerted national effort, the Commission recently started to implement a national human rights education program to improve the human rights situation in the country.

Given the limited resources of the Commission, it had not been able to pay adequate attention to other functions or mandate. Improvement of systems and procedures of the Commission itself, review of legislation for compliance with fundamental rights principles and international human rights norms, and research and education are important areas needing more attention.

The Commission has also not been able to keep pace with the inflow of complaints. Inadequacy of trained professional staff is one major constraint faced. Hence a restructuring program, with a view to strengthening the institution, is now in progress.

A special project for review of legislation has been formulated with funding assistance from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) office in Colombo. The review of relevant legislation could be completed within the next two years under this project.

The Commission is also following a policy of collaboration with the human rights NGOs in the country. An action plan is being drawn up as a follow up to the outcome of the 6th Annual Meeting of the Asia Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions held in September 2001 in Colombo. Several important human rights protection and promotion activities under the action plan will be carried out by the Commission with the participation of the NGOs in the country.

Recently, the Parliament of Sri Lanka passed the 17th Amendment to the country's Constitution which provides for the setting up of several independent Commissions in the country. The Constitutional Council which will be set up shortly will comprise of representatives nominated by all recognized political parties in the country. This Council will appoint the Chairpersons and the members of seven commissions including the Elections Commission, Public Service Commission, National Police Commission, and the Human Rights Commission.

It is widely believed that these Commissions will provide the required impetus to strengthen democracy and improve the human rights situation in the country .

In the meantime, a new political front (The United National Front) led by the United National Party has come to power. This party introduced the present Constitution of Sri Lanka (1978) during its last tenure of office (1977 to 1994). The fundamental rights provisions currently in force are contained in Chapter 3 of this Constitution.

It is incumbent upon the new government, in line with its mandate and the declared policy, to work towards lasting peace and the strengthening democracy and human rights in Sri Lanka.

Problems and challenges

One of the main problems of the Commission from inception is the continued influx of a large number of complaints on alleged violations of fundamental rights. During the first few months, the Commission was ill-equipped to cope with the workload for want of required trained staff. This resulted in a backlog of work. The following steps were taken by the Commission to tackle the problem:

  1. recruitment of more senior staffmembers who can inquire into the complaints;
  2. engagement of the services of professionals outside the Commission on a part-time basis;
  3. holding of education and awareness activities for public officials, including members of the police and the armed forces, as preventive measure .

The Commission suffers from shortage of funds. The government has not been providing adequate budget to the Commission as required by the Commission Act. The Commission has to seek financial support from donor agencies such as The Asia Foundation, UNHCR, and the UNDP offices in Colombo to fund some of the its programs.

The Commission also suffers from the inability of its members to do full-time work. All of them work part-time because of their obligations in other organizations or their professional work.

A restructuring program is now going on to address these organizational deficiencies and the accumulated work.

The Commission faces also the problem of non-compliance by some public authorities with its decisions or recommendations. The Commission has no power to enforce its own decisions. The Commission is still considering ways of addressing the problem at present .

In sum, the Commission is confronted with the great challenge of performing its functions and meeting public expectations while saddled with these problems.

Mr. S. Wijegoonawardena is a Consultant of the Commission. He was formerly its Secretary-General.

For more information please contact: Mr. S. Wijegoonawardena, c/o The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, No. 36, Kynsey Road, Colombo 8, Sri Lanka, ph (941) 694-925 ; 696-470; fax (941) 694-924; e-mail: "Secretary-Human Rights Commission S.L." <sechrc@sltnet.lk>

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