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Tamils still at risk, UN Special Rapporteur warns international community

Author: Abigail Fisher

The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture has published a damning report of his visit to Sri Lanka in 2016. The report urges States not to return people fleeing persecution, particularly Tamils, to Sri Lanka.

According to the latest report by a top UN envoy, Tamils and other individuals forcibly returned to Sri Lanka could face ‘white van abductions’ and forms of torture including sexual violence.
In the report, published on 25 January 2017, the Rapporteur urges the international community to stop returning Tamils to Sri Lanka where they will be at risk of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and punishment.

Ongoing challenges

The UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Juan E. Méndez, went to Sri Lanka in early 2016 to assess recent developments and identify challenges within the national justice system.

Méndez and his team conducted a number of interviews and investigations there. While the practice of torture may be ‘less prevalent’ today than during the civil war, they concluded that a ‘culture of torture’ is still pervasive. This is true both in the regular Criminal Investigations Department and investigations falling under the controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).
Tamils and any individuals or families thought to be linked to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) are particularly at risk. The report identifies a ‘causal link”’between perceived threats to national security and the level of physical suffering inflicted during detention and interrogation under the PTA.

Key findings of the report

  • Torture and ill-treatment (including sexual violence) are most frequent in the early arrest and interrogation period. They are generally used to obtain confessions. These confessions are all too often accepted by the Sri Lankan courts with inadequate safeguards. ‘White van abductions’ by plain clothed officers also continue to occur in Sri Lanka.
  • People thought to be involved in terrorism or issues of national security (generally those of Tamil background or with perceived links to the LTTE) are much more likely to be detained and suffer more seriously. Those detained gave well-documented accounts of experiencing brutal methods of torture. These included beatings on the soles of the feet, burns, stress positions, asphyxiation,  the application of chilli powder to sensitive areas, and sexual torture.
  • The practice of systematic surveillance as a tool of control and intimidation continues. Those targeted include: those released from government rehabilitation programs; former detainees under the PTA and their families; political and human rights activists; and anyone with a perceived link to the LTTE. This would include individuals who have been forced to return to Sri Lanka after fleeing persecution and who are deemed to have links to the LTTE.
  • ‘Procedural norms’ allow for prolonged arbitrary detention and routine torture and ill-treatment by police.
  • Conditions of detention, whether in rehabilitation, remand or in prison, amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. There is ‘severe overcrowding, insufficient ventilation, excessive heat and humidity’. People detained are denied of adequate access to health care, education, vocational training and recreational activities.
  • Current legal frameworks and armed forces perpetuate the risk of torture. Urgent and comprehensive structural reform is needed to ensure authorities comply with international standards.

Domestic and international recommendations

The Special Rapporteur’s report recommends that the Sri Lankan government should immediately repeal the PTA. The government should enact legislation that safeguards against cruel or arbitrary arrest, interrogation and detention.

Méndez also urges Sri Lanka to ratify and implement the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, and other key international instruments. Other recommendations include ensuring minimum standards of conditions of detention, abolishing capital punishment, and amending the Police Act.
On the international level, Special Rapporteur Méndez makes two strong recommendations.

The first is that the international community support the timely implementation of the recommendations made in the report, as well as those made by other UN mechanisms.

The second is that the international community ensure that the principle of non-refoulement is upheld. The Special Rapporteur requests that persons fleeing persecution, particularly Tamils, are not returned to Sri Lanka. Méndez emphasises that this is necessary to respect article 3 of the Convention against Torture, making it a legal responsibility for many countries, including Australia.

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