Sri Lanka: Newly constituted Presidential Task Force threatens rule of law  

Sri Lanka: Newly constituted Presidential Task Force threatens rule of law  

The ICJ today condemned the proclamation by the Sri Lankan president to establish a Presidential Task Force dominated by the security forces and called for the proclamation to be rescinded.

On June 2, 2020, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa issued an extraordinary gazette establishing a 13-member “Presidential Task Force to build a Secure Country, Disciplined, Virtuous and Lawful Society.” The Task Force is composed entirely of military, intelligence and police officials. It is to be headed by Defence Secretary, Retired Major General Kamal Gunaratne.

“This Presidential Task Force constitutes another act of over-reach by a government seeking to take advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to further expand its powers,” said Frederick Rawski, ICJ’s Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific. “Its mandate is overbroad, and it empowers its military and police membership – including alleged war criminals – at a time when strong, independent, civilian-led policy-making is what is needed.”

The Task Force is given a sweeping mandate which includes:

  • “taking necessary immediate steps to curb the illegal activities of social groups which are violating the law”
  • “taking measures for prevention of the drug menace…”
  • “taking legal action against persons responsible for illegal and antisocial activities conducted in Sri Lanka while locating in other countries”
  • “investigating and preventing any illegal and antisocial activities in and around prisons.”

The task force also has the power to “conduct investigations and to issue directions as may be necessary in connection with the functions entrusted to it.” This includes issuing instructions to government officials to comply with its directives or be reported to the President.

The ICJ raised concerns that the task force has not been established on proper legal foundations. It is apparently pursuant to the broad, but ill-defined presidential powers under Article 33 of the Constitution.

The ICJ said that the task force could effectively usurp the powers and functions normally reserved for civilian authorities, under rule of law principles and as established by the Constitution and relevant enabling legislations.

Article 42 (1) of the Constitution provides that the “Cabinet of Ministers shall be charged with the direction and control of the Government.” Law enforcement and public officials under the direction of the relevant Minister have been designated under existing laws to specifically address drug-related offences and any other illegal and/ or criminal activity that seemingly fall within the mandate of this Task Force. The independence of public officials will be compromised if they are compelled to report to a military-dominated body.  The Gazette provides no detail on how this reporting process would operate, or the legal consequences of refusing to act as instructed.

“Few doubt that this task force will be used as another tool to suppress speech and target critics of the Sri Lankan government. It is disturbing that such a potentially consequential body has been formed pursuant to broad presidential powers, with no reference to judicial or parliamentary oversight,” said Rawski. “Vague and overbroad language such as ‘anti-social activities’ could effectively criminalize expression protected under international law. Such provisions are inconsistent with the rule of law and contravene the principle of legality.”

The task force’s military and police membership follows a pattern of recent military appointments to civil administrative positions by the incumbent President. The military personnel appointed include officials credibly accused of war crimes. Chairman Major General Kamal Gunaratne was the commander of the 53rd division and Major General Shavendra Silva was the commander of the 58th Division of the Sri Lankan Army. Both units were identified by multiple UN investigatory bodies as having been involved in the commission of serious crimes and human rights violations during the last stages of Sri Lanka’s decades-long armed conflict which ended in 2009.

The ICJ called upon President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to rescind the extraordinary gazette establishing the Presidential Task Force. The role of the military in public life must be strictly circumscribed and matters pertaining to civil administrcation should be executed by elected and public officials in respect of the rule of law and principles of democratic governance.

Contact

Frederick Rawski, ICJ’s Asia Pacific Regional Director, t: +66 2 619 84 77; e: frederick.rawski(a)icj.org

COVID-19: NGOs emphasize role of independent UN human rights experts

COVID-19: NGOs emphasize role of independent UN human rights experts

The ICJ has joined other NGOs in highlighting the contribution of independent UN human rights experts in ensuring that measures against COVID-19 are consistent with human rights.

The statement, delivered by Amnesty International on behalf of the group of NGOs in an informal online meeting of the UN Human Rights Council, read as follows:

“We thank the Coordination Committee for the update on the work undertaken by the Special Procedures to date to highlight the human rights impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As States undertake extraordinary measures to curb the spread of COVID-19, we recognize the good faith efforts of many States to effectively protect the right to life, the right to health and other human rights as well as the well-being of their populations, and to curb the spread of COVID-19. States must ensure that quality health services and goods necessary for prevention and care are accessible, available and affordable for all. Health workers and other front-line workers should be provided with adequate protective equipment, information, training and psycho-social support. Key health services, including sexual and reproductive health information and services, should be confirmed as essential services and their provision guaranteed.

We also recognize that in other contexts, States have used emergency powers to enact repressive measures that do not comply with the principles of legality, proportionality and necessity and that may have the effect or intention of suppressing criticism and minimizing dissent.

In this regard, we take heart at the Special Procedures statement that “[t]he COVID-19 crisis cannot be solved with public health and emergency measures only; all other human rights must be addressed too“.[1] We particularly value the vast and interconnected responses by the Special Procedures highlighting the wide-ranging effects of the pandemic itself, as well as of measures taken by states in the name of responding to the global health crisis.

The Special Procedures have addressed the impact on economic, social and cultural rights, such as the rights to health, housing, water and sanitation, food, work, social security, education, healthy environment and adequate standard of living, and to equality and non-discrimination as cross-cutting rights.

The Special Procedures have also highlighted the increased risks of people with underlying health conditions, older people, people who are homeless or in inadequate housing, people living in poverty, persons with disabilities, LGBTI people, children, migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers, people living in refugee or IDP camps, and people deprived of liberty. They have also highlighted the effects on women and girls, calling for responses to consider factors such as their “sex, gender, age, disability, ethnic origin, and immigration or residence status among others“.[2]

We also welcome the various tools that have been developed by some mandate holders, such as the COVID-19 Freedom Tracker, the Dispatches, video messages and guidelines in addition to the vast number of press releases.[3] Making these tools readily accessible to all stakeholders is critical, as is considering ways to receive feedback and share learnings about their application. We encourage the Special Procedures to continue to deepen their analyses of state responses, including through reports to the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly, and to offer guidance, through the tools mentioned, to states on how to respond to the crisis in a human rights compliant manner.

Last but not least, we urge UN member states to cooperate fully with the Special Procedures. While country visits are suspended for the time being, this should not be used as an excuse not to co-operate. We call on states to respond in a timely manner to communications from the Special Procedures and to seek technical and expert advice from relevant mandate holders in relation to draft legislation to ensure that these are in line with states’ obligations to respect, protect and fulfil all human rights.”

The statement was joined by the following organisations:

  • Amnesty International
  • Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)
  • Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS)
  • CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
  • Conectas Direitos Humanos
  • DefendDefenders (East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project)
  • Human Rights Law Centre
  • Human Rights Watch
  • ILGA World – The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (International Lesbian and Gay Association)
  • International Commission of Jurists
  • International Service for Human Rights

[1] https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=25746&LangID=E

[2] https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/SP/Pages/News.aspx

[3] https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/SP/Pages/COVID-19-and-Special-Procedures.aspx

 

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