Within days after successfully hoodwinking the international community, especially its European allies, in regaining the GSP+ trade concessions, Sri Lanka has got unanimous cabinet approval last week to repeal and replace the existing Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) with another draconian one.
Despite making repeated pledges at international forums including the UN Human Rights Council that the Counter Terrorism Act (CTA) would be in tandem with the best international standards and practices pertaining to anti-terror legislation, the proposed act is worse than the PTA in its spirit and words.
It seeks to give excessive powers to the executive, military, and police in the name of preventing and countering terrorism, without proper checks and balances, thus grossly ignored numerous observations and recommendations by UN treaty bodies in relation to the PTA.
Even as Sri Lankan delegation led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe held several rounds of talks the European Members of Parliament, Commissioners and Ambassadors on regaining the GSP+ trade concessions, both local and international human rights activists have been warning that CTA was not appropriate to Sri Lanka’s post-war environment, nor with a reasonable assessment of proposed terror threats.
Noting that the government’s consultations with the UN had been “shrouded in secrecy” and prioritised over consultations with the Sri Lankan public, they urged Sri Lankan government to share with local people the information and documents that had been shared with the UN on proposed CTA. But it was never made public.
Still, Sri Lanka was successful in winning a crucial resolution against granting GSP+ trade preferences at the European Union parliament on April 27.
The resolution that urged the EU parliament not to offer Sri Lanka the single-market trade preferences until it tangibly make progress in addressing the human rights situation, was defeated by 436 to 119 votes.
Obviously, Maithri-Ranil government hailed the outcome as one that fulfilled an important election promise domestically.
“The cabinet approval for the new counter terrorism legislation certainly helped to thwart the last minute attempt to block us from getting the concession, but the more up-to-date piece of legislation has the right balance between internationally defined terrorism and the protection of rights of individuals,” Deputy Foreign Minister Dr. Harsha de Silva, who directly witnessed the resolution defeat in Brussels, told a news conference in Colombo on the very next day.
In fact, Minister de Silva led an inter-party parliamentary delegation, which included a Wanni district MP from the main opposition Tamil National Alliance (TNA) to Brussels to campaign for Sri Lanka while on a three-day study tour.
It is this CTA that has come under mounting criticism again.
CTA curtails civil liberties: TNA
Ironically, the TNA which supported Sri Lanka at the UNHRC to get two-year extension to implement the UN resolution, was the first to condemned the cabinet approval for the CTA.
Issuing a statement, the TNA said that the party was “deeply concerned over the cabinet approval for the policy and framework for the proposed CTA” and warned that the protection of the rights of “our citizens—particularly given the legacy of horrific past abuses – should not be sacrificed on the altar of trade concessions.
“We are shocked by the extent of which the draft framework curtails civil liberties, erodes judicial control over the state security apparatus and the staggering potential for abuse and torture. We are unequivocally committed to supporting a legal framework that would prevent and punish acts of terrorism in a manner that’s lawful, in compliance with fundamental rights and the rule of law,” party spokesman M.A Sumanthiran said in the statement.
Claiming that it was deeply perturbed by the turn the government’s latest draft has taken, the TNA said that the proposed definition of terrorism in the CTA “would extend far beyond activities defined internationally as terrorism, replicating restrictions on free speech that have previously been used to punish dissenting voices including politicians and journalists such as Asath Sally and J.S Tissainayagam among others”.
Chilling effect on free speech
Meanwhile, local and international human rights have said that Sri Lankan cabinet’s approval the CTA “is further confirmation of the state’s unwillingness to meet its obligations on human rights, to its citizens and the international community”.
In a joint statement, the Adayaalam Centre for Policy Research (Jaffna, Sri Lanka), International Truth and Justice Project (Johannesburg, South Africa), People for Equality and Relief in Lanka (Washington DC, United States of America), Sri Lanka Campaign (London, United Kingdom) and Tamil Civil Society Forum (North-East Sri Lanka) recalled how the successive Sri Lankan governments have misused of the 1978 PTA “to quash dissent and penalize resistance to the state”.
They said after the current Sri Lankan government committed in UN resolution to repeal the PTA and replace it with anti-terrorism legislation in line with contemporary international best practice, the EU Parliament Trade Committee (INTA) wrote to Prime Minister Wickremesinghe on April 7, stating their expectation that the government table legislation to replace the PTA, in “full compliance with international standards”, prior to the granting of the GSP+ trade concessions.
“The latest draft is a failure in these respects. Rather than reining in the PTA’s overly broad definition of terror, the CTA expands upon it, criminalising any activities that threaten the “unity” of Sri Lanka,” the joint statement said.
“Under this definition, the potential for local activists collecting and transmitting information about human rights abuses being accused of engaging in and being tried for terrorist activities is real,” the it said, stressing that Sri Lanka’s past history bears witness to such uses of the PTA and emergency regulations.
Given that resolution against granting GSP+ to Sri Lanka being defeated with a big margin, it’s almost confirmed that Sri Lanka will get European Union trade preferences without making any improvement on its human rights track record. Why should they?