An independent United Nations human rights expert said today that although Sri Lanka has measures in place to prevent torture, the brutal practice is widespread – an accusation disputed by a representative of the country’s Government.
“The high number of indictments for torture filed by the Attorney General’s Office, the number of successful fundamental rights cases decided by the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka, as well as the high number of complaints that the National Human Rights Commission continues to receive on an almost daily basis indicates that torture is widely practiced in Sri Lanka,” Manfred Nowak told the General Assembly committee dealing with social, humanitarian and cultural issues, known as the Third Committee.
“This practice is prone to become routine in the context of counter-terrorism operations,” Mr. Nowak, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, added.
Mr. Nowak said that during the course of his visit to the country from 1 to 8 October, he received “numerous consistent and credible allegations” from detainees who reported that they were ill-treated by the police to extract confessions, or to obtain information in relation to other criminal offences. Similar allegations were received with respect to the army.
Also addressing the Committee, Ambassador Prasad Kariyawasam of Sri Lanka said that his delegation respectfully differed with regard to the Special Rapporteur’s description of detainees’ conditions in Sri Lankan prisons which Mr. Novak had described as amounting to degrading treatment.
Overcrowding was caused by resource constraints, he said, adding that his country was mindful of its international obligations.
The Special Rapporteur, who works in an unpaid, independent capacity, said that in an effort to criminalize torture and bring perpetrators to justice, the Government enacted the 1994 Torture Act. While the significant number of indictments filed under the Act was encouraging, Mr. Nowak decried the fact that only three people have so far been convicted.
“Given the high standards of proof applied by the Supreme Court in torture related cases, it is regrettable that the facts established do not trigger more convictions by criminal courts,” he stated.
While the Government does not agree that torture is widely practiced, “I’m convinced and I think I have enough evidence for that,” Mr. Nowak told reporters after his address to the committee.
The Sri Lankan Ambassador said he also respectfully differed with regard to the statement about torture being widely practiced in Sri Lanka, and said that statistics had shown torture to be very rare. Nevertheless, he said Sri Lanka would take the Special Rapporteur’s recommendations into account, and welcomed initiatives towards technical assistance, he said.
The Ambassador thanked Mr. Novak for his work, and assured him of Sri Lanka’s commitment to full cooperation with the United Nations and his office and for constructive engagement to take care of all the Special Rapporteur’s recommendations.
Mr. Nowak added that the most serious allegations of human rights violations, including torture, relate to the ongoing conflict between the Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). But he noted that he was not in a position to speak about that since he was not able to visit detention facilities in army camps or those run by the LTTE.
In addition to Sri Lanka, Mr. Nowak has visited Paraguay, Nigeria and Togo in the last year. He is scheduled to visit Indonesia next month and Equatorial Guinea and Iraq early next year.