Sri Lanka No. 1 Human Rights Violator in South Asia

SAARC urged to draft regional human rights mechanism

New Delhi: 

The Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR) today releases a comparative assessment of the human rights records of South Asian governments.

The South Asia Human Rights Index 2008 finds that under the ACHR’s index scoring system Sri Lanka (with 52 points) is the worst human rights violator in South Asia followed by Bangladesh (45), Bhutan (43), Pakistan (41), Maldives (23), Nepal (24) and India (24). Afghanistan has not been included for indexing purpose. Afghanistan’s security is ensured by international forces over which the government of Afghanistan has no mechanism to establish accountability - a necessary condition for indexing.

The indexing system is based on comparative assessment of nine thematic issues crucial for the enjoyment of human rights: political freedom, right to life, judiciary and administration of justice, status or effectiveness of National Human Rights Institutions, press freedom, violence against women, violations of the rights of the child, violations of the rights of the minorities and indigenous/tribal peoples and repression on human rights defenders.

While Sri Lanka is the worst in the region, the report also underlines that all countries in the region have very poor records. The regional analysis also shows a high level of commonality in human rights patterns. Discrimination is endemic, institutionalised and in many cases legalised. Human rights violations are integral to counter-insurgency operations conducted by the military and para-military forces. Human rights violations are routinely perpetrated in detention. Security laws tend to be poorly framed, routinely abused and used as blanket cover to silence legitimate dissent rather than tackle security.

These facts are not the assertions of Asian Centre for Human Rights but repeatedly confirmed by national, regional and international NGOs, bar associations, media organisations and the various UN bodies established to monitor human rights.

South Asia requires reforms: (i) reform of archaic and punitive criminal and penal laws and the regime of sovereign immunity for the government and its personnel; and (ii) reform of the official mindset with regard to human rights.

Reform will not happen if human rights violations, committed both by the security forces and armed groups, are not promptly, thoroughly, independently and impartially investigated and those responsible brought to justice, the system which allowed them to commit those crimes remains intact.

South Asia is becoming increasingly a victim to internal conflicts as a result of the failure to reform where impunity to the security forces and the Armed Opposition Groups is the rule.

Sri Lanka: No. 1 Violator 

With 52 points, Sri Lanka is South Asia’s worst human rights violator. Sri Lanka had the worst human rights records for violations of the right to life, the rights of the child, attacks on human rights defenders and violations of the rights of the minorities. On press freedom, it ranked second worst violator only after Bhutan – which has no independent press.  These increased violations are a direct consequence of the war. Civilians in Sri Lanka are deliberately targeted by all sides to the conflict.

“Discrimination lies at the heart of the war with the Tamils and the introduction of restrictions on Tamils travelling to Colombo are a powerful symbol of government intent. The political ramifications of the exclusion - not least in terms of prospects for a peaceful settlement of the conflict - of an entire ethnic group from the nation’s capital are of deep concern.” – stated ACHR.

In Sri Lanka, attacks on freedom of expression were of particular concern and led the killing of seven journalists in 2007. 

There are no precise figures on the number of civilians killed because reporting on war is banned.

“The beginning of any solution is good information. Not only is Sri Lanka’s conflict resulting in systematic violations of human rights of civilians, but by deliberately oppressing journalists and freedom of expression, this measure closes off any means for the government to have access to independent information and understand the extent of the problem and the negative consequences of its own actions.” - said Suhas Chakma, Director of the Asian Centre for Human Rights.

In April 2007, Police Chief Victor Perera stated that the Police have to go beyond the law to combat crime.

“This is an extraordinarily dangerous and irresponsible instruction to a police force with a reputation for high levels of discrimination, human rights violation and disregard for the rule of law”.

The results are there: disappearances began to rise  again: 540 persons disappeared across Sri Lanka from January to August 2007 with ethnic Tamils suffering disproportionately –78.89% compared with 1.85% (Sinhalese) and 3.52% (Muslims) with 50% of the cases being reported from Jaffna district alone.

“Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Commission became the first one in South Asia to be downgraded to Observer Status by the International Coordinating Committee of National Institutions the international body governing National Human Rights Institutions citing government influence on its independence. The Sri Lankan Human Rights Commission is the worst one in South Asia”

“In no other South Asian country, so many human rights defenders have been killed. By September 2007, at least 43 aid workers were killed and 14 others were missing in Sri Lanka since the escalation of the conflict.” – asserted Mr Chakma.

Sri Lanka has the highest number of child soldiers in South Asia with 6,248 recorded cases of recruitment of by the LTTE and 453 cases by the Tamileela Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP), the Karuna faction.  “It is government policy to allow the Karuna group and the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) to recruit child soldiers.” – stated ACHR.

Bangladesh: The land of Kangaroo justice

With 46 points, Bangladesh was ranked No. 2 human rights violator in the region. On political freedom, Bangladesh scores the worst in the region with an effective ban on politics. In the first 10 months of 2007, a total of 440,684 people had been arrested and of these, only 239,480 were issued arrest warrants. Only 778 were wanted by the police for criminal offences.

The Rapid Action Battalion and other security forces carried out 184 in so-called “cross-fire” killings – a euphemism for extrajudicial killings.  The use of torture in Bangladesh is routine. Impunity for human rights violations is total.
 
Bangladesh is the only country where any law i.e. Emergency Powers Rules of 2007 have been applied retroactively – a non-derogable principle in the administration of justice under international human rights law.

On press freedom, the government arrested numerous journalists in cases that raised serious concerns over the application of the law.

Indigenous/tribal peoples and minorities continued to be the target of attacks by the majority and the State. The government has intensified illegal settlement of plain settlers into the Chittagong Hill Tracts. The extent of the discrimination is hard to believe. A new study by Dhaka University showed that some 1.2 million or 44 per cent of the 2.7 million Hindu households in Bangladesh were affected by the Enemy Property Act, 1965 and the Vested Property Act, 1974. Effectively the law is empowered to describe 2.7 million innocent citizens as ‘enemies of the State’ and if they so wish seize their properties.

Human rights activists were subject to surveillance. Those defenders from or working with indigenous and minority communities were the subject of particular harassment.  The government has failed to punish the guilty responsible for the custodial killing of indigenous Garo leader, Choles Ritchil in March 2007.

Pakistan: PEMRA, the most draconian press regulatory body in South Asia

The human rights situation in Pakistan deteriorated in 2007 as President Musharraf increased repression in an attempt to retain position and power. In 2007 Hundreds of people have been disappeared. Arbitrary and incommunicado detention and torture in detention remained routine. Impunity for human rights violations remained very high.

Pakistan’s judiciary receives praise in the Index for standing up to repression and maintaining its independence by striking down the suspension of Justice Ifthikar Muhammed Chaudhry, taking suo motu actions against disappearances and rescuing many victims of illegal detentions by bailiffs/ raid commissioners/ lower court judges.

“In South Asia, the Indian judiciary has always demonstrated the highest levels of independence but in 2007, it must gracefully yield to the Pakistan’s judiciary for its struggles against oppression.”- stated ACHR.

On press freedom, Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) was the most draconian press regulatory body in South Asia. At least six journalists were killed, one disappeared after abduction and many were attacked by law enforcement agencies, political activists and fundamentalists groups in 2007.

Pakistan’s systematic discrimination against half of its population - women – continued. Apart from being legalized discrimination for the offences of Zina (Enforcement of Hudood Ordinance of 1979), honour killings and rape of women at the order of jirga (traditional court) were common. Between January and December 2007, at least 1,305 people including 792 women and 34 minor girls were victims of honour killings.

Pakistan continued systematic and legalised discrimination against religious minorities. Religious minorities particularly Hindus and Christians, and Ahmadiya sect of Islam were targeted under blasphemy laws. In 2006, 90 cases of blasphemy were reported. Out of these, only 48 were registered with the police in which 27 accused were Muslims, 10 Christians and 11 Ahmadis.

Bhutan: India underwrites racism

Bhutan made gains over past years but the watershed development for allowing two-party guided democracy in Bhutan was discredited by the ban on 70,000 alleged “foreigners”, ethnic Nepalese, to participate in the mock elections held in 2007.

On the judiciary, the King of Bhutan not only remained the absolute authority to grant pardon, appoint and dismiss judges but of the five new judges appointed in 2006, three were senior civil servants who have no legal background.

On press freedom too, Bhutan was the worst performer. Bhutan   allowed the registration of two private newspapers - The Bhutan Times and The Bhutan Observer.  In June 2007, the “www.bhutantimes.com” website was blocked from viewing in Bhutan.

India underwrites Bhutan’s racism. In May 2008, India prevented “Long March” of Bhutanese refugees to Bhutan at least one refugee youth identified as Saha Bahadur Dewan was shot dead and at least 100 others were injured by India’s security forces.

Maldives: A judicial belief that children are willing partners in gang rape 

Though Maldives has been making slow but perceptible progress towards democracy since 2005, the independence of judiciary remains the Maldives weakest point.

President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom not only remains effective head of the Judiciary but also decisions of the Courts were atrocious when it came to rape. The sentences were extraordinarily lenient when it came to rape and in no sense reflected the gravity of the crime. The punishment for rape is banishment to an island and not imprisonment.

On 31 January 2007, a 12-year-old girl was gang raped by four men after breaking into her home at Kurendhoo in Lhaviyani Atoll. However, the four accused were cleared of rape and the judge sentenced them to eight months exile for sex outside marriage in July 2007. The Judge noted in his ruling that: “the girl had reached puberty” and claimed “she was a willing partner,” because she had not screamed, struggled or told her sister-in-law or step mother about the event.

“President Gayoom did nothing as the head of the judiciary to overrule such atrocious judgments” – stated Mr Suhas Chakma.

On press freedom, the Maldives remain repressive. It attempted to bring flawed Draft Bill on Freedom of the Press. A number of journalists were arrested and assaulted by the security forces.

Nepal: Non-State actors are responsible for more violations

In 2007 human rights remained more positive than during the conflict. The biggest concern in Nepal was not so much state violation but rather de facto absence of state; an absence that in 2007 facilitated political violence by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) and the proliferation of armed groups and violence in the Terai.

The Maoists and Mahdesi armed oppositions groups were responsible for more violations than the security forces in 2007.

On the right to life, Nepal performed poorly. Nepalese NGOs estimates 33 persons were killed by the security forces in 2007. The Maoists and Mahdesi armed opposition groups were also responsible for significant numbers of killings.  Torture remains systematic in Nepal.

“Nepal’s peace is not a given. Nepal lives under the shadow of a highly politicised anti-democratic Army, the Peoples Liberation Army and the Youth Communist League and a host of other armed criminal gangs who are not accountable to anyone except themselves.” – stated Asian Centre for Human Rights.

In the absence of state in 2007, the United Nations Mission to Nepal (UNMIN) and Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights played critical role to the peace process, confidence building and addressing human rights violations.

“However there is a vested interest at work against the UNMIN and OHCHR’s missions. This is a dangerous strategy given the high potential of the situations in Nepal deteriorating into wider conflict to the detriment of long term and durable peace” – stated ACHR.

India: Booming economy’s booming conflicts threaten rights

India is the best human rights performer in South Asian region because of the existence of institutional mechanisms.  However, its record on human rights continued to be poor.

India continued to fail to ensure political freedom and inclusion to vulnerable groups like Dalits, Sikhs, who migrated from Pakistan to Jammu and Kashmir in 1947 and the Chakmas and Hajongs of Arunachal Pradesh.

“India records high number of cases of blatant violations of the right to life through custodial deaths, fake encounter killings, torture and killings through the disproportionate use of fire-arms. From 1 April 2007 to 31 December 2007, a total of 1,459 cases of custodial deaths were registered. It implies over 5 persons were killed in custody every day.

“It is impunity which directly contributes to such large-scale custodial deaths”. – Stated Mr Chakma.

India’s National Human Rights Commission has failed to reduce custodial deaths. It suffers from credibility crisis due to statutory limitations and operational flaws.  NHRC is facing nine writ petitions from Asian Centre for Human Rights for denying the opportunity of hearing to the victims and complainants.

Vulnerable groups like Dalits and indigenous/tribal peoples continued to face gross human rights violations. The National Crime Records Bureau reported that a total of 5,791 cases were registered for atrocities against Scheduled Tribes in 2006 compared to 5,713 cases in 2005. This means an increase of 1.4% in 2006 from 2005. During the same period, 27,070 cases were also registered for atrocities against the Scheduled Castes.

“Asian Centre for Human Rights considers these statistics as inaccurate and just tip of the iceberg.  After all, the National Crime Records Bureau absurdly reported that 2 custodial rape cases in 2006, 7 in 2005 and 2 in 2004 despite reports of rape pouring in on regular basis”. – stated Mr Suhas Chakma

“What is most disturbing is that children are increasingly being used by the State and the AOGs in armed conflict situations. It is not only in Chhattisgarh, it is increasingly becoming a feature in most conflict situations in India”.

The NCRB recorded a total of 18,967 cases of crimes against children reported in the country during 2006 as compared to 14,975 cases during 2005, reflecting an increase of 26.7%.

India also discriminates against tribal internally displaced persons. There are about 4,50,000 internally displaced persons as a result of conflict including about 200,000 Santhals, Bodos and Muslims, - 43,740 persons in 20 relief camps in Chhattisgarh,- 55,476 Kashmiri Pandit families and - 35,000 Brus of Mizoram sheltered in Tripura.

“The discrimination is clear and stark. Presently, Kashmiri pandits are provided cash assistance of Rs 1,000/- per head per month subject to a maximum of Rs 4,000/- per family per month both at Jammu and Delhi relief camps besides basic dry rations. This assistance has been proven to be inadequate. Yet, a Bru tribal adult gets cash of Rs 2.90 per day (i.e. Rs 87 per month) and a minor gets Rs 1.45 per day (i.e. Rs 43.5 per month) and 450 gram of rice is being provided to per adult Bru per day”.

The government of India and various State governments perpetrated similar discrimination against tribals displaced by development projects. Forcible displacement without justice and adequate compensation have been contributing to India’s growing conflicts whether in Nandigram of West Bengal or Tipaimukh of Manipur. Each Special Economic Zone and each Memoranda of Understanding signed with State governments for dams and other projects is a potential zone of conflict.

“Checks and balances in any democracy are neither static nor guaranteed. If not defended, protections weaken over time particularly when challenged by the demands of internal conflicts. India is facing a crisis of protection. The killing of 14 members of the anti-land acquisition Bhumi Uchhed Pratirodh Committee (Land Eviction Resistance Committee) in Nandigram, West Bengal on 14 March 2007 is emblematic of the crisis of protection and the conflicts gulfing India.” – warned Asian Centre for Human Rights.

Apart from strengthening the national mechanism to address such violations, Asian Centre for Human Rights recommends that 15th SAARC Summit  establish a working Group of Eminent Persons of South Asia to explore the possibility of drafting a South Asia Human Rights Convention with full and active participation of civil society groups and other stakeholders. ACHR also urges the National Human Rights Institutions in South Asia to emulate the role of their counterparts in South East Asia to establish a South Asia Sub-Regional human rights mechanism. 

[Ends]  

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