Sri Lanka: laws fail to protect minorities
The government of Sri Lanka ratified the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on 18th February 1982, and it entered into force on 20th March 1982. Upon ratifying the convention, national laws were imposed by the Sri Lankan government to enhance all citizens, including people belonging to minority groups. Unfortunately, legislation has done little to help the minorities, but instead has led to the discrimination against particular communities.
A decade after the independence, the government, to strengthen its administrative power, imposed the Sinhala only act of 1956. The language law rendered the majority Sinhala speaking community superior, while undermining the minorities. Unfortunately, this act directly affected minorities. For example, Tamils who were serving in the public service were compelled to write a Sinhala exam to obtain promotion or to join the civil service. This was criticized many times by the Tamil representatives and intellectuals and was a main cause of brutal war that continued for more than three decades.
Written documents and government circulars were printed only in Sinhala language and public servants neglect to serve minorities and often obstructed their rights. All citizens were compelled to obtain their birth certificates written in Sinhala language and often encountered problems when obtaining national identity card and passport, where the names were incorrectly written against their original names.
Carrying out human rights activities in the northern part of Sri Lanka is severely restricted by the government. Organizations in the Northern Province must obtain permission from Presidential Task Force and Ministry of Defense to implement their activities and permission is only given for infrastructure and livelihood activities. After defeating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE), the former LTTE strongholds are controlled by the Sri Lankan military. Lands belonging to Tamils were forcibly occupied by declaring high security zones. These lands are now being colonized gradually by Sinhalese.
Victims of the war have yet to be resettled on their land. Two years after the war, people are still living in the temporary shelters without any basic needs and government doesn’t pay any attention to the rights of minorities. But the government has built houses for the military, calling them tributes to ‘war heroes’ who defeated terrorism.
No more than three people are allowed gather at one place without informing the military. Sometimes two or three military personnel are present when organizations gather for formal discussions. Military members observe the dialog until the gathering ends. The military sometimes unpredictably raids gatherings and those gathered will be taken into custody and detained without reason. The existing draconian laws such as Prevention of Terrorism Act and Emergency Regulation have granted extra power and motivated the military to impose action against minorities.
Fisher folk in the North and East are restricted from practicing their livelihoods, because they have to obtain prior permission from the Sri Lanka Navy even when fishing within Sri Lankan territory. But Sinhalese fisher folks are not subject to any restrictions within the same boundary where Tamil fisher folks are not allowed to go.
Despite existing national laws that promote equality, minorities in Sri Lanka continue to be denied their rights.