New UK Home Office guidance on Sri Lanka significantly downplays ongoing human rights violations
Photo by Will Baxter, for Proving Torture: Demanding the Impossible
Freedom from Torture is deeply concerned about new policy advice produced by the UK Government’s Home Office in respect of Sri Lanka.
The Country Policy and Information Note on “Sri Lanka: Tamil separatism”, published on 31 March 2017, emphasises improvements in the country since the election of President Sirisena in January 2015, but significantly downplays on-going human rights violations.
This is in stark contrast to the reports of the United Nations (UN) and of non-governmental organisations, and to a debate about Sri Lanka which took place only two weeks ago at the UN in Geneva.
Following a mission to Sri Lanka in 2016, the Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment concluded that a “culture of torture persists”, while the UN Committee against Torture found that torture remains routine.
The Home Office’s updated policy provides guidance for decision makers on handling particular types of protection and human rights claims, including for granting asylum, humanitarian protection or discretionary leave to remain in the UK. The policy guidance seeks to discredit reports of torture and ill-treatment on the grounds that such reports “use the term ‘torture’ to cover a very wide range of treatment ranging from forceful questioning or threats, through to the most severe forms of ill-treatment”.
In 2016, Sri Lanka was the top country of origin for torture survivors referred to Freedom from Torture for clinical services and medico-legal reports for the sixth consecutive year. These referrals include survivors of torture who have been detained since the current government took office.
Freedom from Torture has also identified a significant number of people who have reported being tortured on their return to Sri Lanka from the UK. In his report to the recent Human Rights Council meeting, the High Commissioner for Human Rights recognised this risk and called on states to ensure that Tamils who have suffered torture and other violations are not returned to Sri Lanka until relevant guarantees are in place to ensure that they will be not subject to further violations.
This is another area where the Home Office appears determined to minimise the risk to those who may return to the country. Contrary to Freedom from Torture’s evidence, Home Office guidance suggests that the Sri Lankan police are not interested in a person’s possible links to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), but rather whether the person committed a criminal act and used false documents to leave the country.
Freedom from Torture is calling for an urgent review of the guidance to avoid individuals being wrongly returned to face torture or ill-treatment.
Ann Hannah, Director of Policy and Advocacy at Freedom from Torture, said:
“This guidance is misleading at best, if not downright dangerous. Sri Lanka has been criticised by a number of human rights bodies and organisations in the last year, including the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and the UN Committee against Torture. There is every possibility that decisions based on the new Country Guidance will result in people at risk of torture being denied protection and returned to Sri Lanka, in violation of the UK’s obligations under international law.
“The Home Office has selectively quoted UN reports and our research and evidence to produce an inaccurate picture of the human rights situation and the government of Sri Lanka’s willingness to address abuses including torture at the hands of state agents. The Guidance must be reviewed as a matter of urgency to ensure that it accurately reflects the human rights situation in Sri Lanka.”