By Guest Writer Nishka Kapoor
Recently, the government of Sri Lanka published the new Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA), a new legislation intended to replace the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) of 1979. This is the second attempt to introduce a replacement bill, following the initial 2018 effort that was met with widespread criticism and subsequently rejected. The latest ATA has also drawn significant criticism nationally and internationally due to concerns regarding its non-compliance with human rights principles.
In early 2022, Sri Lanka faced a severe economic crisis which had a devastating impact on the Sri Lankan people. There is a shortage of essential goods and unprecedented levels of inflation. Millions of people were pushed into poverty, and there have been numerous anti-government demonstrations. In an attempt to quell dissent, the Sri Lankan government has proposed a new ATA Bill. This is because the country’s economic problems have triggered widespread protests against the government, and the administration has responded by detaining and arresting the protestors. With the ATA, the government would have more authority to repress opposition.
Broad Criteria and Ambiguous Terms
The new bill, much like its predecessors, suffers from a lack of clarity and fails to offer precise definitions for essential terms like terrorism and acts of terrorism. One glaring example of this ambiguity is the definition of what constitutes ‘terrorism.’ It includes under its ambit unlawful assemblies and anything that aims to incite the public. Further, the bill has included the death penalty under section 4(a) for broadly defined ‘terrorism offence of murder’, thus violating existing human rights norms.
In 2021, the UN independent expert on Human Rights and Counterterrorism outlined five essential requirements for the bill to meet international human rights standards in Sri Lanka, including the definition of terrorism, safeguarding against arbitrary detention, guarantees of due process and fair trials, etc. Unfortunately, the current ATA bill fails to meet any of these standards. Despite government assurances in February 2023 that capital punishment would not be implemented, the bill seeks to introduce it.
The provisions in the ATA bill are concerning because they could be misused by the government to oppress minorities. The Sri Lankan government has had a history of suppressing the Tamil and Muslim communities in the past. A UN report found that the government used the PTA to unlawfully detain and ban civil societies supporting minorities. With these harsher provisions in the ATA bill, the government could stifle demonstrations against it.
Concerns over Arbitrary Government Actions
The bill grants the president excessive powers over law-making, including the authority to ban organisations deemed threats to Sri Lanka’s national security, carrying a potential prison sentence of up to 3 years for violations. While the provision may seem reasonable prima facie, past arbitrary government actions against minority groups have raised scepticism. Previous bans on organisations affiliated with Muslim and Tamil populations, along with restrictions on their entry into certain areas, have fuelled concerns. Despite claims that the bill transfers powers to executives— the imbalance of power, lack of judicial oversight, and the president’s extensive powers under the 20th Amendment have drawn public criticism. There are fears that the wide authority granted by the bill could be misused against the historically marginalised Tamil minority in the country.
Further, the bill introduces concerning restrictions on the media, including section 11, which prohibits the publication and distribution of content related to terrorism. Although clause 9 allows for publication in good faith and public interest, it lacks media protection. This ambiguity raises serious concerns as it undermines press freedom and potentially suppresses crucial information for the public discourse. In the past, Tamil journalists have been imprisoned under the PTA on charges of defaming and inciting the populace against the government. Further, the bill’s lack of clear definition and objective criteria for determining what constitutes “material related to terrorism” have exacerbated the fears of press freedom erosion and information suppression.
All in all, the new ATA bill is concerning because of its potential misuse and impact on human rights. The backdrop of the bill shows the attempt by the government to consolidate power and silence opposition rather than a genuine effort to address terrorism while upholding human rights.