Feature Article

UN child rights body criticises Sri Lanka

[TamilNet, Thursday, 12 June 2003, 17:59 GMT]
The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) said it is concerned that under Sri Lanka’s legal system societal discrimination persists against vulnerable groups of children, including children with disabilities, adopted children, children displaced by conflict, children infected with and affected by HIV/AIDS and children of ethnic groups and religions.

In its second report on Sri Lanka released on 6 June the CRC reiterated “serious concern that the minimum age of criminal responsibility, set at 8 years, is too low and that children between the age of 16 and 18 are considered by penal law as adults”. Human rights lawyers say the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) under which hundreds of Tamil children were arrested and detained remains a serious threat to child rights in the northeast.

Commenting on the report, Mr. Mudiappah Remadious, a human rights lawyer with the Centre for Human Rights and Development (CHRD), said: “The CRC should have taken a closer look at the PTA in relation to the rights of Tamil children. Punishment is mandatory regardless of age under the PTA’s provisions except section five. Furthermore, a person’s confession is the main basis for punishment under the law. The PTA says nothing about taking confessions from children. It is heinous”.

He cited two instances with which he was personally familiar. “Two boys aged 13 and 14 were held in the Kalutara maximum security prison. They had been arrested under and held under the Emergency Regulations (ER) and PTA. The latter was tortured in custody. The younger boy was an orphan. His father, a fisherman, was shot dead at sea by the Sri Lanka navy. The boy began going out to sea with his uncle to fend for his family as his mother too had died due to poverty and disease. The Navy arrested him at sea while he was fishing and sent him to Kalutara”. He declined to reveal the boys’ identities in view of their future safety.

The Colombo based human rights lawyer, Mr. Eugene Mariampillai said there were many instances of Tamil children who were arrested and detained along with their parents under the ER and PTA. He cited the case of Ms. Patkunam Sujatha as an example. She a mother of 2 children aged 6 and 3 was arrested at her home in Sithamparapuram in Vavuniya on 11 September 2000 by the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID) of the Sri Lanka Police from Colombo. She was five months pregnant at the time of arrest. Her three-year-old child was also detained with her at the TID in Colombo. Ms. Sujatha was given bail on 27/02/2001.

Tamil children have been held longer in maximum-security prisons with either or both parents he said.

The Sri Lanka Police arrested Lankeswaran Santhanakrishnan, a nine-year-old boy, along with his parents in Passara in the hill country district of Badulla on 11 December 2000. He was detained at the Passara Police station prison. He was released nine months later.

“The instances are numerous. But have not been recorded in the child rights perspective”, Mr. Mariampillai said.

“The power the Sri Lankan security forces have under the PTA to indiscriminately arrest parents along with their little children gave rise to many instances where kids were compelled to witness the rape and even murder of their mothers, and the torture of their fathers. Sri Lankan armed forces often interrogated children who were taken into custody”, said a women’s rights activist in Colombo.

She cited the instance of the child of Ms. Sivamani Weerakoon who was brutally raped by Policemen of a special investigation unit in Mannar and the children of Ms. Koneswary who was raped and murdered by Policemen in front of her children.

“It is often overlooked that the environment of fear and apprehension in Tamil households in those areas of the northeast controlled by the Sri Lankan armed forces has had an immense psychological impact on children. The ER and the PTA hung like Damocles’ sword over every home in the northeast. Every child here has, at one point in time or another, heard of or seen a family member or close relative being interrogated, coerced, intimidated, tortured or killed. This has left children in such areas with a sense of pervasive trauma which the local refugee shelters or neighbourhood communities are unable to cope with”, she said.

“The problem is yet acute in Vavuniya. Life in refugee camps can exacerbate the children’s trauma and undermine their will and ability to lead successful lives. In the massive rush to reconstruct and rehabilitate the northeast, the predicament of children who have come through immeasurable psychosocial distress is often ignored. I know that the mental scars they continue to endure is not so easy to cure”, the rights worker observed.

CRC called on the Sri Lankan state to amend the Children and Young Person’s Ordinance (1939) and to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility to an internationally acceptable level and to ensure that all offenders under 18 are treated as children.

CRC recommended that the State party amend its legislation and increase its efforts to ensure implementation of existing laws guaranteeing the principle of non-discrimination and full compliance with article 2 of the Convention, and to adopt a proactive and comprehensive strategy to eliminate discrimination on any grounds and against all vulnerable groups.

CRC said it is concerned at the lack of a comprehensive and systematic review of existing laws, including the different sets of personal laws, with the aim of bringing them into conformity with the Convention.

The Committee is concerned that the general principles of non-discrimination (art. 2 of the Convention), best interests of the child (art. 3), right to life, survival and development of the child (art.6) and respect for the views of the child (art. 12) are not fully reflected in the State party's legislation and administrative and judicial decisions, as well as in policies and programmes relevant to children at federal, provincial and local levels and conflict-affected areas, according to the CRC report.

The CRC asserted that it remains concerned at the high levels of child malnutrition, the significant proportion of children born with low birth weight, the prevalence of mosquito-born diseases including malaria, and the lack of access to safe drinking water and sanitation, particularly in conflict-affected areas.


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