Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa announced the end of the country's 28-year state of emergency Thursday, saying the country had not experienced a single act of terrorism since the end of a savage civil war in 2009.
When the state of emergency expires in 10 days, he said, the government will not ask Parliament to extend it for another month, as governments have done almost continuously since 1983. "To carry forward the day-to-day activities in a democratic way, I propose there is no need of emergency regulations any more," Mr. Rajapaksa told Parliament.
The law gives police and security agencies sweeping powers of arrest and detention, including the right to hold a prisoner for up to a year without charge.
The lifting of the state of emergency comes as the Rajapaksa government faces growing international scrutiny for its human-rights record. Its critics charge that, more than two years after crushing the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the majority-Sinhalese government continues to discriminate against the Tamil minority and uses the war-era legislation to stifle dissent.
While the Rajapaksa government has released no details about how many people are being held under the law, activists believe there could be thousands.
Legal analysts cautioned yesterday that the lifting of the state of emergency does not necessarily signal a significant change in Sri Lanka's human-rights situation. The sweeping Prevention of Terrorism Act, which allows police to search and detain anyone suspected of "terrorist activity" without a warrant, will remain in place, and those now held under the emergency act could simply be redetained under the terrorism law.
"Simply because the emergency legislation is repealed doesn't mean anything unless there is a commitment by law enforcement authorities to enforce the law," said J.C. Weliamnua, a human-rights lawyer and former head of Amnesty International in Sri Lanka. "Whether there is the emergency or no emergency, for extrajudicial things to stop, I think there has to be a serious commitment – so let's wait and see."
The lifting of the emergency law has been a persistent demand of the opposition, he noted, and the fact that a state of emergency is still in place so long after the decisive end of the war makes for easy ammunition for critics both local and international, he said.
"It's a political move," Mr. Weliamnua said, but it doesn't actually cost government much as long as the terrorism law is still on the books.
"This could at the end of day be cosmetic," agreed Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives think-tank in Colombo. "Emergency or not, the state will do whatever it damn well wants – in terms of the culture of impunity, removing the emergency makes very little difference."
He suggested the government took the step in an effort to pre-empt serious criticism from the United Nations Human Rights Council, which is expected to discuss Sri Lanka next month, although any action – such as a resolution condemning government actions – would likely not be on the agenda until March.
This past April, an investigation commissioned by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said there were "credible allegations" of war crimes committed by both the Tamil Tigers and the government. The government totally rejects the assertion that its forces committed atrocities.
Tens of thousands of Tamil civilians, caught between the LTTE and the army, disappeared in the last weeks of the war, according to human-rights groups. International critics, led by the United States, are pushing for an investigation, which Sri Lanka refuses to entertain.
But the government has promised a full report from its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, and Mr. Saravanamuttu said the international community is watching closely to see how the government handles its findings.