As It Happens

Sri Lanka's counter-terrorism strategy a 'recipe for disaster': Former UN investigator

A weak counter-terrorism strategy that relies on torture left Sri Lanka vulnerable to the devastating Easter attacks that killed at least 290 people and wounded about 500, says a former United Nations rapporteur.

Ben Emmerson says Sri Lanka is overly reliant on torture, has failed to protect persecuted minorities

People who live near a Sri Lankan church that was attacked are seen fleeing their houses. (Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters)

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A weak counter-terrorism strategy that relies on torture left Sri Lanka vulnerable to the devastating Easter attacks that killed at least 290 people and wounded about 500, says a former United Nations rapporteur.

Nobody has claimed responsibility for the string of bombings at churches and luxury hotels across the country on Sunday, but the government has blamed a little-known domestic Islamist militant group called National Thowfeek Jamaath.

Ben Emmerson, former UN special rapporteur for counter-terrorism, warned in a July 2018 report that Sri Lanka was a hotbed of religious tensions and ill-equipped to deal with an attack of this nature.

Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off.

After all the work you did on a potential terrorist attack in Sri Lanka, what was your initial response to the news of [Sunday's] attacks?

Obviously, our first thoughts must be with the victims, with the families and with the people of Sri Lanka in coming to terms with this atrocious crime against civilians at worship and those of all faiths who were the victims of the attacks in the various resorts and churches in Sri Lanka.

On wider questions, which I think will inevitably start to be asked in the coming days, it is not as much of a surprise that there should be a sliding back towards armed violence of this nature in Sri Lanka, because the counter-terrorism apparatus that has been adopted by Sri Lanka is, it has to be said, not fit for purpose. 

What did you, yourself, warn them of?

Just to be clear, my job was to look principally at the extent to which their counter-terrorism legislation and their counter-terrorism practices were consistent with international human rights law.

And the biggest problem they have in Sri Lanka is discrimination against national minorities, particularly the Tamil community, who are primarily Hindu, and the Muslim community. And the biggest social problem is disenfranchisement of these minorities and continuing persecution by public officials from the majority Sinhalese Buddhist community.

Security officers guard the road to the president’s house in Colombo after bomb blasts ripped through churches and luxury hotels on Easter. (Dinuka Liyanwatte/Reuters)

And we should just remind people that the predominant [religion] in Sri Lanka would be Buddhist. Then Hindus, Muslims and Christians are more in the minorities ... in the country. And this attack, it appears, we're told, [to be a] Muslim group attacking what would be Christian targets. What does that tell you? 

I think what it tells us is that the phenomenon that we've seen in different parts of the world of organized Islamist extremists committing atrocities against civilian targets has arrived in Sri Lanka.

But that said, it was a country simmering with ethnic tension, particularly, as I say, last year's attacks by Buddhist mobs.

Muslims were singled out and targeted by violent Buddhist mobs, and I think that type of situation — where the authorities failed to protect the minority community — it can often result in people becoming angry and radicalized and then finding that these things spill over.

But I think it's probably fair to say nothing prepared anybody for the expectation of an attack on this scale and with this degree of organization, because it's the largest single terror attack in Sri Lanka's history, despite the fact that it's been through a long and very bloody civil war.

Staff at a school in Ahmadabad, India, pray on Monday for victims of Sri Lankan bomb attacks. (Ajit Solanki/Associated Press)

We've seen letters, we've seen documents [in the New York Times] that show [the government's security services] were warned that not only was an attack coming, [but] that it was this specific group that was going to commit the attack. And they were even, in writing, given the names of people and their addresses, where they could be found as they planned this attack. What does that tell you about the preparation [for] counter-terrorism in Sri Lanka?

If those reports are confirmed to be accurate, then the first thing it tells us is that there was a catastrophic breakdown in communication inside Sri Lanka's apparatus for protecting the civilian population against a terrorist attack.

I think what we saw [Sunday] was a pretty clear statement that the prime minister and ministers in cabinet were not informed of the risk that had been identified, which tends to suggest, because the president is the person responsible for counter-terrorism, that the information has not been communicated to relevant officials as a result of the dysfunction that besets Sri Lankan national security.

All fingers seem to [point] to the president's office. He's the one who should have known, would have known, could have known about this, right?

I think the first question is: Did he know? I mean, it is possible, of course, that the communications failure occurred at a much lower level of communication than the president personally, and that there was an administrative failure. That would obviously point to serious questions about the system in place, but it wouldn't necessarily directly implicate the president in personal, political and legal failure.

But given what we know about dysfunction in government in Sri Lanka ... one of the big issues in trying to get reform of the counter-terrorism strategy in Sri Lanka, and the one that I highlighted in my report last year, is that the reports of torture as the main means of investigating terrorism or allegations of terrorism are widespread and consistent and have been frequently documented, right up until the time of these attacks.

I, myself, saw people in custody that had their fingernails removed, who had been the victims of torture by electrocution, by beating and so on.

And I think when you have a community, which is made up of different ethnic groups — some of whom have been violently marginalized and suppressed, whose rights are not recognized, who are not protected and who are subjected to violence by the security services — against the background of a civil war where there has been effective impunity for war crimes against civilians by the authorities, you have a recipe for disaster.

And, you know, that disaster has been waiting to happen.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Produced by Kevin Robertson. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.