The Government of Sri Lanka published the revised ‘Anti-Terrorism Bill’ (hereinafter the proposed ATA) in the Gazette, on the 15th of September 2023. This Bill seeks to abolish the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) which for nearly four and a half decades has been one of the most vicious tools of suppression and persecution used by the State. There have been calls to abolish the PTA since its inception in 1979 but the draconian law has survived through several Governments.
The publication of the presently Gazetted version of the proposed ATA follows a former version of the ATA, which was published on the 22nd of March 2023, containing a few differences. The proposed ATA is also in substance fairly similar to a Bill published during the Yahapalana regime in 2018, the Counter- Terrorism Bill (CTA) which also sought to replace the PTA. In this commentary, there is some reference to the CTA and the previous version of the proposed ATA published in March to comment on changes seen in the present Bill. However, the primary aim of this commentary is to compare the latest version of the proposed ATA in relation to the PTA.
In initial comments issued on the 27th of March 2023, the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) noted concerns regarding the initially proposed ATA though acknowledging that the Bill does address some of the key concerns that persisted with the PTA over its several decades in operation. With the recent version of the proposed ATA being published in September 2023, CPA continues to reiterate these concerns. To put these recurring concerns in context, it must be borne in mind that the Sri Lankan State has demonstrated a pattern of abusing counter-terror laws, emergency laws and regulation-making powers in the past. Thus, any new law must be formulated with additional safeguards to prevent abuse.
At the outset, CPA notes that the proposed ATA lacks sufficient checks, and if operational, would provide ample space for abuse. Further, over-broad definitions of offences leave room for these laws to be used for means beyond the purported purposes of the Act, targeting minorities, civil society, the media and any dissenters in general. Further, this law has also taken away some of the improvements that were sought to be made by way of the CTA in 2018, such as the shortening of the duration of detention orders.
Overall, it must be remembered that for law reform to be successful, there has to be the administrative will for the law to succeed, and to be used for the correct purpose. The timing of this new law, rushed through with little to no meaningful stakeholder consultation suggests that this law reform is not being brought in the interest of addressing a decades-long problem that has plagued the country, but as a matter of political expediency. While CPA would welcome any reform in a positive direction, this law does not signify much optimism with deep implications for human rights, governance and democracy.