Abusive “Rehab” and Other Harms of Sri Lanka’s Militarized Drug War

    In Sri Lanka, 2 grams of heroin can get you the death penalty. People incarcerated on drug charges are regularly beaten and abused. The handful of rehab programs are mandatory, abstinence-only, and come with limited post-release support.

    The country’s approach to drug policy is an “excessively punitive approach, with abuses by law enforcement officers, and the Ministry of Defense taking the lead in drug control and treatment,” Ambika Satkunanathan, the author of a new report from Harm Reduction International on drug control in Sri Lanka, told Filter. “There’s not enough community-based treatment; no emphasis on the importance of the rehabilitation being voluntary rather than compulsory, and limited post-release support.”

    The report, released on August 4, is the first independent study on drug control and detention in Sri Lanka utlizing a human rights framework. Satkunanathan served as a commissioner on Sri Lanka’s independent Human Rights Commission from 2015-2020.

    Sri Lanka is fighting its drug war using military power, exacerbating its harsh punishments and arbitrary detentions. President Gotabaya Rajapaska campaigned on a promise to eradicate the “drug menace.” 

    “The notion of justice is so narrow and not rights-based.”

    The country has taken a notably punitive approach to drugs since at least 2009, but Rajapaska has accelerated this since taking office in 2019—creating a task force comprising police and military personnel, which takes “necessary measures for prevention from drug menace” and moving the country’s National Dangerous Drugs Control Board (NDDCB), the national drug control and monitoring authority, under the authority of the Ministry of Defense. 

    This militarized approach has done nothing to lower rates of drug selling or use, and much to increase human rights abuses. Nearly 60 percent of the country’s approximately 30,000 prisoners are incarcerated on drug-related charges, in facilities that should only hold around 12,000 people. Recorded drug-law violations rose to 16,000 in 2019—an increase of nearly 250 percent increase since 2015.

    “The government takes a very dehumanized, punitive approach to crime,” Satkunanathan said. “The notion of justice is so narrow and not rights-based.”

    Sri Lanka’s drug laws are in some ways contradictory, the report notes, undermining transparency and putting inordinate power in the hands of police and judges. If police claim someone is using drugs—even in the absence of any evidence—they can detain that person for drug testing and bring them before a judge, who in turn can mandate them into rehab.

    The country’s rehab facilities, like its jails, are rife with human rights violations. Interviews with lawyers and detainees highlight experiences of torture, mistreatment, beatings, alongside inadequate facilities and lack of medication, the report details. There is no non-abstinence-based care, and police often continue to harass detainees after their release.

    The United Nations Office of Drug Control (UNODC) provides support to the NDDCB, including providing building materials and helping break ground at a new rehab facility in the country in 2020. With those programs remaining mandatory and their treatments not evidence-based, Harm Reduction International’s report cautions that “the UNODC should be mindful it does not become complicit in rights violation, albeit unwittingly, when providing technical and financial assistance.”



    Photograph of Sri Lanka military by Chamal Pathirana via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 3.0

    • Umme is a journalist and editor who has written about human rights, politics, education and climate, with an interest in the impact of social and public policies on disenfranchised communities. She was formerly Filter‘s editorial fellow. She also works as an organizer and advocate, working to build a future with education, housing and health care for all. Umme lives in New Mexico.

    • Show Comments