Sri Lanka’s Devastating Drug-War Crackdown on Poor Communities

    Sri Lanka is several weeks into a devastating crackdown on the nation’s poor communities, supposedly to target people who sell and use drugs. International funding to the Sri Lankan government continues despite mounting evidence of its human rights violations.

    On December 17, Acting Inspector General of Police Deshabandu Tennekon and Minister of Public Security Tiran Alles authorized an operation called “Yukthiya,” which means “justice” in the local Sinhalese language. Both police and military forces are taking part. As of January 9, the NGO Harm Reduction International (HRI) reported, over 29,000 people had been arrested under the operation.

    HRI is part of an international coalition—also including the likes of Amnesty International, the National Harm Reduction Coalition in the United States, the Anti-Death Penalty Asia Network, and the Africa Network of People Who Use Drugs—that signed an open letter to the Sri Lanka government, calling for an immediate end to Operation Yukthiya.

    In Sri Lanka, “The War on Drugs is a war against the poor.”

    The signatories demand the release of anyone arrested without a warrant and the guarantee of legal aid; an end to the military’s involvement in anti-drug operations and drug treatment; the repeal of laws that allow mandatory drug treatment; and funding for evidence-based and community-led drug treatment and care.

    In Sri Lanka, “The War on Drugs is a war against the poor,” Ambika Satkunanathan, a member of the UN Voluntary Trust Fund for Victims of Torture and former member of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, told Filter.

    “Even now, you see a large number of those being arrested are drug users who are from the most marginalized sections of society,” she continued. “You don’t see the police going to Colombo 7 [a district in Sri Lanka’s capital], which is the most privileged neighbourhood in this country, and conducting searches in those houses without warrants; they wouldn’t dare …[Also] if you’re gay or transgender, you may already be targeted because of your gender identity or sexual orientation, which means LGBTQI persons who are drug users will face double discrimination. Groups like that are very vulnerable.”

    HRI is reporting a pattern of systemic human rights abuses as the operation unfolds. Officials are making arbitrary arrests, and searches with no warrant or reasonable suspicion. People targeted are being humiliated as cops conduct strip searches and body cavity searches, with some actions televised. HRI reports that people are being arrested for drug possession even without any drugs on their person, based only on past histories of arrest or having received drug treatment.

    Most people arrested are charged under Sri Lanka’s Poisons, Opium and Dangerous Drugs Ordinance (Section 54A), with no option to post bail. People may spend months in pretrial detention before even getting a court hearing, in a country where the prison system was already hugely overcrowded, with inhumane conditions the norm. As of 2022, the coalition notes, 63 percent of convictions in Sri Lanka were for drug charges.

    Sri Lanka’s militarized drug-war operation, Satkunanathan said, is only possible because of the support and funding of international actors.

    Cops are putting some people in compulsory drug treatment instead—at least 1,600 people so far, with some facilities military-run. These treatment centers are abstinence-based, with no harm reduction practices observed. A person experiencing opioid withdrawal, for example, will be given no medication. HRI cited reports that two centers have used physical violence to punish or control people in treatment. In 2017, United Nations officials in Sri Lanka observed that treatment centers lacked trained medical personnel to monitor people’s conditions.

    Sri Lanka’s militarized drug-war operation, Satkunanathan said, is only possible because of the support and funding of international actors including the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

    “There is a lot of defense cooperation,” Satkunanathan said. “The US and Japan fund the police and military with equipment to be used for drug control, even the UNODC supports similar initiatives. They may say it is for ‘drug control,’ but they can’t be unaware it’s also used to target users, and used to commit human rights violations. Either they enable it or turn a blind eye to it.”

    According to the Congressional Research Service, United States foreign aid to Sri Lanka has totaled over $3.6 billion since the country’s independence in 1948. According to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), the US suspended military support in 2007 over concerns about human rights violations during the decades-long civil war between the government and the rebel group LTTE. CFR states that since 2008, USAID has worked directly with the Sri Lanka government on “democracy, governance, humanitarian assistance, and economic growth.”

    China has also provided significant military aid, equipment and training to Sri Lanka.

    “The valorization and deification of the military means any violations by them will be tolerated.”

    The legacy of the 1983-2009 civil war and experiences with terrorism continue to shape perceptions of public safety in Sri Lanka, and the reputation security forces enjoy. In 2019, a Sri Lankan military commander detailed how military and police should work together to eliminate drug trafficking, “identical to how we finished off LTTE terrorism 10 years ago.” Former President Maithripala Sirisena also alleged a connection between drug trafficking and terrorist bombings in Colombo in 2019.

    “The strategies used during the war, in terms of militarizing civil authorities,” continue in the current anti-drug campaigns, Satkunanathan said. “Publicly portraying the military as the savior, saying since it defeated the LTTE, it won the war against terror, therefore it will win the war against drugs. The valorization and deification of the military means any violations by them will be tolerated.”

    According to Satkunanathan, recent events have clarified the views of Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority regarding the government’s reliance on the military. In 2022, the country was rocked by a wave of protests in response to an ongoing economic crisis. This culminated in thousands of people occupying the president’s house, forcing then-President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee the country and ultimately resign. Sri Lanka’s use of military and police to suppress protests has now changed the conversation.

    “During the Aragalaya mass public protests in 2022, the government used the military in the south, against the majority Sinhalese population,” Satkunanathan said. “At that point the Sinhalese began to understand the problem, why we should not involve the military in law enforcement. At least the urban population in the south started to ask questions, and push back and critique the military. Now, in comparison to 3-4 years ago, there is more space to talk about and ask questions [about the military].”

    “Since the EU has leverage, it must step up, speak out and point out that the [trade privileges] can be jeopardized.”

    Local activist movements for harm reduction and drug-war justice are basically non-existent due to fear of government repression, Satkunanathan said. Recent efforts by parliament and the government to restrict online speech, protests and the activities of civil society groups have had a chilling effect. And so far, opposition parties have done nothing to stop Operation Yukthiya and have even praised it. But numerous international actors have the ability to influence the government.

    “Sri Lanka is a recipient of the EU’s GSP Plus [trade privileges],” Satkunanathan said. “To continue to enjoy those privileges, Sri Lanka must adhere to the core UN human rights conventions. This operation clearly contravenes human rights conventions, therefore the EU can put pressure on the government to abide by the UN conventions. Since the EU has leverage, it must step up, speak out and point out that the [trade privileges] can be jeopardized.”

    In addition, she said, the UNODC, which provides funding to the Sri Lanka government, must do so from a human rights perspective and cannot ignore the violations taking place.



    Photograph of mounted police in Colombo in 2020 by Nazly Ahmed via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0

    • Alexander is Filter’s staff writer. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it’s actually alright. He’s also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter‘s editorial fellow.

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