Sumudu Atapattu

The Changing Horizon of Human Rights in Sri Lanka: The Ethnic Conflict, the Role of the Supreme Court, and the Influence of International Law


In Sri Lanka, the on-going ethnic conflict provided the context for many human rights violations ranging from disappearances to extra-judicial killings and from torture to arbitrary arrest and detention. Both sides to the conflict were responsible for these violations. The foundation for these violations was consolidated by the emergency regulations promulgated under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act of 1979 and a state of emergency which was effective in the country for many years. With the change of administration in 1994, the new government promised to change the culture of impunity and to bring perpetrators of human rights violations to justice. With this the human rights scenario slowly changed with many people resorting to the fundamental rights jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. This presentation discusses these developments particularly through the lens of one particular judgment which had far reaching consequences in the fundamental rights jurisprudence in the country – Wimalenthiran’s case.


Sumudu Atapattu is the Associate Director of the Global Legal Studies Initiative at UW-Madison Law School. She has a Master of Laws Degree and a PhD from Cambridge University, UK. Prior to coming to Madison, Sumudu taught for many years at the Faculty of Law, University of Colombo and also worked as a Consultant to the Law and Society Trust, a leading human rights organization in Sri Lanka. She has many publications and her book, entitled Emerging Principles of International Environmental Law, was published recently by Transnational Publishers, New York.