Sri Lanka

  • Advocacy priorities at 43rd Session of UN Human Rights Council

    The four-week human rights council will sit from 24 February to 20 March, and there are a number of critical human rights resolutions up for debate, and for the 47 Council members to address. CIVICUS will be conducting and presenting evidence on a variety of thematic and country-focused issues. Full overview below or jump directly to see our programme of events.

    Country-specific situations

    Nicaragua (Civic space rating:Repressed)

    Our members on the ground have documented serious human rights violations, including attacks on fundamental freedoms and against human rights defenders and journalists. A report issued last year by the OHCHR, mandated by a resolution adopted in 2019, reflected this situation, and recommended enhanced UN monitoring and reporting. Given the lack of political will in the country to cooperate with regional and international mechanisms, and the concerning situation on the ground, CIVICUS calls on states to support a resolution on Nicaragua which calls for such enhanced reporting at the very least.

    Sri Lanka (Civic space rating:Repressed)

    This is a critical time for Sri Lanka, with concerns that the new administration which came to power last year could renege on its Council-mandated human rights and accountability commitments. The resolution adopted at the 30th Session of the Human Rights Council and remains the only process in place which could guarantee justice for victims of human rights violations. Civic space is closing at an alarming rate – since the new administration came to power, civil society members on the ground have been threatened and intimidated, their records destroyed, and human rights defenders and journalists have been attacked. CIVICUS calls for states to encourage cooperation between the government of Sri Lanka and international human rights mechanisms, and for Council members to reaffirm their commitment to resolution 40/1, which put into place time-bound commitments to implement the accountability mechanisms in resolution 30/1.

    Iran (Civic space rating:Closed)

    In 2019, Iran erupted into a series of protests against lack of political and democratic freedoms and the deteriorating economic situation. Protesters were met with violent repression through mass arrests and lethal force. Current geopolitical developments have entrenched the regime and exacerbated internal insecurity further. This Human Rights Council Session will discuss the renewal of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Iran. CIVICUS supports the renewal of the Special Rapporteur mandate and encourages states to raise concerns about the use of lethal force in protests.

    India (Civic space rating:Repressed)

    India’s civic space rating was downgraded with the last CIVICUS report. A controversial and discriminatory citizenship law has given rise to mass protests across the country, which have been subject to violent crackdowns, leading many injured and at least 25 dead. Jammu and Kashmir remain under severe repression, including through sustained internet shutdown which is reaching its sixth month. Internet was partially restored in January but restrictions remain, making the shutdown the longest recorded in a democracy. Internet shutdowns are also being used across the country in order to hinder freedom of peaceful assembly. CIVICUS encourages States to raise concerns about India, and to call for an investigation into the violent suppression of peaceful protests, and to repeal discriminatory provisions in the Citizenship Law.

    Thematic mandates

    The Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders

    The mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders will be renewed this Session. This is a crucial mandate which has an impact of all CIVICUS’s areas of focus, and we encourage states to eco-sponsor the resolution at an early stage. The Special Rapporteur will present his annual report on HRDs in conflict and post-conflict situations, and reports on his country visits to Colombia and Mongolia. CIVICUS encourages states to affirm their co-sponsorship of the resolution early in the Session.

    Freedom of Expression

    The mandate for the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression is set to be renewed this Session, at a time when internet blackouts in increasingly used as a tactic to limit freedom of expression, access to information and freedom of peaceful assembly. We encourage states to co-sponsor the renewal of this important mandate at an early stage.

    Freedom of Religion and Belief (FoRB)

    The Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief will present his annual report, which this year focuses on the intersection of religion and belief and gender and SOGI rights, and reports on country visits to Sri Lanka and the Netherlands. CIVICUS will be engaging on Sri Lanka and on India, which have both undergone concerning developments with regards to freedom of religion.


    The Chair-Rapporteur of two intersessional seminars on the contribution that the Council can make to the prevention of human rights violations will present the report of the seminars.

    CIVICUS will be highlighting the connection between civic space and prevention – that closures in civic space are often precursors to wider human rights crises, and that by intervening at the civic space level, the Council has a role to play in ensuring that such human rights violations are prevented.

    CIVICUS and members’ events at the 43rd Session of the UN Human Rights Council (events will be livestreamed @CIVICUS Facebook page):

    27 February (11:00 CET, Room VII), a side event will discuss the current critical situation in Nicaragua, and the importance of an enhanced monitoring mandate.

    2 March (14:00 CET, Room VII), CIVICUS and partners are organising an event on the constitutional and civic space crisis in India. 

    5 March (13:00 CET, Room VII), CIVICUS is co-sponsoring an event led by ICNL and the Civic Space Initiative consortium partners on countering terrorism financing while preserving civic space ----canceled due to the coronavirus

    12 March (12:30 CET, Room XXI), CIVICUS is co-sponsoring a side event on the use of lethal force in protests in Iran and Iraq, and responses from the international community---canceled due to the coronavirus

    Current council members:

    Afghanistan; Angola; Argentina; Australia; Austria; Bahamas; Bahrain; Bangladesh; Brazil; Bulgaria; Burkina Faso; Cameroon; Chile; China; Croatia; Cuba; Czechia; Democratic Republic of the Congo; Denmark; Egypt; Eritrea; Fiji; Hungary; Iceland; India; Iraq; Italy; Japan; Mexico; Nepal; Nigeria; Pakistan; Peru; Philippines; Qatar; Rwanda; Saudi Arabia; Senegal; Slovakia; Somalia; South Africa; Spain; Togo; Tunisia; Ukraine; United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland; and Uruguay.

  • Alarming trends in restrictions to access to resources facing civil society in Asia

    Statement at the 50th Session of the UN Human Rights Council

    Item 3: Interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association

    Delivered by Ahmed Adam On behalf of Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), CIVICUS – World Alliance for Citizen Participation and World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT)

    Mr. President, We welcome the Special Rapporteur’s important report on civil society’s access to resources.

    Systematic restrictions on civil society’s access to resources often represent one of the first indicators of overall deterioration of the human rights situation and a trend towards authoritarian rule as seen in many Asian countries, in particular, in India and Bangladesh. In India, over 6000 NGOs have been banned from accessing foreign funding under the draconian Foreign Contributions (Regulations) Act, 2010 (FCRA) effectively forcing them to cease their operations.

    The law has been used particularly to silence human rights NGOs critical of the government. The amendments made to FCRA makes sub-granting of funds to grassroot organisations impossible, affecting many beneficiaries. Early this month, Bangladesh authorities arbitrarily cancelled the registration of prominent human rights NGO, Odhikar, after years of crippling restrictions on its operations under the Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Law 2016 for its legitimate human rights work in the country. This has had a serious chilling effect on the country’s civic and democratic space, forcing many others to resort to self-censorship.

    Many other countries the region are in the process of adopting similar measures that would effectively decimate civil society. We are particularly concerned about the impending adoption of a new law on NGOs in Thailand. In this context, can the Special Rapporteur elaborate on your engagement with countries such as India and Bangladesh, and their responses, where such measures have had serious implications for fundamental freedoms and civic space.

    Finally, we welcome the Special Rapporteur’s timely follow up report on his visit to Sri Lanka amid nationwide peaceful protests in response to the country’s economic crisis precipitated by failure of governance and the rule of law, and rollback of fundamental freedoms.

    Can the Special Rapporteur further elaborate on obligations of authorities to uphold the right to peaceful protests and ensure accountability, especially in situations such as those seen in Sri Lanka on 9 May where supporters of the embattled ruling party attacked peaceful protestors while the security services looked on?

    Thank you.

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  • CIVICUS UN Universal Periodic Review submissions on civil society space

    CIVICUS and its partners have submitted joint and stand-alone UN Universal Periodic Review (UPR) submissions on 9 countries in advance of the 28th UPR session (November 2017). The submissions examine the state of civil society in each country, including the promotion and protection of the rights to freedom of association, assembly and expression and the environment for human rights defenders. We further provide an assessment of the States’ domestic implementation of civic space recommendations received during the 2nd UPR cycle over 4 years ago and provide a number of targeted follow-up recommendations.  

    Countries examined: Benin, Gabon, Guatemala, Pakistan, Peru, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Ukraine and Zambia.

  • CIVICUS UN Universal Periodic Review submissions on civil society space in Benin, Guatemala, Pakistan, Peru, Sri Lanka and Zambia

    The United Nations Human Rights Council's Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a unique process which involves a review of the human rights records of all 193 UN Member States once every 4.5 years.

    CIVICUS and its partners have submitted UN Universal Periodic Review (UPR) submissions on six countries in advance of the 42nd UPR session in January-February 2023. The submissions examine the state of civil society in each country, including the promotion and protection of the rights to freedom of association, assembly and expression and the environment for human rights defenders. We further provide an assessment of the States’ domestic implementation of civic space recommendations received during the 3rd UPR cycle over 4 years ago and provide a number of targeted follow-up recommendations. 

    Benin - See consolidated report | See full versions in English and French – The submission by the Coalition des Défenseurs des Droits Humains-Benin (CDDH-Bénin), West African Human Rights Defenders Network (WAHRDN/ROADDH), the Réseau des Femmes Leaders pour le Développement (RFLD) and CIVICUS, highlights the adoption of restrictive legislation, particularly the Criminal Code and the Digital Code, with its provisions being used against human rights defenders (HRDs) and journalists. Additionally, the submission also draws attention to the increasing restrictions and violations of the freedom of peaceful assembly, which includes blanket bans on protests, the militarisation of law enforcement and the use of excessive force, including live ammunition, against protesters, along with increasing legal restrictions to the right to protest.

    Guatemala - See consolidated report | See full versions in English | Spanish –CIVICUS, REDLAD and Accíon Ciudadania detail the use of extreme violence against HRDs and journalists, aggravated by the continued criminalisation and stigmatisation they face from authorities and non-state actors. In this submission, we also express our concern on the adoption of a restrictive legislative framework which could significantly impact on the work of civil society in Guatemala, in a context where the work of CSOs is already vulnerable to obstruction through abusive judicial and administrative proceedings.

    Pakistan - See consolidated report | See full version in EnglishIn this submission, CIVICUS and Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC) report, among other issues, the legal and extra-legal barriers imposed on civil society organisations (CSOs) registration and operations in Pakistan, the criminalisation, threats and harassment of human rights defenders and the failure to hold perpetrators to account. It also highlights the alarming efforts to intimidate and censor journalists and media outlets, the criminalisation of online expression and restrictions and attacks on peaceful protests, especially by ethnic Pashtun minorities and women’s rights activists.

    Peru- See consolidated report | See full versions in English and Spanish –CIVICUS and Asociación Pro Derechos Humanos (APRODEH) underline the pervasive violence against HRDs, civil society groups and protesters, who continue to face attacks harassment stigmatisation and killings. State and non-state actors, despite the newly adopted protection mechanisms, have been able to escalate attacks with impunity. The submission further reports cases of judicial harassment against journalists and the gradual reduction of the space for a free and independent press.

    Sri Lanka - See consolidated report |  See full version in English In this joint submission, CIVICUS and the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) denounce the ongoing use of excessive force against HRDs and protesters and restrictive laws to limit civic space and fundamental freedoms. Between 2017 and 2022, we observed alarming trends of a government crackdown on protests, arbitrary detention against activists and violations of the freedoms of opinion and expression. The submission further reports the alarming and continuous judicial persecution, harassment and intimidation of HRDs, journalists, student protesters and others expressing dissenting opinions against the government.

    Zambia - See consolidated report |  See full version in English – CIVICUS and Governance, Elections, Advocacy, Research Services Initiative Zambia (GEARS Initiative) report acts of intimidation and attacks on citizens, HRDs, CSOs and journalists in the period leading up to and during the presidential and parliamentary elections in August 2021. The submission also documents the continued use of excessive force by security forces in response to protests. We are moreover particularly worried by the restrictive legal framework, which undermines the freedoms of association, assembly and expression.

    Civic space in Guatemala, Peru, Sri Lanka and Zambia is rated Obstructed, whereas Benin and Pakistan’s is rated as Repressed by the CIVICUS Monitor.

  • Human Rights Council: Restrictions on civil society will curtail any chance of building back better

    Statement at the 46th Session of the UN Human Rights Council

    Thank you, Madame President; High Commissioner.

    We welcome your update and strongly agree that recovering better requires ensuring participation for all. In this very difficult year, we are encouraged that civic activism has continued as people have mobilised to demand their rights.

    But across the world, civil society has been impeded in its work.  The CIVICUS Monitor shows that in the context of COVID-19 measures, protest rights have been violated and restrictions on freedom of expression continue as states enact overly broad emergency legislation that limits human rights.

    We reiterate that restrictions on civil society will curtail any chance of building back better. States should indeed be investing in protecting and promoting a free and independent civil society at this crucial time.

    The Council has the opportunity to act immediately on a number of situations where civic space is being threatened. In Sri Lanka, attacks against civil society are compounding grave failures of accountability. In Nicaragua, where ahead of elections, restrictions on civic space and expressions of dissent are likely to escalate. Myanmar, where we are inspired by the courage of people who risk lives and freedom every day to protest the coup, who continue to fear violent crackdown on dissenting voices. In India, where the government has continued its persecution of human rights defenders, student leaders, journalists and other critics, including through restrictive laws, prolonged pre-trial detention and excessive force perpetrated against protesters. 

    We call on the Council this Session to take measures to support civil society by acting now, on the situations brought before it. Situations which require immediate action.

  • Open letter to Sri Lankan government: Withdraw Online Safety Bill to protect people’s rights and future

    internet 1971623 1280

    Hon. Minister Tiran Alles,

    Minister for Public Security of Sri Lanka

    We, the undersigned organisations committed to protecting freedom of speech and expression, are writing to urge the Ministry of Public Security to withdraw  the proposed Online Safety Bill and to conduct meaningful consultations with all stakeholders including local groups.

    We are alarmed that the bill is proposed to be presented in Parliament at the end of January 2024 without addressing the concerns raised by key stakeholders, experts and civil society about the  severe implications that the bill will have on the human rights and democratic values enshrined in the Constitution and international legal instruments to which people in Sri Lanka are entitled.

    The harms stemming from the bill have been noted not only by human rights and civil society organisations, but also by the technology industry, through statements from the Asia Internet Coalition and the Global Network Initiative. Following the filing of over 50 petitions against the bill, which make it very clear that the bill requires significant amendments in order to be valid, the bill should be withdrawn, and discussions held in good faith, to tackle the issues of online gender-based violence and other harmful speech while respecting and affirming the rights of people in Sri Lanka and complying with the principles of necessity and proportionality. However, we note that consultation has been limited to closed-door meetings with only technology companies and the draft of the Online Safety Bill as amended has not been released for adequate review by the public.

    We respectfully submit that:

    • The bill has a chilling effect on free speech, which is crucial not only for participation, accountability, the right to information and the right to protest, but also for individual development, freedom of thought and conscience, and artistic expression. Free speech also enables the rights to assembly and association and to livelihood. By using vague, ambiguous and overbroad terminology to define offences, the bill enables over-censorship, which could also lead to self-censorship and adversely affect civic spaces for the people of Sri Lanka.
    • The bill seeks to establish an Online Safety Commission with no independence from the executive. Members of the Commission would be appointed by the President, expanding the powers of the executive and leading to potential abuse. Sri Lanka has a lengthy history of politicised and undue control over freedom of expression, arbitrary arrests, and weaponisation of laws to hinder dissent. In the absence of strong, independent safeguards, the proposed Online Safety Bill would enable and legitimise such conduct by the Sri Lankan political establishment irreversibly.
    • The Online Safety Commission, effectively controlled by the executive, has wide-ranging powers to restrict free speech. The Commission is empowered to direct users, intermediaries and service providers to take down content and block access to accounts on extremely vague and overbroad grounds such as communicating “false statements” which may threaten “national security” and “public order”, promote “feelings of ill-will and hostility” between groups, and cause “disturbance to an assembly”; to initiate criminal action; to scrutinise accounts; and to enforce security practices and procedures to be created by the Commission. The Commission may demand removal of content within 24 hours without judicial oversight. The scope of the Commission’s powers is neither necessary nor proportionate.
    • The Commission also has the power to require intermediaries to disclose the identity of an individual who shared impermissible content. This may require platforms to collect and reveal sensitive information and implement proactive monitoring. For platforms with end-to-end encryption, which is crucial for privacy and free expression, it would be impossible to comply without fundamentally altering their architecture in a way that undermines people’s privacy and safety. Any model of regulation must follow international law, principles of data minimisation, necessity and proportionality, and be practically feasible in order to seek people’s data held by intermediaries.
    • The bill fails to incorporate the recommendations of experts who have been engaged in consistent research to understand the causes for online harms, particularly online violence against women and children, and come up with potential mitigation tools. To tackle the harms associated with content online, we urgently need to provide agencies with adequate resources and make a dedicated effort to sensitise state officials to the issues involved in gender-based offences, and improve digital literacy education at all levels for user empowerment. Criminalising speech does not benefit women or children, whom the bill claims to protect, and in fact can stifle essential debates and discussions over issues central to the health, safety, and well-being of all individuals.
    • The bill will have a detrimental impact on Sri Lanka’s digital economy and avenues for employment online, an area which has tremendous potential to equip Sri Lanka’s youth and generate economic growth. Suppressing speech will have a spillover effect on all fundamental freedoms for people in Sri Lanka, inhibiting investment opportunities and space for growth.

    In light of the grave implications for the freedoms of people in Sri Lanka and the opacity of the legislative process thus far, we respectfully call on the government to withdraw the Online Safety Bill, and to engage in meaningful, sustained and inclusive multi-stakeholder consultations, including civil society and human rights experts, on the way forward for online content regulation. This is essential to protect and ensure Sri Lanka’s commitment to a free, open, and safe internet and a flourishing democracy.


    • Access Now
    • ARTICLE 19
    • Article 21 Trust
    • Association for Progressive Communications
    • Centre for Communication Training
    • Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR)
    • Centre for Equality and Justice
    • Centre for Law and Democracy
    • CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
    • Committee to Protect Journalists
    • Delete Nothing
    • Digital Empowerment Foundation
    • Digital Rights Foundation
    • Digital Rights Kashmir
    • Digital Rights Nepal (DRN)
    • Digitally Right
    • DNS Africa Media and Communications
    • DreamSpace Academy
    • Electronic Frontier Foundation
    • Fight for the Future
    • Freedom Forum, Nepal
    • Global Network Initiative
    • Hashtag Generation
    • Interfaith Colombo
    • Internet Freedom Foundation
    • Internet Society
    • Internet Society India Hyderabad Chapter
    • Internet Society Nigeria Chapter
    • Internet Society, Ethiopian Chapter
    • Koneta Hub
    • Law and Society Trust
    • LIRNEasia
    • Mannar Women’s Development Federation
    • Media Diversity Institute (MDI)
    • MinorMatters
    • Movement for the Defence of Democratic Rights (MDDR)
    • Muslim Women’s Development Trust
    • National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka
    • National Peace Council of Sri Lanka
    • OPTF / Session
    • People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL)
    • Point of View
    • Privacy & Access Council of Canada
    • Prostasia Foundation
    • Realizing Sexual and Reproductive Justice (RESURJ)
    • Search for Common Ground (SFCG)
    • Sisterhood Initiative
    • Software Freedom Law Center, India
    • South Asia Free Media Association
    • Southeast Asia Freedom of Expression Network (SAFEnet)
    • Tech for Good Asia
    • Tech Global Institute
    • The Centre for Internet and Society
    • The Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA)
    • The Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice
    • The Tor Project
    • Tuta
    • Voices for Interactive Choice and Empowerment (VOICE)
    • Women’s Action Network
  • Outcomes from the UN Human Rights be continued

    In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the United Nations Human Rights Council’s 43rd Session, which was scheduled to run from 24 Feb – 20 March, was suspended after three weeks on 13 March until further notice.

    CIVICUS fully supports the suspension of the Session on public health grounds, and the precautionary measures taken before the suspension. However, we remain concerned that public participation in the Council risks being disproportionately affected, especially in light of the decision to cut General Debates from the 44th Session (June), which removes a key platform for civil society to engage with governments. The UN depends on information from the ground in order to make evidence-based decisions, and we call on states to take steps to ensure that the participation of civil society is not compromised.

    In Nicaragua, a human rights crisis has seen hundreds of thousands flee the country and an ongoing crackdown against human rights organisations, community leaders, and journalists. The situation is compounded by a lack of political will from the government to engage with regional or international mechanisms, or to ensure accountability. CIVICUS welcomes that the draft resolution on Nicaragua tabled during the Session would provide a mandate for enhanced monitoring and reporting by the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) on the situation at this critical time, and we urge all states to support this resolution when the Session resumes.

    We also call on states to support the renewal of the Special Rapporteur on Myanmar. The 43rd session marked the final one for the current Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, and we thank her for her outstanding work during her mandate. Myanmar has undergone significant developments in its human rights framework since the Special Rapporteur began her term – from elections in 2015 which saw a groundswell of hope for positive change, to the dawning realisation of crimes against humanity against the Rohingya in Rakhine state. But the curtailment of fundamental freedoms and total crackdown on any criticism of authorities has remained grimly consistent. Those on the ground, the human rights defenders and activists who are trying to achieve change, need international support from the Human Rights Council.

    In late 2019, Iran erupted into a series of protests against the lack of political and democratic freedoms and the deteriorating economic situation. Protesters were met with violent repression through mass arrests and lethal force. When the Session resumes, the Human Rights Council will vote on extending the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Iran. We welcome support shown by states so far for the renewal of the mandate, and we urge adoption of this resolution when the Session continues.

    What is a Special Rapporteur?
    Special Rapporteur is a title given to an independent expert who works on behalf of the United Nations who has a specific country or thematic mandate from the Human Rights Council. Special Rapporteurs often conduct fact-finding missions to countries to investigate allegations of human rights violations. They can only officially visit countries that have agreed to invite them. Aside from fact-finding missions, Rapporteurs regularly assess and verify complaints from alleged victims of human rights violations. 

    The mandates for Special Rapporteurs on freedom of expression and opinion, and on human rights defenders, are set to be renewed when the Session resumes. We encourage all member and observer states to show their full support for these mandates by co-sponsorsing the resolutions.

    Just prior to the suspension of the Session, Mary Lawlor was appointed as new Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders. We look forward to working with her as she protects those on the frontline of defending human rights around the world, and we thank Michel Forst, the outgoing mandate holder, for his tireless work.

    Towards the beginning of the Session, the High Commissioner’s update on Sri Lanka highlighted ongoing impunity for past grave human rights abuses in the country. The new Sri Lankan government, which came into power in 2019, has said that it intends to renege on Human Rights Council resolution 30/1 which provided commitments to accountability, truth and reconciliation. The human rights space in Sri Lanka has deteriorated sharply under the new administration, and the undermining of this resolution – currently the only route to ensuring transitional justice in Sri Lanka – would not only be fatal to victims and their families, but also a significant setback to the UN itself. We urge states to strongly encourage Sri Lanka to uphold its commitments and reiterate calls for an international accountability mechanism to ensure that accountability remains a possibility.

    Although India was not on the official agenda of this Session, the ongoing crackdown on Kashmir, a discriminatory citizenship law and violent suppression of protests proved an ongoing issue throughout the Session.

    CIVICUS, FORUM-ASIA, ISHR, FIDH, OMCT and ICJ organized a side event to discuss the current situation and ways in which the international community, including the Council, could contribute to constrictive progress. With key partners, CIVICUS also joined important statements on the situation in Jammu and Kashmir as well as on India’s recent discriminatory citizenship law, and we were encouraged to see several states raise their own concerns about India during debates.

    Civic space ratings by CIVICUS Monitor
    Open Narrowed Obstructed  Repressed Closed


    Our joint and stand alone country statements at the 43rd Session of the Human Rights Council
    Angola Burundi El Salvador  Eritrea Fiji
    India Iraq Iran Jammu & Kashmir Madagascar
    Myanmar Nicaragua Sri Lanka See all statements


  • Priorités de plaidoyer à la 43ème session du Conseil des droits de l'homme des Nations Unies

    Le Conseil des droits de l'homme se réunira pendant quatre semaines, du 24 février au 20 mars, et un certain nombre de résolutions critiques sur les droits de l'homme seront débattues et présentées aux 47 membres du Conseil. CIVICUS conduira et présentera des témoignages sur une variété de questions thématiques et de pays. Vous trouverez un aperçu complet ci-dessous ou vous pouvez directement consulter notre programme d'événements.


    Situations spécifiques à certains pays

    Nicaragua (Notation de l’espace civique : Réprimé)

    Nos membres sur le terrain ont documenté de graves violations des droits humains, notamment des attaques contre les libertés fondamentales et contre les défenseurs des droits humains et les journalistes. Un rapport publié l'année dernière par le HCDH, mandaté par une résolution adoptée en 2019, a reflété cette situation et a recommandé un renforcement de la surveillance et de la communication de l'information par les Nations Unies. Étant donné le manque de volonté politique dans le pays pour coopérer avec les mécanismes régionaux et internationaux, et la situation préoccupante sur le terrain, CIVICUS appelle les États à soutenir une résolution sur le Nicaragua qui demande au moins un tel renforcement des activités de suivi.

    Sri Lanka (Notation de l’espace civique : Réprimé)

    C'est un moment critique pour le Sri Lanka, qui craint que la nouvelle administration, arrivée au pouvoir l'année dernière, ne revienne sur ses engagements en matière de droits humains et de responsabilités, mandatés par le Conseil. La résolution adoptée lors de la 30ème session du Conseil des droits de l'homme reste le seul processus en place qui pourrait garantir la justice pour les victimes de violations des droits humains. L'espace civique se referme à un rythme alarmant - depuis l'arrivée au pouvoir de la nouvelle administration, les membres de la société civile sur le terrain ont été menacés et intimidés, leurs dossiers ont été détruits, et des défenseurs des droits humains et des journalistes ont été attaqués. CIVICUS appelle les États à encourager la coopération entre le gouvernement du Sri Lanka et les mécanismes internationaux des droits de l'homme, et les membres du Conseil à réaffirmer leur engagement envers la résolution 40/1, qui met en place des engagements assortis de délais pour mettre en œuvre les mécanismes de responsabilisation de la résolution 30/1.

    Iran (Notation de l'espace public :Fermé)

    En 2019, l'Iran s'est livré à une série de protestations contre le manque de libertés politiques et démocratiques et la détérioration de la situation économique. Les manifestants ont été confrontés à une violente répression par des arrestations massives et une force meurtrière. Les développements géopolitiques actuels ont renforcé le régime et exacerbé l'insécurité interne. Cette session du Conseil des droits de l'homme discutera du renouvellement du mandat du rapporteur spécial sur l'Iran. CIVICUS soutient le renouvellement du mandat du Rapporteur spécial et encourage les États à faire part de leurs préoccupations quant à l'utilisation de la force meurtrière dans les manifestations.

    Inde (Notation de l’espace civique : Réprimé)

    Le dernier rapport de CIVICUS a dégradé la notation de l'Inde en matière d'espace civique. Une loi sur la citoyenneté controversée et discriminatoire a donné lieu à des manifestations de masse dans tout le pays, qui ont fait l'objet de violentes répressions, faisant de nombreux blessés et au moins 25 morts. Le Jammu-et-Cachemire reste soumis à une répression sévère, notamment par la fermeture prolongée d'Internet qui en est à son sixième mois. Internet a été partiellement rétabli en janvier, mais des restrictions subsistent, ce qui fait de cette fermeture la plus longue jamais enregistrée dans une démocratie. Les fermetures d'Internet sont également utilisées dans tout le pays afin d'entraver la liberté de réunion pacifique. CIVICUS encourage les États à faire part de leurs préoccupations concernant l'Inde et à demander une enquête sur la répression violente des manifestations pacifiques, ainsi qu'à abroger les dispositions discriminatoires de la loi sur la citoyenneté.

    Mandats thématiques

    Le Rapporteur spécial sur les défenseurs des droits de l'homme

    Le mandat du Rapporteur spécial sur les défenseurs des droits de l'homme sera renouvelé lors de cette session. Il s'agit d'un mandat crucial qui a un impact sur tous les domaines d'intervention de CIVICUS, et nous encourageons les États à co-parrainer la résolution à un stade précoce. Le Rapporteur spécial présentera son rapport annuel sur les défenseurs des droits de l'homme dans les situations de conflit et d'après-conflit, et rendra compte de ses visites en Colombie et en Mongolie. CIVICUS encourage les États à affirmer leur co-parrainage de la résolution dès le début de la session.

    Liberté d'expression

    Le mandat du Rapporteur spécial sur la liberté d'expression doit être renouvelé lors de cette session, à un moment où les coupures d'Internet sont de plus en plus utilisées comme une tactique pour limiter la liberté d'expression, l'accès à l'information et la liberté de réunion pacifique. Nous encourageons les États à co-parrainer le renouvellement de cet important mandat à un stade précoce.

    Liberté de religion et de croyance (FoRB)

    Le Rapporteur spécial sur la liberté de religion et de croyance présentera son rapport annuel, qui cette année se concentre sur l'intersection de la religion et de la croyance, du genre et des droits OSIG, et rendra compte des visites de pays au Sri Lanka et aux Pays-Bas. CIVICUS s'intéressera au Sri Lanka et à l'Inde, qui ont tous deux connu des évolutions en matière de liberté de culte.


    Le président-rapporteur de deux séminaires intersessionnels sur la contribution que le Conseil peut apporter à la prévention des violations des droits de l'homme présentera le rapport de ces séminaires.

    CIVICUS soulignera le lien entre l'espace civique et la prévention - le fait que les fermetures dans l'espace civique sont souvent des précurseurs de crises plus larges des droits humains, et qu'en intervenant au niveau de l'espace civique, le Conseil a un rôle à jouer pour assurer la prévention de ces violations des droits humains.

    CIVICUS et les événements des membres lors de la 43ème session du Conseil des droits de l'homme des Nations unies (les événements seront retransmis en direct sur lapage Facebook de CIVICUS):

    Le 27 février (11h00 UTC+1, salle VII), un événement parallèle discutera de la situation critique actuelle au Nicaragua, et de l'importance d'un mandat de surveillance renforcé.

    Le 2 mars (14:00 UTC+1, Salle VII), CIVICUS et ses partenaires organisent un événement sur la crise de l'espace constitutionnel et civique en Inde.

    5 mars (13:00 UTC+1, Salle VII),CIVICUS co-parraine un événement mené par ICNL et les partenaires du consortium Civic Space Initiative sur la lutte contre le financement du terrorisme tout en préservant l'espace civique.

    Le 12 mars (12h30 UTC+1, Salle XXI), CIVICUS co-parraine un événement parallèle sur l'utilisation de la force meurtrière dans les manifestations en Iran et en Irak, et les réponses de la communauté internationale.

    Membres actuels du Conseil :

    Afghanistan; Afrique du Sud; Angola; Arabie Saoudite; Argentine; Australie; Autriche; Bahamas; Bahreïn; Bangladesh; Brésil; Bulgarie; Burkina Faso; Cameroun; Chili; Chine; Croatie; Cuba; Danemark; Égypte; Érythrée; Espagne; Fidji; Hongrie; Inde; Irak; Islande; Italie; Japon; Mexique; Népal; Nigeria; Pakistan; Pérou; Philippines; Qatar; République démocratique du Congo; République tchèque; Royaume-Uni et Irlande du Nord; Rwanda; Sénégal; Slovaquie; Somalie; Togo; Tunisie;  Ukraine; Uruguay.

  • SRI LANKA : « Le contrôle des médias a donné au gouvernement un grand avantage »

    CIVICUS s’entretient avec Sandun Thudugala, directeur des programmes du Law and Society Trust (LST), au sujet des élections législatives qui ont eu lieu au Sri Lanka le 5 août 2020, dans le contexte de la pandémie de la COVID-19. LST est une organisation de recherche et de défense juridique fondée en 1982 à Colombo, au Sri Lanka, dans le but de promouvoir des réformes juridiques pour améliorer l’accès à la justice, la judiciarisation des droits et la responsabilité des institutions publiques.

    A l’approche des élections d’août 2020, le CIVICUS Monitora documenté le fait que les avocats de droits humains et les journalistes étaient victimes d’arrestations, de menaces et de harcèlement. Unrapport du rapporteur spécial des Nations unies (ONU) sur les droits à la liberté de réunion pacifique et d’association, publié en mai 2020, a également montré que la société civile était confrontée à des difficultés d’enregistrement et de fonctionnement et à divers obstacles à l’exercice du droit de manifestation.

  • Sri Lanka government must respect the rule of law and protect civic space

    CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance and The Innovation for Change South Asia Hub are extremely concerned about the political crisis in Sri Lanka and its impact on the rule of law and civic space in the country.

    We are gravely concerned that President Maithripala Sirisena has undermined the rule of law by unconstitutionally removing the sitting Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and replacing him with former President and current Member of Parliament Mahinda Rajapaksa overnight. Rajapaksa’s administration was implicated in serious violations during the final stages of Sri Lanka’s civil war and the suppression of freedoms of the media, expression, and association.

    This was followed by a decision to undemocratically suspend Parliament denying Members of Parliament, who exercise sovereignty on the peoples’ behalf, the ability to assemble at this crucial time. We demand that the Parliament be reconvened immediately allowing representatives of the people to decide the way forward and to prevent the nation from plunging into a state of political instability and impunity.

    Our organisations are also alarmed by reports of the forcible take-over of state media institutions and intimidation of journalists disrupting the free flow of information to the public. We condemn such actions and call on the authorities to ensure that press freedom, a crucial component of a democracy is respected.

    We are also concerned that these political developments may put the civic freedom of Sri Lankans at risk. Citizens must be allowed to exercise their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association.

    We hope that Sri Lanka’s democratic gains of the past several years will not be lost and we stand in solidarity with civil society and human rights defenders from Sri Lanka at this difficult time.


    Omid Salman (I4C South Asia Communications Specialist):

    Josef Benedict (CIVICUS Research officer):

  • Sri Lanka: Release youth activist Nathasha Edirisooriya and drop charges

    Nathasha Edirisooriya pic 3

    CIVICUS, a global civil society alliance, urges the government of Sri Lanka to immediately release youth activist and stand-up comedian Nathasha Edirisooriya and drop the charges against her unconditionally. Her arrest and detention go against the country’s international human rights obligations to protect fundamental freedoms.

    Nathasha Edirisooriya was arrested on 27 May 2023, accused of insulting Buddhism and hate speech for two jokes made during a comedy performance published on YouTube three days earlier. An edited clip of the performance was circulated, resulting in severe social media backlash. She retracted the video the same day and publicly apologised.

    On the night of 27 May 2023, Nathasha was prevented from travelling and subsequently arrested by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) at the Bandaranaike International Airport. The police initially refused access to lawyers or her partner.

    Despite her apology, online harassment and threats against her escalated, and the location of her residence was shared online. She faced trolling, serious threats of violence, and rape.

    On 28 May, she was charged under Section 3 of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act No. 56 of 2007, Section 291A (deliberate intention of wounding the religious feelings of any person) and 291B (deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of persons) of the Penal Code of Sri Lanka and the Computer Crimes Act. She was denied bail on the basis that her release would result in ‘public disturbance’ and was remanded until 7 June 2023. Her bail was then extended until 21 June.

    “The arrest of Nathasha Edirisooriya highlights the increasing intolerance in Sri Lanka towards freedom of expression, including satire. Her detention is a clear attack on artistic expression and a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The charges against her must be dropped immediately,” said David Kode, Advocacy and Campaigns Lead at CIVICUS.

    Nathasha Edirisooriya is one of the few practicing women stand-up comedians in Sri Lanka. She has actively created and defined a space for herself as a feminist who addresses issues of gender, sex, chauvinism and misogyny, moral and religious hypocrisy, education, family life and mental health through her stand-up comedy.

    She has also been part of the CIVICUS Youth Action Lab for grassroots Global South youth activists building resilient and sustainable movements for a more equitable world. In 2021 she conducted a piece of research titled ‘Decoding Sexual Harassment’ to understand the instigation of sexual harassment in Sri Lanka.

    CIVICUS is also concerned about the use of ICCPR Act against Nathasha Edirisooriya, which among other provisions, criminalises the advocacy of “national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence”. No credible evidence has been presented to substantiate the charges. Further, the CIVICUS Monitor has documented how the law has been misused over the years to criminalise activists, stifle freedom of expression and detain and silence poets, writers and others.

    “This is another example of the authorities' blatant misuse of the ICCPR Act. It has been systematically misused to silence free speech and to keep individuals behind bars for long periods. The law must be amended so that it is not used to deter or discourage individuals from freely expressing their opinions,” added Kode.

    The UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief has pointed out that the present Act is not fully compatible with Article 19 of the ICCPR. Instead of being used to protect minorities against incitement, it has been invoked to protect religions or beliefs against criticism or perceived insult. The UN Human Rights Committee also raised concerns on the misuse of the law and stated in March 2023 that the authorities have failed to grant bail in a timely manner to individuals charged under the Act.

    Civic space in Sri Lanka is rated as "Repressed" by the CIVICUS Monitor

  • SRI LANKA: ‘By peacefully protesting, we hope to protect our democracy’

    Bhavani FonsekaCIVICUS speaks about protests in Sri Lanka in response to the country’s deepening economic crisis and civil society’s role in supporting protesters with human rights lawyer Bhavani Fonseka of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA).

    CPA is a Sri Lankan civil society organisation (CSO) and leading public policy research think tank. It advocates for policy alternatives of non-violent conflict resolution and democratic governance to facilitate post-war recovery in Sri Lanka. 

    How significant are the current economic protests in Sri Lanka? What are the main demands?

    The protests are spontaneous and come as a direct result of the current economic crisis, which is imposing a heavy burden on the people. They have been suffering from severe hardships due to a lack of essential items, including medicines, long power cuts and skyrocketing prices. Such a catastrophic situation manifested in several citizens dying while waiting in fuel queues. In response, people have taken to the streets in peaceful protests across the country for more than a month.

    It is important to state that the widespread protests are not linked to any political party. The opposition held their own protests weeks ago and continue to protest currently. But the ongoing protests that are catching global media attention are largely driven by angry citizens who oppose the involvement of politicians and members of parliament in their peaceful protests. The reason behind this is that there is frustration with existing political parties, including the opposition; people denounce them for not doing enough as representatives of the people.

    In line with that, the thousands of people who have continued to protest in recent weeks demand a radical change. They call for the President and government to step down, a peaceful transition of power, and for structural reforms including the abolishing of the executive presidency. There is also a loud call to address immediate needs such as shortages of essential items, livelihoods and rising cost of living, among the many other calls from the protesters.

    The impact of the peaceful protests was evident when there were mass-scale resignations from the cabinet on 3 April. But the call for the resignation of the President and Prime Minister has yet to materialise. As the protests expanded and became extremely vocal, people sent a clear message to the regime that a real change is needed. Protesters insist on the resignation of the president and the prime minister. They chant on the streets ‘Go Home Rajapaksas’ and ‘Go Home Gota’ – referring to the president – and post on social media under the hashtag #GoHomeGota2022.

    Sri Lanka has not seen this scale of protests in recent years – none that I can remember. Even the older generations are saying that they have not seen a similar movement. As most of these protests are peaceful, they are making a difference by raising the profile of our domestic issues across the region and internationally. As a result, there is a recognition that the situation is quite bad in Sir Lanka.

    What do you think the resignation of the cabinet means for the prospect of political change? What role is the army playing?

    The country is also seeing a political crisis with the mass resignation of the cabinet, which is extremely significant. It shows there is an unstable government ruling the country under mounting pressure from both protesters and the economic crisis.

    A few weeks ago, the country was ruled by a powerful family, the Rajapaksas, but now there are only two members of this family who remain in power, the president and the prime minister. We are going through a very unprecedented time that raises many questions about the future of Sri Lanka, including the question of whether this government can continue in the way of ruling it has been doing it so far.

    Regarding the possible drift towards militarisation, the military institution is a powerful force, and its influence has increased sharply in recent post-war years with former military officials holding various positions in government with an active role in governance. In that sense, the drift toward militarisation is a great concern for the Sri Lankan people as the political vacuum may be an opportunity for military rule.

    What is the scale of arrests among protesters?How have CSOs, including your organisation respond?

    The authorities responded to the protests with arrests even though most of these protests were peaceful. For instance, security forces arrested around 50 people near the president’s residence when a protest became violent. But according to reports most of those arrested weren’t involved in that incident; we found out later that the violence was orchestrated by certain groups. There were random arrests of people who are now before the court.

    Also, when the state of emergency was declared, there were several arrests of people for breaking the curfew.

    From our side, CPA and other CSOs have issued several public statements commenting on the situation and reminding of the rights guaranteed in our constitution. Personally, I have been protesting for a month now and my colleagues have joined the peaceful protests. We are protesting because it is a democratic right. In this regard, civil society and citizens have taken a stand on the need to uphold constitutional democracy because we are now confronted by an unprecedented political and economic crisis in Sri Lanka. By peacefully protesting, we hope to protect our democratic rights and our democracy.

    Overall, the mobilisation of lawyers and of civil society to offer solidarity and support are quite high. Over 500 lawyers turned up to support those who were arrested on 31 March, and many other instances have seen lawyers appearing to protect the rights of citizens. 

    How have protests mobilised despite the arrests and social media shut down?

    I do not think that arrests of the protesters prevented others from joining protests. Not at all. In fact, I think the violence unleashed on peaceful protests coupled with the economic crisis prompted more to join the protests. Despite the curfew on the first weekend of April, there were thousands who came to the streets that Sunday to protest peacefully. This was a large-scale civil disobedience from the citizens, unprecedented in Sri Lanka because it is the first time, we have seen such large numbers of people coming to peacefully protest during a curfew. 

    Regarding the social media shutdown, it is now being challenged in court, and we will see how it goes. Sri Lanka’s people are highly creative and resilient, and many used virtual private networks (VPNs) to continue to use social media to communicate and protest against the government. Every attempt used by this government to stop people from protesting, from speaking out, has failed.

    Generally, I believe that it is amazing how people are stepping out, creating ways of protesting despite the challenges and hardships.

    Civic space in Sri Lanka is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) through itswebsite orFacebook page and follow@CPASL on Twitter. 

  • SRI LANKA: ‘El control de los medios le dio al gobierno una gran ventaja’

    CIVICUS conversa con Sandun Thudugala, Director de Programas de Law and Society Trust (LST), acerca de las elecciones legislativas que tuvieron lugar en Sri Lanka el 5 de agosto de 2020, en el contexto de la pandemia del COVID-19. LST es una organización de investigación y defensa legal fundada en 1982 en Colombo, Sri Lanka, con el objetivo de promover reformas legales para mejorar el acceso a la justicia, la judicialización de los derechos y la rendición de cuentas de las instituciones públicas.

    Ante las elecciones de agosto de 2020, el CIVICUS Monitordocumentó el hecho de que abogados de derechos humanos y periodistas estaban siendo sujetos a arrestos, amenazas y acoso. Uninforme del Relator Especial de la Organización de las Naciones Unidas (ONU) sobre el derecho a la libertad de reunión pacífica y de asociación, publicado en mayo de 2020, también mostró que la sociedad civil enfrentaba desafíos para registrarse y operar y diversas barreras para el ejercicio del derecho de protesta.

    Sandun Thudugala

    ¿Cuál era la situación de las libertades cívicas y la sociedad civil antes de las elecciones?

    Como ocurre en muchos otros países, en Sri Lanka la situación de las libertades cívicas y el espacio para la sociedad civil siempre ha sido precaria. Incluso bajo el gobierno anterior, que se suponía que apoyaba más a la sociedad civil y a la agenda de derechos humanos, continuaron los esfuerzos para introducir nuevas leyes draconianas para controlar la sociedad civil y socavar las libertades básicas en nombre de la lucha contra el terrorismo.

    La situación empeoró con la elección de Gotabaya Rajapaksa como nuevo presidente en noviembre de 2019. Su campaña electoral, basada en las ideas de la supremacía del budismo cingalés, la sociedad disciplinada y la seguridad nacional, recibió el apoyo de una abrumadora mayoría, y en particular de la comunidad budista cingalesa. El resultado fue interpretado como un mandato otorgado al gobierno para que pudiera socavar las libertades básicas y el espacio cívico en nombre de la seguridad nacional y el desarrollo.

    Ha habido indicios de una mayor militarización de todos los aspectos de la sociedad y del debilitamiento de las instituciones democráticas, como el nombramiento de miembros de las Fuerzas Especiales Presidenciales, que solo rinden cuentas al presidente, en puestos clave de gobierno. También se ha transmitido un claro mensaje de falta de voluntad del Estado para cumplir sus obligaciones internacionales, incluida la Resolución 30/1 del Consejo de Derechos Humanos de la ONU, que el gobierno anterior había apoyado y perseguía el objetivo de promover la reconciliación, la rendición de cuentas y los derechos humanos en Sri Lanka tras el conflicto interno desarrollado entre 1983 y 2009. Lo mismo se observa en relación con los mecanismos nacionales de derechos humanos.

    Han aumentado la vigilancia de las actividades de la sociedad civil y los arrestos de activistas activos en las redes sociales. Esto ha reflejado claramente el intento de socavar las libertades y el espacio cívico ante las elecciones. La situación se vio agravada por la pandemia del COVID-19. La necesidad de hacer frente al virus ha sido utilizada como excusa para incrementar la militarización y la concentración de poder en manos del presidente.

    ¿Cuáles fueron los principales temas de campaña?

    El gobierno, encabezado por el recientemente electo presidente Rajapaksa, del partido Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), quería alcanzar la mayoría de los dos tercios en el Parlamento para estar en condiciones de reformar la actual constitución y otorgar poderes adicionales al presidente. Ese ha sido el principal objetivo de la campaña electoral del SLPP. La necesidad de un gobierno fuerte para proteger las aspiraciones de la mayoría budista cingalesa, defender la soberanía nacional y fomentar el desarrollo económico fueron, por consiguiente, algunos de los principales temas de su campaña. La popularidad que tenía el presidente tras su victoria en las elecciones presidenciales fue utilizada para movilizar a los votantes en apoyo del SLPP.

    Los principales partidos de la oposición estaban divididos, y en la campaña electoral sus conflictos internos fueron más prominentes que sus mensajes electorales. Una de sus principales promesas fue brindar asistencia económica a las personas pobres que habían resultado más afectadas por la pandemia del COVID-19 y el confinamiento.

    Durante la campaña electoral ninguno de los partidos principales puso de relieve cuestiones centrales tales como la necesidad de fortalecer los sistemas de gobernanza democrática, la justicia para las víctimas de la guerra, y la búsqueda de soluciones de más largo plazo para los problemas étnicos o las causas fundamentales de la pobreza rural, el endeudamiento y la desigualdad.

    ¿Hubo alguna discusión acerca de la conveniencia de realizar las elecciones en el contexto de la pandemia?

    El gobierno quería llevar a cabo las elecciones lo antes posible. Estaba dispuesto a realizarlas en abril de 2020, tal como estaba previsto, aun cuando estábamos en lo peor de la pandemia. Casi todos los partidos de la oposición se opusieron a la celebración de elecciones en abril. Posteriormente, la Comisión Electoral decidió posponerlas hasta agosto de 2020 debido a los riesgos para la salud que podría conllevar su realización. En agosto la situación había mejorado considerablemente, por lo que no hubo una gran oposición a la realización de las elecciones, que tuvieron lugar el 5 de agosto.

    Hasta donde yo sé, no se consideró la posibilidad de habilitar el voto vía internet para esta elección. No creo que Sri Lanka tenga la infraestructura y la capacidad para ofrecer esa opción en este momento. Más del 70% de los votantes habilitados emitieron sus votos y, con excepción de las personas que todavía se encontraban en centros de cuarentena, no experimentaron obstáculos significativos a la hora de votar. Aunque sí hubo incidentes cuando algunas fábricas privadas negaron a sus empleados el permiso para ir a votar.

    ¿Fue posible desarrollar una campaña “normal” en el contexto de la pandemia?

    La Comisión Electoral publicó una serie de pautas sanitarias e impuso controles importantes sobre la campaña electoral. No se permitieron grandes mítines o reuniones, pero el gobierno y los principales partidos de la oposición violaron estas pautas sanitarias al organizar abiertamente actos públicos y otras reuniones, y no enfrentaron ninguna repercusión. Quedó claro que los partidos con mayor poder contaban con una clara ventaja que les permitía eludir ciertas reglas. Además, los candidatos de los principales partidos políticos, que tenían más dinero para invertir en campañas en medios electrónicos y en redes sociales, corrieron con una clara ventaja sobre los demás.

    Gracias a su control sobre los medios estatales y al apoyo que recibió de la mayoría de los medios privados, tanto electrónicos como impresos, el gobierno tuvo una clara ventaja sobre la oposición durante la campaña electoral. Los partidos políticos más pequeños de la oposición se encontraron en la posición más desventajosa, ya que no obtuvieron ningún espacio significativo de aire ni de publicidad en los principales medios de comunicación.

    Esto seguramente afectó los resultados de las elecciones, en las que el SLPP, liderado por el presidente Rajapaksa y por su hermano, el expresidente Mahinda Rajapaksa, obtuvo 145 escaños parlamentarios sobre un total de 225. El partido opositor Samagi Jana Balavegaya, establecido a principios de 2020 como resultado de un desprendimiento del Partido Nacional Unido, de derecha, obtuvo 54 escaños. El partido Illankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi, que representa a la minoría étnica tamil, obtuvo 10 escaños, y otros 16 escaños se dividieron entre 12 partidos más pequeños. En consecuencia, el 9 de agosto el hermano del presidente fue designado Primer Ministro de Sri Lanka por cuarta vez.

    ¿Pudo la sociedad civil desempeñar algún rol significativo en el proceso electoral?

    Aparte de participar en el monitoreo de las elecciones, la participación de la sociedad civil independiente en el proceso electoral fue mínima. Este fue un cambio drástico en comparación con las elecciones de 2015, en las cuales la sociedad civil desempeñó un rol clave en la promoción de una agenda de buena gobernanza y reconciliación en el marco de la campaña electoral. Las divisiones dentro de la oposición y el contexto del COVID-19 dificultaron el efectivo involucramiento de las organizaciones de la sociedad civil en el proceso. Algunas organizaciones intentaron producir un discurso sobre la importancia de proteger la 19a enmienda a la Constitución, que limitaba los poderes presidenciales al tiempo que fortalecía el papel del parlamento y las instituciones independientes y los procesos de rendición de cuentas, pero no obtuvieron espacios significativos para discutir estos temas en los medios de comunicación ni en ningún otro espacio público.

    El espacio cívico en Sri Lanka es calificado de “obstruido” por elCIVICUS Monitor.

    Contáctese con Law and Society Trust a través de susitio web o su página deFacebook, y siga a@lstlanka y a@SandunThudugala en Twitter.

  • SRI LANKA: ‘Media control gave the government a definite advantage’

    CIVICUS speaks to Sandun Thudugala, Head of Programmes at the Law and Society Trust (LST), about the legislative elections held in Sri Lanka on 5 August 2020, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. LST is a legal research and advocacy organisation founded in 1982 in Colombo, Sri Lanka, with the goal of promoting legal reforms to improve access to justice, the justiciability of rights and public accountability.

    Ahead of the August 2020 elections, the CIVICUS Monitordocumented that human rights lawyers and journalists in Sri Lanka faced arrests, threats and harassment. Areport by the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, published in May 2020, also showed that civil society faced challenges in registering and operating along with various barriers to protest.

    Sandun Thudugala

    What was the situation for civic freedoms and civil society ahead of the elections?

    As in many other countries, the situation of civic freedoms and the space for civil society has always been in a vulnerable situation in Sri Lanka. Even under the previous government, which was supposed to be more supportive towards civil society and the human rights agenda, efforts to introduce new draconian laws to control civil society and the undermining of basic freedoms in the name of counterterrorism continued.

    The situation got worse with the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the new president in November 2019. His election campaign, which was built on the ideas of Sinhala Buddhist supremacy, disciplined society and enhanced national security, was supported by an overwhelming majority, especially from the Sinhala Buddhist community. This result was seen as a mandate given to the government to undermine basic freedoms and civic space in the name of national security and development.

    There have been signs of an increased militarisation of every aspect of society and the undermining of democratic institutions, such as the appointment of members of Presidential Task Forces – which are accountable only to the president – to handle key governance functions. There has also been a clear message of unwillingness to cooperate with the state’s international obligations, including by complying with UN Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1, which the previous government had co-sponsored and which was aimed at promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka after the 1983-2009 internal conflict, as well as with local human rights mechanisms.

    There have been increased surveillance of civil society activities and arrests of social media activists. This has clearly reflected a trend of undermining civic freedoms and civic space before the elections. The situation was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The need to deal with the virus has been used as an excuse to increase militarisation and the concentration of power in the hands of the president.

    What were the main issues the campaign revolved around?

    The government led by newly elected President Rajapaksa, of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party (SLPP), was seeking a two-thirds majority in parliament to be able to amend the current constitution and give the president additional powers. That’s been the major election campaign goal of the SLPP. The need to have a strong government to protect the aspirations of the Sinhala Buddhist majority, defend national sovereignty and foster economic development were therefore among their major campaign themes. The popularity the president gained after winning the presidential election was used to mobilise voters to support the SLPP.

    The main opposition parties were divided, and their internal conflict was more prominent in the election campaign than their actual election messages. One of their major promises was to provide economic assistance for poor people who were most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns.

    Issues such as the need to strengthen democratic governance systems, justice for war victims, longer-term solutions to ethnic issues or the root causes of rural poverty, indebtedness and inequality were not highlighted during the election campaign by any of the major parties

    Was there any debate around whether the election should be held during the pandemic? 

    The government wanted to conduct the election as soon as possible. It was willing to hold the election in April 2020, as planned, even at the height of the pandemic. Almost all opposition parties were against holding the election in April. The Election Commission subsequently decided to postpone it to August 2020 due to the health risks it might entail. By August, the situation had got considerably better and there was no major opposition to conducting the elections, which took place on 5 August.

    As far as I know, online voting was not considered as an option for this election. I do not think that Sri Lanka has the infrastructure and capacity to adopt such an option at this moment. More than 70 per cent of eligible voters cast votes and apart from the people who are still in quarantine centres, people experienced no major barriers in casting their votes. There were however incidents of some private factories denying leave for their employees to vote.

    Was it possible to have a normal campaign in the context of the pandemic?

    Health guidelines were issued by the Election Commission, which imposed significant controls on election campaigning. No major rallies or meetings were allowed, but the government and the main opposition parties violated these health guidelines by convening public rallies and other meetings openly, without any repercussions. It was clear that the parties with power had a clear advantage in overstepping certain rules. Additionally, candidates from major political parties, who had more money to use for electronic and social media campaigns, had a definite advantage over the others.

    Due to its control over state media and the support it received from most private media, both electronic and print, the government had a definite advantage over the opposition during the election campaign. The smaller opposition political parties were at the most disadvantageous position, as they did not get any significant airtime or publicity in mainstream media.

    This surely impacted on the election results, in which the SLPP, led by President Rajapaksa and his brother, former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, won 145 seats in the 225-member parliament. The opposition Samagi Jana Balavegaya party, which was established in early 2020 as a breakaway from the right-wing United National Party, won 54 seats. The Illankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi party, which represents the Tamil ethnic minority, won 10 seats, and 16 other seats were split among 12 smaller parties. As a result, on 9 August, Mahinda Rajapaksa was appointed Prime Minister of Sri Lanka for the fourth time.

    Was civil society able to engage in the election in a meaningful way? 

    Apart from being engaged in election monitoring processes, the engagement of independent civil society in the election was minimal. This is a drastic change when compared to the 2015 election, in which civil society played a key role in promoting a good governance and reconciliation agenda within the election campaign. Divisions within the opposition and the COVID-19 context made it difficult for civil society organisations to engage effectively in the process. Some organisations tried to create a discourse on the importance of protecting the 19th amendment to the Constitution, which curbed presidential powers while strengthening the role of parliament and independent institutions and accountability processes, but didn’t get any significant spaces within the media or any other public domains to discuss these issues.

    Civic space in Sri Lanka is rated as ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with the Law and Society Trust through itswebsite orFacebook page and follow@lstlanka and@SandunThudugala on Twitter.

  • SRI LANKA: ‘People are scared of expressing themselves freely’

    Ruki FernandoIn April 2019, more than 250 people were killed and hundreds injured in a terror attack in Sri Lanka that targeted three churches and three hotels. The following day, anemergency law came into effect, giving the police extensive powers to detain and interrogate suspects without court orders. Over a hundred people arereportedly being held in custody in connection with the attacks. Since the attacks, civil society has reported a discriminatory ban on face veils, a spate ofattacks against Muslim-owned businesses, mosques and houses in several parts of Sri Lanka and displacement, arrests and reprisals against refugees and asylum-seekers.

    The following month, May 2019, marked a decade since the end of Sri Lanka’s brutal armed conflict. According to civil society groups, the government hasfailed to provide justice for the conflict’s many victims. The Office on Missing Persons and the Office for Reparations were established following delays, but neither is fully functioning. There has been no progress on establishing a war crimes tribunal with international involvement.

    CIVICUS speaks to human rights activist Ruki Fernando about the situation of civic space and civil society in Sri Lanka. Ruki Fernando has been involved in human rights and social justice issues for about two decades and is an adviser toINFORM, a human rights documentation centre in Colombo that was established in 1990 to monitor and document the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, in the context of ethnic conflict and the civil war.

    How do you access the quality of democracy in Sri Lanka today?

    We are heading for another crisis in democracy. I think very good indicators of democracy are how minorities are treated and how dissent is treated. We can see the gradual erosion of the way minorities are being treated in Sri Lanka, both ethnic and religious minorities. And more recently after the Easter Sunday bombings, we have seen a lot of hostility towards the Muslim population. A lot of the arrests were of people who later turned out to be innocent but who were detained on suspicion simply because they are Muslims. And there have also been reprisal attacks directed against the Muslim community.

    At the same time, we have seen a crackdown on the freedoms of peaceful assembly and expression. For example, at the moment we have a writer, Shakthika Sathkumara, who is detained because of a story he wrote. We have other writers who have been threatened with arrests. We are seeing the misuse of laws that supposedly exist to protect human rights, notably the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act.

    What has been the effect of the political and constitutional crisis that occurred in late 2018 between the president and prime minister?

    The relationship between the president and the prime minister has become much worse since the end of the constitutional crisis in 2018 and I think this has very negatively affected the ability of the government to protect and ensure the security of its citizens. It seems the president and the prime minister are both accusing each other over who is responsible for the terror attacks and who was negligent.

    What is the record of the current government in respecting and protecting fundamental rights of association, peaceful assembly and expression in Sri Lanka?

    We have seen a large number of peaceful protests for rights by many groups such as students, farmers, families of disappeared people, people whose land is occupied by the military and people affected by the project such as landfills. In several of them, protesters have been attacked physically and people have been arrested and ill-treated in detention.

    On the freedom of association, in 2018 the government tried to bring in an amendment to the existing laws that would enable them to exercise a lot of control and scrutiny over civil society organisations (CSOs) and other forms of civil formation, including civic movements, but due to outrage and criticism, this has since been withdrawn. Since then we’ve seen some alarming raids on the offices of human rights organisations, humanitarian organisations, particularly in the Northern Province (which was impacted on most severely by the conflict) in the last couple of months. The Easter Sunday attacks are being used as an excuse for these, but the real reasons could be attempts by the state, especially the security establishment, to exercise more scrutiny and control of civic mobilisation. These send a very alarming signal for the freedom of association.

    What is the situation for civil society in Sri Lanka a decade after the end of the conflict in 2009? What are some of the challenges civil society continues to face?

    I would say after the end of the war in 2009 there were two distinct phases. One is the dictatorial regime of the Rajapaksa family, which ended in 2014. During this time there was a very little space for the freedom of association and assembly. From 2015 onwards, we saw an increase in the space for the freedoms of association and peaceful assembly. However, the gains we made from 2015 and 2016 are being rolled back and there is an increasing crackdown.

    Why is this rollback of human rights happening?

    The promises of justice – whether its transitional justice, gender justice, economic justice or environmental justice have not materialised in the way that people expected them to, after 2015. There is frustration among a lot of communities and a large number of communities are agitating now. With the government unwilling or unable to address and provide redress and solutions to the people, they have turned increasingly repressive. This government we have right now is a coalition government. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is linked to one major party, the Sri Lanka United National Party, and another section of the coalition is linked to the other major party, President Maithripala Sirisena's Sri Lanka Freedom Party. They have been in power together since 2015, and I think in 2015 there was a lot of hope that the parties had put aside their past repressive ways. However, I think those repressive ways are re-emerging, and it is not very surprising that these two parties, which have a history of repression, are resorting to it again.

    Some activists and survivors continue to demand truth, justice and reparations for victims of the conflict. How far has this progressed?

    Very little. I think we have seen some very minimal progress on truth processes in relation to some people who have disappeared. We have seen some progressive developments in a few cases and some truth being revealed in the courts through investigations, as well as a few people being arrested. However, just a couple of weeks back we saw the police personnel responsible being acquitted over the killing of a group of young people – the 'Trinco five' case – in 2006. So, although we have seen a few results of some investigations and some people being arrested, we have not seen convictions. We have not seen prosecutions in a majority of these cases. So there has been very slow progress.

    One area where there has been some progress is with the release of land that was occupied by the military, though again, lots of land still remains to be released and community protests continue. Community protests and nonviolent direct actions prompted the release of some land in 2017 and 2018.

    How have the recent terrorist attacks affected the situation for civil society?

    In the months prior to the Easter Sunday attacks, there was a campaign and momentum building up against the anti-terror laws in Sri Lanka. We have a very draconian law that has existed for over 40 years, the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and the government had proposed a replacement for that, the Counter-Terrorism Act, which is equally repressive. There was a campaign against these for several months, but now it’s become very difficult to press forward with this campaign because of the overwhelming public opinion that the law should be used against terrorists. And then immediately after the terror attacks the government brought in emergency legislation that imposes many restrictions on the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression. Truthfully, we have seen a lot of repression using these various regulations in Sri Lanka. A lot of people are very scared now of expressing themselves freely. Many struggles for human rights and justice by affected communities, victim families and survivors of violations have been negatively affected in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday attacks.

    We have seen an increase in the use of the ICCPR Act in recent months. Why is this the case?

    The ICCPR Act must be used against the people responsible for provoking and creating violence against the different religious communities, particularly minorities religious communities. We have not seen that for more than a decade but suddenly we have seen the ICCPR Act being used against the people expressing themselves. I think the most visible example was of a women who wore a symbol depicting a ship’s helm, which was deemed to look like a Buddhist symbol, and she was arrested and detained. More worrying is the detention of writer Shakthika Sathkumara. One of the problems is that under this law there is no bail allowed. So, anyone who is arrested under the ICCPR Act can be detained for months and months.

    What support does Sri Lankan civil society need from the international community and international CSOs to help build greater respect for human rights and democratic freedoms?

    I think it is important to extend support in whatever way possible for those who continue to wage various struggles and to challenge the present government in terms of human rights and social justice on a wide range of issues. The focus of transitional justice needs to be broadened to encompass social justice issues, such as the rights of tea workers, who are campaigning for a minimum wage, something that is yet to be realised. There are a lot of other socioeconomic issues that Sri Lankan communities and activists have been advocating for through their protests, writings and national-level advocacy, but these should be supported internationally as well. International support for human rights and social justice should not be limited only to transitional justice, although that it is an important dimension.

    I think it is important for intergovernmental bodies such as the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council to stay engaged with the Sri Lanka government. Sri Lanka should be on the agenda of the Human Rights Council and there should be close scrutiny about the extent to which Sri Lankan has implemented commitments made nearly four years back in 2015 in the Human Rights Council’s Resolution 30/1. Continuous international engagement by civil society groups internationally as well as by foreign governments and UN Officials is very important.

    Civic space inSri Lanka is rated as ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor

    Follow Ruki Fernando@rukitweets on Twitter

  • SRI LANKA: ‘The ongoing protests have put the government on the defensive’

    RukiFernandoCIVICUS speaks about protests in response to deepening economic crisis in Sri Lanka with Ruki Fernando, a human rights activist, writer and consultant to the Centre for Society and Religion (CSR) in Colombo.

    How significant are the current protests in Sri Lanka?

    This protest movement is the biggest and most diverse one I have ever experienced in Sri Lanka. The protests are largely driven by angry, frustrated, disappointed citizens. Mainly the protests have been triggered by the ramification of the economic crisis that reached its peak with shortages of fuel, electricity, gas and medicines among many essential items that either disappeared from the market or had their prices hiked.

    Most protests have taken place around Colombo, the capital, and its suburbs. Still, there have been protests all over the county. A large continuous day and night protest has been happening at the Galle Face Green in Colombo adjoining the Presidential Secretariat and similar initiatives have appeared in other districts. In addition to the streets, social media has been an important battleground. 

    Protesters are also now demanding the truth about people who disappeared during Sri Lanka’s civil war and even before. Their demands have expanded beyond the severe financial crisis to call for those in power to be held accountable for war crimes, crimes against humanity, disappearances and killings, disappearances and assaults on journalists.

    The protesters are demanding long-term legal and institutional changes to the current governance system that must start with the resignation of the Sri Lankan president Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the Rajapaksa family, the ruling family. Others call for the abolition of the 20th amendment to the constitution, which expanded the president’s executive powers.

    Protest slogans calling on the president to ‘Go Home’ are now evolving into ‘Go to Jail’ and ‘Return Stolen Money’.

    Do you think the protests will make a difference?

    These protests have put the government on the defensive. As a result, the cabinet resigned and the government lost its majority in parliament when more than 40 lawmakers abandoned the ruling coalition to become independent members of parliament. These mass resignations are quite significant, as it proves that small groups can influence the political system. However, I believe we are still long way from any real change and meeting all people’s aspirations, especially for poor people and marginalised groups, including ethnic and religious minorities.

    Repressive measures did not last in the face of the ongoing protests. The authorities had to release arrested protesters and revoke the declaration of emergency, the curfew was not extended, and the social media shutdown was withdrawn.

    I believe that when President Rajapaksa revoked the declaration of a state of emergency on 5 April, it was because he realised, he was not able to sustain the necessary parliamentary majority that was needed for its continuation.

    Most importantly, these protests, which are largely being led by young and students, represent a political awakening of various groups of our nation. Many women, older people, LGBTQI+ people, lawyers, religious clergy, artists and well-known people such as former cricketers have been part of the protests. They have enriched the spirit of defiance, resistance, courage and creativity unleashed by youth, on an unprecedented scale.

    How has civil society responded to the arrest of protesters?

    More than 50 people, including journalists and bystanders were arrested after the protest had marched on the evening of 31 March to the president’s residence. Other arrests since have led not only to fear, but also outrage. As a result, the protesters have received much public sympathy and support from lawyers, journalists and the public. Some civil society groups support and stand with the protesters, but most significant roles in the protest movement is by ordinary people, especially young people.

    Do you think repression will dissuade people from protesting in bigger numbers?

    We cannot deny that the proclamation of a state of emergency, curfew and the shutdown imposed on some social media platforms led to fears. At the same time, the curfew was challenged by tens of thousands of protesters who came to the streets to protest despite the curfew. Overall, these repressive measures galvanised more people to join, organise and support protests.

    Aside from that, there is fear and uncertainty about what the future may hold for our country. There are many concerns about a potential military–police crackdown, especially after the shooting at protesters in Rambukkana that had led to at least one death and several others injured. There have been other incidents of concern, such as the presence of police trucks at the key protest site, special training for the military at army camp in Ganemulla and police reporting about the main protest site to courts. There are also worries about sustaining the protests and a lack of clear political alternatives. But it has been an inspiring, heartening moment to see so many people, especially young people, standing up, creatively and courageously. As I said earlier, this is a moment of political awakening for many.

    How can the international community best support Sri Lankan civil society?

    They must show solidarity for our struggles for justice, including economic justice, ethnic justice, gender justice and environmental justice. In that sense, the international community must defend and protect protesters and those criticising, questioning and challenging the government.

    On the economic level, international financial institutions, foreign governments and multinational corporations must not engage in exploitative and opportunistic practices in Sri Lanka. They should refrain from going ahead with investments that will negatively affect economic justice, economic democratisation and labour rights.

    Civic space in Sir Lanka is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Ruki Fernando through hiswebsite and follow@rukitweets on Twitter. 

  • SRI LANKA: ‘They arrest us to stop us, silence us and instil fear in others’

    CIVICUS speaks with Hejaaz Hizbullah, a human rights defender who waskept in detention for 22 months under Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).

    Based in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, Hejaaz is an attorney and a minority rights advocate who fights hate speech against the Muslim community. He began his career at the Attorney General’s Department and started his own law practice in 2012. He has litigated in several important cases before the Supreme Court and is among the lawyers who challenged the dissolution of parliament in 2018.


    What kind of work were you doing when you were arrested and why do you think you were targeted?

    In 2012 a hard-line Buddhist group emerged in Sri Lanka calling itself ‘Bodhu Bala Sena’, or Buddhist Force. The group began a nationwide campaign against Muslims that was based on lies, Islamophobia and hate speech. They sought to stir up Sinhala Buddhists, Sri Lanka’s majority, against the Muslim minority. Similar groups soon proliferated. As a result, there were incidents of violence against Muslims all over Sri Lanka. Muslim girls got their hijabs ripped off, Muslim businesses were attacked and torched, and Muslims were harassed everywhere.

    I began my human rights work in response to these very extraordinary circumstances. With two colleagues I launched an anti-hate hotline, a telephone helpline to assist victims of hate speech and hate crimes. We helped people protect themselves and assert themselves against racism and hate by using the tools provided in the law. We also monitored these incidents and prepared reports to bring the situation to the attention of the government.

    This work led to me appearing in cases involving human rights and constitutional law issues. One of the earliest cases I appeared in was the case of a Muslim schoolgirl who wanted to go to school in a uniform approved by the Ministry of Education that also respected her cultural and religious norms, which school authorities objected to. The case concluded with the Attorney General upholding the student’s right to wear an approved uniform of her choice that met her cultural and religious norms.

    In 2018 the then-president dissolved parliament, sacked the prime minister and appointed another one, and called for general elections. This was challenged by political parties and by a member of the Sri Lankan Elections Commission, whom I successfully represented before the Supreme Court.

    This was the kind of work I was doing when I was arrested, and there are various theories regarding why I was targeted. My arrest may have been part of an attempt to scapegoat selected Muslims who were critical of the government’s treatment of Muslims and blame them for the Easter Sunday bombings, a series of coordinated Islamist terrorist suicide bombings in April 2019. They tried to silence us personally and as a community. In that sense, my arrest is no different from so many arrests of lawyers all over the world. They arrest us to stop us, silence us and instil fear in others.

    How were you treated while in detention?

    During the first 10 months I was a detainee, so I was under police custody; then I was produced before a judge and I became a remand prisoner. For the following year I was in the custody of the Prisons Department, and my experience was radically different.

    As a detainee you are in the custody of those who are trying to frame you and fix you for an offence you did not commit. For 24 hours, seven days a week, you are exposed to your tormentors and under their control – for everything, including food, sleep and family and lawyer visits. Remand prison was different because the guards just knew I was a special case but beyond that they did not care much about me.

    As a detainee I was locked up 24 hours a day: the cell was opened only to let me use the toilet or go for questioning. In remand prison we spent around six hours a day outside in the yard, which was good. However, both places degrade you and seek to destroy you mentally and psychologically. I am happy that I survived without too many scars; many are not that lucky.

    Were you aware of the international solidarity around your case and how does it feel to be out on bail?

    As a detainee I knew very little, just what my wife would tell me when I met her on Saturdays for around 15 minutes. It was only after I was remanded that I learnt more about the support I was receiving from the international community. This gave me real hope and made me even more determined to fight back, so it was incredibly helpful. I am grateful for the support I received and for the international and local pressure that forced the Attorney General to agree to release me on bail.

    Being free is like being born again. I am slowly trying to rebuild my life. My imprisonment had deep effects on the lives of my family: everybody’s life was on pause for almost two years. But being on bail is not easy: I am always looking behind my shoulder and concerned about the progress of my case.

    What are your thoughts on the use of the PTA law?

    In its judgment on my case, the Court of Appeal described the PTA as a ‘draconian law’ leading to a cycle of abuse. That is precisely what it is. The PTA puts detainees into a legal blackhole from which they find it almost impossible to get out. I am a lawyer and had lots of legal backing, support and attention, and still found it tough. Many others don’t have a fighting chance.

    The government has recently made some amendments to the PTA, but they have not changed some of the worst aspects of the law, such as the use of confessions against those who are co-accused. Whilst amendments have been cosmetic, they have in fact opened a window for judges to intervene, and if they do, the situation of detainees may improve. I think the judiciary will grab this opportunity.

    What is the current state of civic freedoms in Sri Lanka?

    My answer to your question would have been different if not for what I am seeing today. It seems freedom is what we carve out for ourselves through courage. Desperate times have pushed people to desperate measures, and they have now overcome their fears and are fighting for their freedom. They are fighting in the legal space that has been created through years of jurisprudence. The theoretical space has now been occupied in real time and I feel is also being expanded. All good news! However, this is not due to any state intervention but due to the actions of people responding to the dire circumstances they find themselves in.

    How can international civil society and the international community support criminalised human rights defenders?

    When human rights activists are arrested, the state would like the whole world to forget them. They hope grand allegations and prolonged detentions will suffocate everyone’s will and resolve to fight. Civil society and the international community can help us by keeping us alive outside the prison walls: by asking the important questions and putting pressure on the government to justify its actions.

    Civic space inSri Lankais rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Follow@hejaazh on Twitter 

  • SRI LANKA: ‘Trolls accusing people of being traitors are organised and political’

    Ahead of the Sri Lankan presidential elections on 16 November 2019, CIVICUS spoke with Sandya Ekneligoda, a human rights defender and campaigner for justice for families of people who have been disappeared. Sandya is the wife of disappeared cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda and has been subjected to a barrage of hate, abuse, intimidation, harassment and death threats on social media.

    sanya Eknaligoda

    Photo: Ravindra Pushpakumara

    Can you tell us about the campaign on enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka and how you became involved in it?

    My husband Prageeth Ekneligoda was abducted in January 2010. Since that terrible day, I have campaigned for the truth behind his disappearance. When domestic efforts failed, I traveled to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva to press for justice. During my activism journey, I have worked with other mothers of the disappeared to raise awareness. We have asked the government to deliver on the truth behind the thousands of disappearances in our country. We also want the authorities to give support to families who often struggle with their livelihoods once a family member has been taken.

    There has been some progress with the International Convention on Disappearances, signed in 2007 and in effect since 2010, but much work needs to be done to find the truth and support the victims. The Convention has not yet resulted in relevant domestic legislation. To keep momentum going on Prageeth’s case I have attended court over a hundred times tracking the habeas corpus case. Meanwhile, in the north, hundreds of mothers have been protesting on the streets seeking answers about their children. Justice for those disappeared remains a critical issue for the country to resolve.

    What threats have you faced for your advocacy?

    I have faced a number of different threats. I have been called a traitor and received hate speech on Facebook. In 2016, Prageeth and myself became the targets of a defamation campaign that took many forms, including public speeches and posters smearing my name. I believe this was an organised smear campaign by the Rajapaksa clan, the clan of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. I have also been targeted by nationalistic Buddhist monks. Venerable Gnanasara Thero, General Secretary of the Bodu Bala Sena, a Buddhist nationalist organisation, threatened me as I was monitoring Prageeth’s court case. I filed a case against him, and he was found guilty by the court in Homagama in 2019. After this decision I got a lot of vicious threats, including threats to kill me and my children.

    In 2018, I managed to navigate my way through one of the Rajapaksa clan’s attempts to lure me into a trap. They sent one of their men, a former air force officer, to meet me. He offered to disclose information on chemical weapons in return for safe passage to the USA. I do not believe this was genuine; it was a way of distracting me from my important work to seek justice for Prageeth. These obstacles have not stopped me fighting for justice but they make life as an activist challenging.

    What is the situation for civil society in Sri Lanka a decade after the end of the conflict?

    Between 2010 and 2015 the situation for civil society in Sri Lanka was terrible. Repression was so severe we faced imminent threats of being forcibly disappeared or killed if we spoke out. We saw the state using the Prevention of Terrorism Act to try to silence activists. An example of this was the 2014 unlawful detention of Balendran Jeyakumary, an activist campaigning for the disappeared.

    After political change in 2015 the situation improved. There have been some incidents but space to talk about issues has increased. Recently, however, we have seen more clampdowns on the freedom of expression, including the arrest of Shathika Sathkumara, an award-winning writer, as well as of journalist Kusul Perera. This really troubles me. Although the environment is calmer, we see toxic elements appearing in social media. Trolls accusing people of being traitors and disseminating hate speech have emerged on Facebook and other social media platforms. This is organised and political.

    Are there any particular issues affecting civil society and the space for civil society that you are concerned about ahead of the elections?

    The participation in the elections of Gotabaya Rajapkasa, former defence chief and brother of Mahinda Rajapkasa, has re-energised racists and nationalists, who had been a bit dormant after 2015. These elements are now becoming quite vocal and issue threats. For example, following a petition filed by Gamini Viyingoda and Chandragupta Thenuwara querying Gotabaya’s eligibility for elections, Madumadawa Aranvinda, a politician, posted the comment that roughly translated as “there was a name which sounds like Viyangoda which was Ekneligoda and best wishes to you both and good luck.” As my husband was disappeared for speaking out, this was clearly a threat to the petitioners to stay silent.

    Ahead of the elections there’s a looming possibility that violence will erupt. There have already been some examples. When Gotabaya’s legal team won the petition, a Gotabaya supporter set fire to the house of a United National Party supporter. In a highly polarised context, with the two bigger parties fielding strong candidates, it’s possible that the parties will encourage proxies to incite violence. This violence could also turn against civil society activists raising issues. I feel wary of the path ahead as impunity prevails, as reflected in the little progress experienced in mine and other cases.

    What support does Sri Lankan civil society need from the international community and international civil society to help build greater respect for human rights and democratic freedoms?

    If Gotabhaya comes into power there will be a surge in threats. International civil society groups should be ready to help those most at risk, like myself, who have named and shamed him. This is an important time for international civil society to show its solidarity with activists in Sri Lanka and check in with friends and colleagues on protection needs. It’s also really important that organisations continue to work with the victims who raised awareness about the need for truth following the end of the war despite the threats they faced. Civil society organisations must stay vigilant and keep pushing on investigations for important justice cases in Sri Lanka, such as my fight for the truth about what happened to my husband, Prageeth.

    Civic space in Sri Lanka is rated as ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    This interview was undertaken by independent researcher Yolanda Foster on behalf of CIVICUS.

  • SRI LANKA: ‘We’ve held Pride celebrations since 2004; we’re very proud of what we have achieved’

    RosannaFlamerCalderaCIVICUS speaks about the status of LGBTQI+ rights and progress being made towards decriminalising homosexuality in Sri Lanka with Rosanna Flamer-Caldera, founder and Executive Director of EQUAL GROUND.

    Founded in 2004, EQUAL GROUND is the oldest LGBTQI+ civil society organisation (CSO) in Sri Lanka. It fights for the recognition and realisation of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights and focuses on empowerment, wellbeing and access to health, education, housing and legal protection services for Sri Lanka’s LGBTQI+ people.

    How has the situation of LGBTQI+ rights in Sri Lanka recently changed?

    We still have laws inherited from British colonial times that date back to 1883. These are articles 365 and 365A of the Penal Code, which criminalise ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature’ and ‘acts of gross indecency’. Both of these target LGBTQI+ people.

    Sri Lanka is among over 40 former British colonies that also criminalise same-sex sexual relationships between women. In 2018, I filed a complaint with the United Nations (UN) Committee for the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. In its decision, finally taken in February 2022, the Committee requested that the Sri Lankan government decriminalise homosexuality in general and between consenting same-sex women specifically.

    Soon after, in August 2022, a private member’s bill to decriminalise homosexuality was put forward in parliament. In February 2023, in response to Sri Lanka’s Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council, where most LGBTQI+ organisations requested the repeal this legislation, the Sri Lankan Minister of Foreign Affairs said that Sri Lanka would follow this recommendation, while making clear it would not legalise same-sex marriage. We understand that’s a fight for another day.

    In the meantime, the bill reached the attorney general of Sri Lanka, who released an order that both articles of the Penal Code were to be repealed rather than amended, which made us very happy. But as soon as the bill started being discussed in parliament, a petition was filed claiming it was unconstitutional. There were more than 12 intervening petitions filed to counter this petition, and in response the Supreme Court issued a ground-breaking decision stating that the bill amending the Penal Code to decriminalise consensual same-sex behaviour does not violate the Constitution of Sri Lanka. The case specifically touched upon the concepts of human dignity and privacy underlying equal rights for all, because the preamble of our constitution recognises the value of dignity. The Supreme Court of India used a similar argument in a 2018 case on the right to equality, saying that ‘life without dignity is like a sound that is not heard. Dignity speaks, it has its sound, it is natural and human’.

    Now, the bill is up for a parliamentary vote, and all it needs to pass is a simple majority. While the government has said it will decriminalise homosexuality, there are still homophobes in the government. But we hope that the vote will turn out positively. 

    What role has civil society played in the case?

    EQUAL GROUND was among the organisations that submitted petitions in the case that was filed with the Supreme Court. Not only LGBTQI+ organisations, but many other CSOs and individuals also took part in the process. Petitions were also filed by a former UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women and by professors, lawyers, activists and people from all walks of life. The was a lot of positive media coverage, on top of civil society work to create awareness and take to the media to promote the issue.

    Of course, there has also been backlash, with some members of parliament attacking the bill and others reconsidering support following a recent Pride march that many thought was not appropriate to Sri Lankan culture due to partial nudity and problematic messaging.

    How would you describe relations between Sri Lanka’s LGBTQI+ people and state authorities?

    The police have played a huge role in subjugating LGBTQI+ people in Sri Lanka. Not coincidentally, the first event at Colombo Pride 2023 will be devoted to discussing the more than 200 human rights violations against LGBTQI+ people that have been recently recorded in Sri Lanka. In most cases the perpetrator has been linked to the police.

    In 2021, EQUAL GROUND filed a case against the police for hiring a motivational speaker who propagated among officers a narrative connecting child abuse and homosexuality. We won the case and the police have been forced to distribute instructions to all police stations alerting officers to be very mindful of their treatment of LGBTQI+ people, particularly transgender people. This has made it clear that asking for sexual favours, blackmailing LGBTQI+ people and stopping them on the streets with no probable cause is against the law.

    With the aim of protecting LGBTQI+ people from police brutality, we reopened the case, and the police have recently promised to the court that they will change the terminology to make it inclusive of all LGBTQI+ people. Our strategy was to engage only three LGBTQI+ people along with several heterosexual people, to show the court this was an issue for everyone and not just LGBTQI+ people. Doing it with straight support also showed that not everyone shared anti-LGBTQI+ prejudice. The fact that we filed these cases and got some form of commitment from the authorities was ground-breaking.

    Our upcoming Pride march has been sanctioned by the police. We sought their permission, and we’re proud to say that we have been the first organisation to officially get it. Right now, we have a very good Inspector General of Police, he’s easy to talk to, but there’re rumours he will be replaced in three months. I would say there are mixed elements in the current relations between LGBTQI+ people and the authorities.

    How does EQUAL GROUND advocate for LGBTQI+ rights?

    Our fight, even after decriminalisation is achieved, will continue to aim to integrate LGBTQI+ people into our society. This is the cause we have been working on for the last 19 years.

    We’ve held sensitising and educational programmes around the country. We’ve run a lot of social media and mainstream media campaigns, produced research backing our claims regarding the number of people who identify as LGBTQI+ in Sri Lanka and the kind of challenges they face, and have created self-help books for families and allies of LGBTQI+ people. We have an ongoing campaign that has been running for over a year called ‘Live with Love‘, targeted at people who are not haters but are rather neutral or in-between, and could be swayed either way.

    All that’s happened over the last 19 years has given rise to many other LGBTQI+ organisations in Sri Lanka that have become involved in advocacy and the struggle for non-discrimination and decriminalisation. When we established our organisation back in 2004, we were the only ones fighting for all LGBTQI+ people, and we remained alone in this journey for a very long time. Only after 2015 did other organisations and people start coming out and getting involved. Until then we lived under a dictatorship and it was difficult to be open, but we have held Pride celebrations since 2004. Our Pride celebrations are turning 19 this year, and so is EQUAL GROUND. We’re very proud of what we have achieved so far.

    What forms of international support are Sri Lanka’sLGBTQI+ organisations receiving, and what further support would you need?

    We are quite underfunded due to inflation and the ever-rising cost of living, so we aren’t sure that we can retain good staff considering the scale of wages we’re able to pay. We’ve also lost funding due to the fluctuating exchange rate. The state of the economy is one of our major issues, so funding is always welcome.

    EQUAL GROUND has been constantly involved in various networks internationally that have opened up avenues of funding and learning, including the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) and ILGA Asia, Innovation for Change (I4C), and the Commonwealth Equality Network, a network of Commonwealth countries and their LGBTQI+ organisations.

    Civic space in Sri Lanka is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with EQUAL GROUND through itswebsite or itsFacebook page, and follow@EQUALGROUND_ on Twitter.

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