31 July 2014 – Global civil society alliance, CIVICUS is shocked over moves in Sri Lanka to stifle civil society and muzzle democratic freedoms, particularly the rights to freely express, associate and assemble.
“With the political opposition effectively marginalised in Sri Lanka, civil society is thus the only alternative source of objective analysis of government policies and practices. But activists and independent civil society organisations are being targeted on an unprecedented scale,” said David Kode, Policy and Research Officer at CIVICUS.
On 1 July 2014, the National Secretariat for NGOs which operates under the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development issued a circular calling on NGOs to desist from “conducting press conferences, workshops, trainings for journalists and dissemination of press releases.” Indicative of Sri Lankan authorities’ intolerance of dissent, these activities are now being regarded as “unauthorised” and “beyond the mandate” of NGOs.
Furthermore, in another recent worrying development in July, the NGO Secretariat announced that it was investigating three NGOs for failing to comply with legal provisions but did not reveal the identities of the organisations it sought to target.
Civil society organisations in Sri Lanka are increasingly wary as the authorities are currently discussing amendments to the Voluntary Social Service Organisations Act which governs the activities of NGOs. The proposed amendments will make it compulsory for NGOs to register with the NGO Secretariat, place a limit on the amount of funds NGOs will be able receive from foreign donors and impose additional legal and administrative restrictions on their operations. Currently 1421 NGOs are registered with the NGO Secretariat.
Despite official rhetoric that the end of the civil war in 2009 ushered in a new era of democracy where constitutional rights are respected, democratic dissent remains severely imperilled in Sri Lanka. Civil society groups critical of official policy remain at high risk of persecution while being frequently demonised for criticising the government and for taking their concerns before the international community. CIVICUS’ 2013 report, ‘Sri Lanka’s Harassed Civil Society’ highlights some of these trends.
CIVICUS urges the international community to engage Sri Lanka’s government to respect democratic dissent and create an “enabling environment” for civil society in line with constitutional and international law standards.