Sri Lanka: A year after Presidential elections, civic freedoms under increasing assault

A year on from the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as President of Sri Lanka, global civil society alliance CIVICUS is extremely concerned about the country’s regression in civic freedoms. Research undertaken by the CIVICUS Monitor – which rates civic space in Sri Lanka as ‘obstructed’ – shows a worrying pattern of increasing restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly and association, often with impunity. Human rights defenders, journalists and critics who speak out are facing increasing levels of surveillance, judicial harassment and threats. At the same time, the Rajapaska administration has reneged on both domestic and international human rights commitments, leaving the country on a precipice of a human rights downward spiral.

A crackdown on fundamental freedoms

As civic space has been squeezed tighter under the Rajapaksa administration, human rights lawyers, activists and academics have been targeted with arrests, intimidation and threats for speaking up. Prominent human rights lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah has been held in detention for more than seven months under the country’s repressive Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) without charge or any credible evidence being put before a court. His trial has been postponed to February 2021. In May 2020, lawyer Achala Seneviratne, who is representing the families in a case where 11 youth disappeared in which Navy officers are implicated, received death threats on social media. In June 2020, lawyer Swasthika Arulingam was arrested and detained for several hours in Colombo for attempting to enquire about the detention of Black Lives Matter protestors. 

In September 2020, the United Nations Secretary General António Guterres raised concerns over the Sri Lankan government’s intimidation of human rights activists in his annual report on reprisals. The report stated that the UN had “received continued allegations of surveillance of civil society organisations, human rights defenders and families of victims of violations, including repeated visits by police and intelligence services, questioning organisations about their staff and activities related to the UN”.

Amidst other such warning signs of a rapidly deteriorating human rights situation are increasing acts of intimidation against journalists. In the first few months after the elections, unidentified people physically attacked journalists several times, and issued death threats against reporters perceived as critical of the government. Security officials have also searched media offices. Many have resorted to self-censorship and fear covering sensitive issues – a virtually all-encompassing brief, including the army, human rights violations, missing peoples, land-grabbing, political corruption, and the Rajapaksa family themselves. In a number of cases, authorities have openly surveilled journalists, using official vehicles for maximum intimidation. 

Protesters, too, have been intimidated and subject to surveillance. Even families of the disappeared, participating in rallies in the northern and north-eastern districts to obtain answers about the fate of their loved ones in the final stages of the civil war in 2009 and its aftermath, have been  interrogated by military personnel, often at odd and intrusive times. Surveillance of such families was noted by the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association in his May 2020 report.

Increasing state control over civil society 

Numerous civilian institutions, including the NGO Secretariat, which regulates non-governmental groups, have been placed under the control of the Defence Ministry. Independent NGOs are increasingly under threat as the administration have sought to restrict them. A number of NGOs, particularly those in the war-affected Northern and Eastern provinces of the country, reported visits from intelligence officers who sought details of staff, programmes and funding. The UN has reported on concerns from civil society organisations, especially in the north and east of the country, of being denied the right to for groups working on politically sensitive issues, such as LGBTQI+ rights, disappearances, land rights and transitional justice. These refusals typically come in verbal form, without any documentation, reasons or avenue for appeal.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has reneged on the Sri Lanka government’s  commitment to repeal the repressive Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) with legislation that respects its international human rights obligations. The PTA has been used to arbitrarily detain suspects for months and often years without charge or trial. In 2017, the UN special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism found that the law “has fostered the endemic and systematic use of torture. 

Sri Lanka’s international commitments

In February 2020, Sri Lanka announced that it was withdrawing from its commitments to the UN Human Rights Council. The country had cosponsored a landmark resolution in 2015 to promote reconciliation, accountability and human rights, renewing these commitments in further UNHRC resolutions in 2017 and 2019. There are real risks that ongoing failure to date to secure any accountability or justice for victims of human rights abuses and violations during the decades-long conflict will continue. Coupled with violations of civic space and democratic freedoms ratcheting up in the country, now would be a disastrous time for international attention to fall from Sri Lanka. 

A resolution on the human rights Council’s role in preventing human rights crises, adopted in October this year, reaffirmed that CSOs and human rights defenders have a role to play in preventing human rights emergencies, by providing information on early warning signs and on patterns of human rights violations. Attacks against such actors serve as early warning signs in and of themselves, underscoring the need for ongoing Council scrutiny at a time when all the human rights patterns documented by civil society groups and the UN itself point to hard-fought democratic gains being progressively rolled back. 

We therefore urge the government of Sri Lanka to undertake the following as a matter of urgency: 

  • Put an end the harassment, stigmatisation, intimidation, unlawful surveillance and arrest of human rights defenders, journalists and groups seeking truth and justice for victims of the civil war and ensure that they can freely express their opinions and dissent without fear of reprisals.
  • Ensure that journalists may work freely and without fear of retribution for expressing critical opinions or covering topics that the government may find sensitive.
  • Release human rights lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah, repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act and replace it with counterterrorism legislation that respects international legal standards.
  • Ensure a safe and enabling environment for activists in which they can organize, assemble, receive and share information.

We further urge the international community to ensure a robust response to Sri Lanka’s human rights violations and its attempts to undermine UN mechanisms, including at the Human Rights Council. We call on the Council to establish an international accountability mechanism which would deliver truth and justice to victims of the conflict, and to take steps to protect those human rights defenders and activists on the ground, including those documented above, who face attacks and threats for speaking out. The attempted silencing of these voices could prove the early warning ahead of an impending human rights emergency.

 

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