Continuous crackdown on protestors was condemned by various local and international human rights organizations and respective organizations called upon the then government to act in accordance with international human rights treaties that Sri Lanka is signatory to. In a newly released report, the r Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) documents how the state has continued to violate General Comment 37 on Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
The 60-page report titled ‘Anatomy of a Crackdown – The repression of Sri Lanka’s aragalaya Protest movement’ is released ahead of Sri Lanka’s fourth Universal Periodic Review (UPR), which will take place on 1February 2023 in Geneva, Switzerland. The UPR is a UN-backed peer preview of the human rights record of all UN member states. This report, which has been produced with the support of the Centre for Human Rights and Development (CHRD), is based on interviews conducted by FIDH with the total of 42 people (32 men and 10 women) between August and October 2022. In July 2022, in their joint submission for the UPR, FIDH and CHRD detailed numerous human rights violations, including violations of the right freedom of peaceful assembly.
The core of the report highlights on relentless repression carried out by authorities including the imposition of unnecessary and disproportionate restrictions on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly through the declaration of a State of Emergency and the adoption of Emergency Regulations.
The invocation of emergency powers by Sri Lanka’s Presidents to quell public protests was unnecessary and unjustified. Under Article 4 of the ICCPR, a declaration of a State of Emergency should only made in response to situation that “threatens the life of the nation.” According to the UN Human Rights Committee’s General Comment No.37 on Article 21 of the ICCPR, restrictions on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly on the grounds of “interest on national security” may be invoked to protect the “existence of the nation, its territorial integrity or political independence against the credible threat or use of force. “Such thresholds were never met by the aragalaya protests,” the report reads.
The report also documents hoe President Ranil Wickremasinghe imposed sweeping restrictions on peaceful assemblies by declaring areas surrounding the Parliament Complex, Presidential Secretariat, the President’s and Prime Minister’s official residences, the Prime Minister’s Office and other areas in Colombo as High Security Zones. “The sweeping prohibition of assemblies in public places is inconsistent with General Comment No.37, which states that there can be no “blanket ban on all assemblies in the capital city […] or on all the streets in a city.” Moreover, the General Comment states that blanket restrictions on peaceful assemblies are “presumptively disproportionate,” the report further states.
The deployment of military to police protests, misinterpretation of the Police Ordinance, lack of adequate human rights training for police officers deployed to control crowds, shoot-on sight orders and threats to the right of life too have been observed in this report.
“In their crackdown on the aragalaya, Sri Lankan authorities systematically violated the international human rights law and standards with complete impunity. President Wickremesinghe’s recent pledge to use the military and emergency powers to prevent the resurgence of a protest movement should alarm bells. It is imperative the international community remains vigilant and presses the government to respect and protect the rights of protesters,” said FIDH Secretary- General Adilur Rahman Kghan.
The authorities also imposed unnecessary and disproportionate restrictions on assemblies through the use of emergency powers and abuse of laws, including the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). Amid these violations, members of law enforcement agencies have not been held accountable for abuses they committed against aragalaya protesters.
The FIDH therefore calls upon the government to implement its recommendations to uphold the right to freedom of peaceful assembly in a manner consistent with its international human rights obligations. Some of its key recommendations are: Recognize that the freedom of peaceful assembly plays a decisive and indispensable role in the existence of an effective democracy. Guarantee a conducive and safe environment for all those who exercise, or seek to exercise, their right to freedom of peaceful assembly, including women, youth, persons with disabilities, LGBTIQ persons, those belonging to minorities, and other marginalized groups. Refrain from using national security legislation, including the Prevention of Terrorism Act, to criminalized protest organizer and participants for the legitimate exercise of their right to freedom of peaceful assembly. Carry out prompt, thorough, effective, and impartial investigations into all allegations of attacks, threats harassment, and other human rights violations against those who exercise their right to freedom of peaceful assembly, and hold the perpetrators accountable. Provide training to law enforcement officials to respect and protect the rights of peaceful assembly participants, including women, children and persons with disabilities. Conduct periodic human rights training to law enforcement officials, with the assistance of relevant domestic and international human rights bodies, on the policing of assemblies.
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