The Sri Lankan government should end the targeted arrests, intimidation and threats against the lives and physical security of lawyers, activists, human rights defenders and journalists, the ICJ and 9 other international human rights organizations said today.
A campaign of fear has intensified since the 2019 presidential election, and has cast a shadow over the 2020 parliamentary election campaign.
The United Nations, as well Sri Lanka’s partners and foreign donors, should immediately call for full respect, protection and fulfillment of the human rights of all Sri Lankans, and particularly to halt the reversal of fragile gains in the protection of human rights in recent years.
Numerous civilian institutions, including the NGO Secretariat, have been placed under the control of the Defence Ministry. Serving and retired military officers have been appointed to a slew of senior government roles previously held by civilians.
The authorities have recently established military-led bodies such as the Presidential Task Force to build “a secure country, disciplined, virtuous and lawful society,” which has the power to issue directives to any government official. This represents an alarming trend towards the militarization of the state.
Since the presidential election in November 2019, anti-human rights rhetoric intended to restrict the space for civil society has been amplified by senior members of government.
On 6 July 2020, at an election rally, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa stated that “NGOs will be taken into a special attention under the new government formed after the General Election, specifically, how foreign monies and grants are received to the NGOs from foreign countries and further, activities of the international organizations will be observed.”
In the months following the November 2019 presidential election, a number of organizations reported visits from intelligence officers who sought details of staff, programs and funding, in particular, organizations in the war-affected Northern and Eastern provinces of the country. Such visits are blatant attempts to harass and intimidate Sri Lankan civil society.
In February, the acting District Secretary in the Mullaitivu District (Northern Province) issued a directive that only non-governmental organizations with at least 70 percent of their activities focused on development would be allowed to work, effectively enabling arbitrary interference with and prevention of a broad range of human rights work.
A Jaffna-based think-tank was visited several times, including soon after the Covid-19 lockdown, and questioned about its work, funding and staff details.
Lawyers taking on human rights cases have been targeted through legal and administrative processes and have faced smear campaigns in the media.
Journalists and those voicing critical opinions on social media, have been arbitrarily arrested. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed alarm at the clampdown on freedom of expression, including the 1 April announcement by the police that any person criticizing officials engaged in the response to Covid-19 would be arrested.
It is unclear whether there is any legal basis for such arrests. The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka has cautioned against “an increasing number of such arrests since the issuing of a letter dated 1 April 2020”.
The targeting and repression of journalists and human rights defenders is not only an assault on the rights of these individuals, but an attack on the principles of human rights and the rule of law which should protect all Sri Lankans.
These policies have a chilling effect on the rights to freedom of expression and association, which are crucial for the operation of civil society and fundamental to the advancement of human rights.
Those working on ending impunity and ensuring accountability for past crimes, and especially victims, victim’s families, members of minority communities, and networks in the Northern and Eastern provinces, are particularly at risk of intimidation and harassment.
The Sri Lankan authorities must end all forms of harassment, threats, and abuse of legal processes and police powers against lawyers, human rights defenders and journalists. Human rights defenders living and working in Sri Lanka should be able to carry out their peaceful human rights work without fear of reprisals, which requires a safe and enabling environment in which they can organize, assemble, receive and share information.
Sri Lanka-Harassment civil society-Advocacy-2020-ENG (the full statement with additional information, in PDF)