Sri Lanka: provide accountability for communal violence while respecting rights

The Sri Lankan government must act swiftly and in line with human rights to prosecute those responsible for recent communal violence.

Particularly for attacks against the minority Muslim community in Kandy district, while avoiding the abusive practices of the past, said the ICJ today.

Sri Lanka’s President, Maithripala Sirisena, proclaimed an island-wide state of emergency on 6th March 2018, following a curfew imposed in several areas since Monday.

The action came following a spate of attacks against members of the Muslim community that was spreading in the Kandy district, following attacks in Ampara last week, in Gintota in 2016, and Aluthgama in 2014.

“The government must show that it will bring to account those who have incited communal violence, particularly notorious figures who have been emboldened by the pervading impunity to preach hatred openly and publicly. The arrest of key suspects yesterday is a start and convictions must follow,” said Frederick Rawski, ICJ’s Asia director.

“But the government must ensure that its investigation is impartial and effective and follows due process of the law,” he added.

The ICJ called upon the government of Sri Lanka to swiftly prosecute those responsible for inciting and carrying out the communal violence using existing legal provisions in the Penal Code and the ICCPR Act, the latter of which prohibits advocating “national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.”

The ICJ is concerned that the Emergency Regulations issued by the President through powers under the Public Security Ordinance, confer excessively broad powers on the army and the police to search, arrest and investigate.

“Given Sri Lanka’s experience of Emergency Regulations, the government should ensure that these regulations are time-bound and comply with Sri Lanka’s international human rights obligations, including under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” said Rawski.

The government has further restricted access to selected instant messaging applications and social media platforms “as an extraordinary but temporary response to limit the increasing spread of hate speech and violence through social media websites and phone messaging applications.”

“Blocking social media and other communication channels, even with the best of intentions, typically has the negative effect of restricting affected persons from seeking assistance, journalists from reporting around the situation and may actually undermine efforts to counter violence and hate speech. Any such measures should be narrowly targeted and limited in time,” said Rawski.

“A better approach would be for the Sri Lankan government to aggressively push back against these hateful narratives by demonstrating in actions as well as its rhetoric that Sri Lanka is a diverse country in which all of its citizens’ rights are respected and protected equally,” he added.


Chapter XVIII of the Constitution and the Public Security Ordinance of Sri Lanka empowers the President to make emergency regulations in the interest of ‘public security and the preservation of public order or for the maintenance of supplies and services essential to the life of the community.’ Sri Lanka has a history of governance using emergency powers, which in the past has posed a challenge for democratic governance and human rights, providing law enforcement with wide powers, circumventing ordinary checks and balances.

The President, while justifying circumstances that led to his proclamation of a state of emergency, has stated that he “has given special instructions the Police and the tri-forces to take action in terms of these regulations, in a lawful manner in good faith while ensuring minimum disturbance to the life and well-being of people, in conformity with Fundamental Human Rights of people.”

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