Reflecting on Sri Lanka’s worsening economic, humanitarian and political crisis, the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) organised an online public event on 19 September 2022 to amplify the experiences of human rights defenders and civil society activists at the frontlines of mass protests, assess developments since March, and discuss ways forward.

Prominent human rights defenders Father Jeevantha Peiris, Amali Wedagedara, Ruki Fernando, and Prashandini Uthayakumar shared their unique insights and experiences in the mega-economic crisis, its everyday manifestations, and the ‘janatha aragalaya’ (people’s struggle).

In the face of its worst economic crisis since independence marked by power outages, and fuel and food shortages, Sri Lankans have taken to the streets in record numbers — earlier to demand the resignation of then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and then against incumbent President Ranil Wickremesinghe.

The former and the current governments have responded to peaceful protestors with an iron fist: declaring a state of emergency, curfews, arbitrary arrests, physical violence against protestors, and severe restrictions on social media.

Researcher Amali Wedagedara discussed how international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) played a role over the past 45 years in Sri Lanka’s economic collapse.

‘It is an everyday crisis in which people are struggling to meet their basic needs, and this has propelled them into the streets. It is the young people at the forefront, protesting against the loss of their future and dreams. It is the breakdown of a so-called popular government, of a leader who had won with a massive mandate in 2016,’ said Wedagedara.

Protest leader Fr. Jeevantha Peiris said that the ongoing struggle is the most ‘genuine freedom struggle’ that the nation has witnessed.

‘Irrespective of religion, caste, colour, creed and political ideology, the people of Sri Lanka have unified against the tyranny of the Rajapaksa regime, despite the continuous efforts of the governing class to divide Sri Lankans,’ said Fr Peiris.

Fr. Peiris reiterated a need for a paradigm shift: economical, political and social change that spurs structural change, rather than just a change in the country’s leadership.

Prashandhini Uthayakumar, attorney at law, addressed the increasing rights-based violations by the majoritarian government which have put minority groups, particularly Muslims and Tamil communities, at risk. Tamil communities are demanding reparations, not just for dignified lives, but for land-grabbing, human rights violations, including enforced disappearances and torture, and other war crimes.

‘Tamils in Sri Lanka have to be recognised as equal citizens and as stakeholders in power-sharing and governance,’ said Uthayakumar.

Human Rights Defender Ruki Fernando remarked on how the janatha aragalaya (people’s struggle) has been recognised by the government and the international community as an unprecedented form of activism that is shaping peoples’ movements in Sri Lanka.

However, the movement is marred with reprisals against peaceful protestors, ideological differences amongst the protestors, and the international community’s apathy to the debilitating debts owed to the IMF. Ruki made recommendations to the international community, particularly as they convene at the ongoing 51st session of the United Nations Human Rights Council.

‘Although there has been significant attention given to Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council, progress towards a strong resolution on human rights in Sri Lanka has been slow.

The draft resolution currently being discussed at the Council appears to be uncritical of the engagement between Sri Lanka and the IMF, and fails to consider the repercussions of the country’s debt on Sri Lanka’s human rights situation.

The draft resolution needs work. We especially need countries in South Asia to support a strong resolution,’ said Fernando.

Recommendations by FORUM-ASIA

The international community comprising States, human rights organisations, movements and networks must come together in support of Sri Lankans and join their struggle for democracy, State accountability, and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms of all.

Speakers at the online event reiterated the calls of Sri Lankan human rights defenders and civil society activists, namely to:

  • Urge the Sri Lankan government to swiftly repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2002 (PTA) which is bring wielded to stifle public debate and dissent, and target religious and ethnic minorities.
  • Urge the Sri Lankan government to immediately cease all acts of repression, hostility, and intimidation against human rights defenders, civil society activists, student activists, trade union leaders, and the media demanding State accountability for the mishandling of the economic crisis. Past and current affronts to human rights and fundamental freedoms must be held accountable. Human rights defenders must be allowed to carry out their legitimate work without fear of reprisals.
  • Urge international financial institutions to ensure their funding provides broad relief to Sri Lankans in a transparent and inclusive manner. All agreements, and their terms and conditions, must be publicly available for scrutiny. International advocacy efforts must be directed towards supporting the calls to cancel the debts owed to the IMF.
  • Urge member states of the United Nations Human Rights Council to support the adoption of a strong resolution that calls upon the Sri Lanka government to put an end to violations against human rights defenders, repeal the repressive Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), and uphold its obligations to ensure peoples’ right to the freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.
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