Sri Lanka


  • Advocacy priorities at 43rd Session of UN Human Rights Council

    The four-week human rights council will sit from 24 February to 20 March, and there are a number of critical human rights resolutions up for debate, and for the 47 Council members to address. CIVICUS will be conducting and presenting evidence on a variety of thematic and country-focused issues. Full overview below or jump directly to see our programme of events.

    Country-specific situations

    Nicaragua (Civic space rating:Repressed)

    Our members on the ground have documented serious human rights violations, including attacks on fundamental freedoms and against human rights defenders and journalists. A report issued last year by the OHCHR, mandated by a resolution adopted in 2019, reflected this situation, and recommended enhanced UN monitoring and reporting. Given the lack of political will in the country to cooperate with regional and international mechanisms, and the concerning situation on the ground, CIVICUS calls on states to support a resolution on Nicaragua which calls for such enhanced reporting at the very least.

    Sri Lanka (Civic space rating:Repressed)

    This is a critical time for Sri Lanka, with concerns that the new administration which came to power last year could renege on its Council-mandated human rights and accountability commitments. The resolution adopted at the 30th Session of the Human Rights Council and remains the only process in place which could guarantee justice for victims of human rights violations. Civic space is closing at an alarming rate – since the new administration came to power, civil society members on the ground have been threatened and intimidated, their records destroyed, and human rights defenders and journalists have been attacked. CIVICUS calls for states to encourage cooperation between the government of Sri Lanka and international human rights mechanisms, and for Council members to reaffirm their commitment to resolution 40/1, which put into place time-bound commitments to implement the accountability mechanisms in resolution 30/1.

    Iran (Civic space rating:Closed)

    In 2019, Iran erupted into a series of protests against lack of political and democratic freedoms and the deteriorating economic situation. Protesters were met with violent repression through mass arrests and lethal force. Current geopolitical developments have entrenched the regime and exacerbated internal insecurity further. This Human Rights Council Session will discuss the renewal of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Iran. CIVICUS supports the renewal of the Special Rapporteur mandate and encourages states to raise concerns about the use of lethal force in protests.

    India (Civic space rating:Repressed)

    India’s civic space rating was downgraded with the last CIVICUS report. A controversial and discriminatory citizenship law has given rise to mass protests across the country, which have been subject to violent crackdowns, leading many injured and at least 25 dead. Jammu and Kashmir remain under severe repression, including through sustained internet shutdown which is reaching its sixth month. Internet was partially restored in January but restrictions remain, making the shutdown the longest recorded in a democracy. Internet shutdowns are also being used across the country in order to hinder freedom of peaceful assembly. CIVICUS encourages States to raise concerns about India, and to call for an investigation into the violent suppression of peaceful protests, and to repeal discriminatory provisions in the Citizenship Law.

    Thematic mandates

    The Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders

    The mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders will be renewed this Session. This is a crucial mandate which has an impact of all CIVICUS’s areas of focus, and we encourage states to eco-sponsor the resolution at an early stage. The Special Rapporteur will present his annual report on HRDs in conflict and post-conflict situations, and reports on his country visits to Colombia and Mongolia. CIVICUS encourages states to affirm their co-sponsorship of the resolution early in the Session.

    Freedom of Expression

    The mandate for the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression is set to be renewed this Session, at a time when internet blackouts in increasingly used as a tactic to limit freedom of expression, access to information and freedom of peaceful assembly. We encourage states to co-sponsor the renewal of this important mandate at an early stage.

    Freedom of Religion and Belief (FoRB)

    The Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief will present his annual report, which this year focuses on the intersection of religion and belief and gender and SOGI rights, and reports on country visits to Sri Lanka and the Netherlands. CIVICUS will be engaging on Sri Lanka and on India, which have both undergone concerning developments with regards to freedom of religion.


    The Chair-Rapporteur of two intersessional seminars on the contribution that the Council can make to the prevention of human rights violations will present the report of the seminars.

    CIVICUS will be highlighting the connection between civic space and prevention – that closures in civic space are often precursors to wider human rights crises, and that by intervening at the civic space level, the Council has a role to play in ensuring that such human rights violations are prevented.

    CIVICUS and members’ events at the 43rd Session of the UN Human Rights Council (events will be livestreamed @CIVICUS Facebook page):

    27 February (11:00 CET, Room VII), a side event will discuss the current critical situation in Nicaragua, and the importance of an enhanced monitoring mandate.

    2 March (14:00 CET, Room VII), CIVICUS and partners are organising an event on the constitutional and civic space crisis in India. 

    5 March (13:00 CET, Room VII), CIVICUS is co-sponsoring an event led by ICNL and the Civic Space Initiative consortium partners on countering terrorism financing while preserving civic space ----canceled due to the coronavirus

    12 March (12:30 CET, Room XXI), CIVICUS is co-sponsoring a side event on the use of lethal force in protests in Iran and Iraq, and responses from the international community---canceled due to the coronavirus

    Current council members:

    Afghanistan; Angola; Argentina; Australia; Austria; Bahamas; Bahrain; Bangladesh; Brazil; Bulgaria; Burkina Faso; Cameroon; Chile; China; Croatia; Cuba; Czechia; Democratic Republic of the Congo; Denmark; Egypt; Eritrea; Fiji; Hungary; Iceland; India; Iraq; Italy; Japan; Mexico; Nepal; Nigeria; Pakistan; Peru; Philippines; Qatar; Rwanda; Saudi Arabia; Senegal; Slovakia; Somalia; South Africa; Spain; Togo; Tunisia; Ukraine; United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland; and Uruguay.


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  • CIVICUS UN Universal Periodic Review submissions on civil society space

    CIVICUS and its partners have submitted joint and stand-alone UN Universal Periodic Review (UPR) submissions on 9 countries in advance of the 28th UPR session (November 2017). The submissions examine the state of civil society in each country, including the promotion and protection of the rights to freedom of association, assembly and expression and the environment for human rights defenders. We further provide an assessment of the States’ domestic implementation of civic space recommendations received during the 2nd UPR cycle over 4 years ago and provide a number of targeted follow-up recommendations.  

    Countries examined: Benin, Gabon, Guatemala, Pakistan, Peru, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Ukraine and Zambia.


  • Human Rights Council: Restrictions on civil society will curtail any chance of building back better

    Statement at the 46th Session of the UN Human Rights Council

    Thank you, Madame President; High Commissioner.

    We welcome your update and strongly agree that recovering better requires ensuring participation for all. In this very difficult year, we are encouraged that civic activism has continued as people have mobilised to demand their rights.

    But across the world, civil society has been impeded in its work.  The CIVICUS Monitor shows that in the context of COVID-19 measures, protest rights have been violated and restrictions on freedom of expression continue as states enact overly broad emergency legislation that limits human rights.

    We reiterate that restrictions on civil society will curtail any chance of building back better. States should indeed be investing in protecting and promoting a free and independent civil society at this crucial time.

    The Council has the opportunity to act immediately on a number of situations where civic space is being threatened. In Sri Lanka, attacks against civil society are compounding grave failures of accountability. In Nicaragua, where ahead of elections, restrictions on civic space and expressions of dissent are likely to escalate. Myanmar, where we are inspired by the courage of people who risk lives and freedom every day to protest the coup, who continue to fear violent crackdown on dissenting voices. In India, where the government has continued its persecution of human rights defenders, student leaders, journalists and other critics, including through restrictive laws, prolonged pre-trial detention and excessive force perpetrated against protesters. 

    We call on the Council this Session to take measures to support civil society by acting now, on the situations brought before it. Situations which require immediate action.



  • Outcomes from the UN Human Rights be continued

    In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the United Nations Human Rights Council’s 43rd Session, which was scheduled to run from 24 Feb – 20 March, was suspended after three weeks on 13 March until further notice.

    CIVICUS fully supports the suspension of the Session on public health grounds, and the precautionary measures taken before the suspension. However, we remain concerned that public participation in the Council risks being disproportionately affected, especially in light of the decision to cut General Debates from the 44th Session (June), which removes a key platform for civil society to engage with governments. The UN depends on information from the ground in order to make evidence-based decisions, and we call on states to take steps to ensure that the participation of civil society is not compromised.

    In Nicaragua, a human rights crisis has seen hundreds of thousands flee the country and an ongoing crackdown against human rights organisations, community leaders, and journalists. The situation is compounded by a lack of political will from the government to engage with regional or international mechanisms, or to ensure accountability. CIVICUS welcomes that the draft resolution on Nicaragua tabled during the Session would provide a mandate for enhanced monitoring and reporting by the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) on the situation at this critical time, and we urge all states to support this resolution when the Session resumes.

    We also call on states to support the renewal of the Special Rapporteur on Myanmar. The 43rd session marked the final one for the current Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, and we thank her for her outstanding work during her mandate. Myanmar has undergone significant developments in its human rights framework since the Special Rapporteur began her term – from elections in 2015 which saw a groundswell of hope for positive change, to the dawning realisation of crimes against humanity against the Rohingya in Rakhine state. But the curtailment of fundamental freedoms and total crackdown on any criticism of authorities has remained grimly consistent. Those on the ground, the human rights defenders and activists who are trying to achieve change, need international support from the Human Rights Council.

    In late 2019, Iran erupted into a series of protests against the lack of political and democratic freedoms and the deteriorating economic situation. Protesters were met with violent repression through mass arrests and lethal force. When the Session resumes, the Human Rights Council will vote on extending the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Iran. We welcome support shown by states so far for the renewal of the mandate, and we urge adoption of this resolution when the Session continues.

    What is a Special Rapporteur?
    Special Rapporteur is a title given to an independent expert who works on behalf of the United Nations who has a specific country or thematic mandate from the Human Rights Council. Special Rapporteurs often conduct fact-finding missions to countries to investigate allegations of human rights violations. They can only officially visit countries that have agreed to invite them. Aside from fact-finding missions, Rapporteurs regularly assess and verify complaints from alleged victims of human rights violations. 

    The mandates for Special Rapporteurs on freedom of expression and opinion, and on human rights defenders, are set to be renewed when the Session resumes. We encourage all member and observer states to show their full support for these mandates by co-sponsorsing the resolutions.

    Just prior to the suspension of the Session, Mary Lawlor was appointed as new Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders. We look forward to working with her as she protects those on the frontline of defending human rights around the world, and we thank Michel Forst, the outgoing mandate holder, for his tireless work.

    Towards the beginning of the Session, the High Commissioner’s update on Sri Lanka highlighted ongoing impunity for past grave human rights abuses in the country. The new Sri Lankan government, which came into power in 2019, has said that it intends to renege on Human Rights Council resolution 30/1 which provided commitments to accountability, truth and reconciliation. The human rights space in Sri Lanka has deteriorated sharply under the new administration, and the undermining of this resolution – currently the only route to ensuring transitional justice in Sri Lanka – would not only be fatal to victims and their families, but also a significant setback to the UN itself. We urge states to strongly encourage Sri Lanka to uphold its commitments and reiterate calls for an international accountability mechanism to ensure that accountability remains a possibility.

    Although India was not on the official agenda of this Session, the ongoing crackdown on Kashmir, a discriminatory citizenship law and violent suppression of protests proved an ongoing issue throughout the Session.

    CIVICUS, FORUM-ASIA, ISHR, FIDH, OMCT and ICJ organized a side event to discuss the current situation and ways in which the international community, including the Council, could contribute to constrictive progress. With key partners, CIVICUS also joined important statements on the situation in Jammu and Kashmir as well as on India’s recent discriminatory citizenship law, and we were encouraged to see several states raise their own concerns about India during debates.

    Civic space ratings by CIVICUS Monitor
    Open Narrowed Obstructed  Repressed Closed


    Our joint and stand alone country statements at the 43rd Session of the Human Rights Council
    Angola Burundi El Salvador  Eritrea Fiji
    India Iraq Iran Jammu & Kashmir Madagascar
    Myanmar Nicaragua Sri Lanka See all statements



  • Priorités de plaidoyer à la 43ème session du Conseil des droits de l'homme des Nations Unies

    Le Conseil des droits de l'homme se réunira pendant quatre semaines, du 24 février au 20 mars, et un certain nombre de résolutions critiques sur les droits de l'homme seront débattues et présentées aux 47 membres du Conseil. CIVICUS conduira et présentera des témoignages sur une variété de questions thématiques et de pays. Vous trouverez un aperçu complet ci-dessous ou vous pouvez directement consulter notre programme d'événements.


    Situations spécifiques à certains pays

    Nicaragua (Notation de l’espace civique : Réprimé)

    Nos membres sur le terrain ont documenté de graves violations des droits humains, notamment des attaques contre les libertés fondamentales et contre les défenseurs des droits humains et les journalistes. Un rapport publié l'année dernière par le HCDH, mandaté par une résolution adoptée en 2019, a reflété cette situation et a recommandé un renforcement de la surveillance et de la communication de l'information par les Nations Unies. Étant donné le manque de volonté politique dans le pays pour coopérer avec les mécanismes régionaux et internationaux, et la situation préoccupante sur le terrain, CIVICUS appelle les États à soutenir une résolution sur le Nicaragua qui demande au moins un tel renforcement des activités de suivi.

    Sri Lanka (Notation de l’espace civique : Réprimé)

    C'est un moment critique pour le Sri Lanka, qui craint que la nouvelle administration, arrivée au pouvoir l'année dernière, ne revienne sur ses engagements en matière de droits humains et de responsabilités, mandatés par le Conseil. La résolution adoptée lors de la 30ème session du Conseil des droits de l'homme reste le seul processus en place qui pourrait garantir la justice pour les victimes de violations des droits humains. L'espace civique se referme à un rythme alarmant - depuis l'arrivée au pouvoir de la nouvelle administration, les membres de la société civile sur le terrain ont été menacés et intimidés, leurs dossiers ont été détruits, et des défenseurs des droits humains et des journalistes ont été attaqués. CIVICUS appelle les États à encourager la coopération entre le gouvernement du Sri Lanka et les mécanismes internationaux des droits de l'homme, et les membres du Conseil à réaffirmer leur engagement envers la résolution 40/1, qui met en place des engagements assortis de délais pour mettre en œuvre les mécanismes de responsabilisation de la résolution 30/1.

    Iran (Notation de l'espace public :Fermé)

    En 2019, l'Iran s'est livré à une série de protestations contre le manque de libertés politiques et démocratiques et la détérioration de la situation économique. Les manifestants ont été confrontés à une violente répression par des arrestations massives et une force meurtrière. Les développements géopolitiques actuels ont renforcé le régime et exacerbé l'insécurité interne. Cette session du Conseil des droits de l'homme discutera du renouvellement du mandat du rapporteur spécial sur l'Iran. CIVICUS soutient le renouvellement du mandat du Rapporteur spécial et encourage les États à faire part de leurs préoccupations quant à l'utilisation de la force meurtrière dans les manifestations.

    Inde (Notation de l’espace civique : Réprimé)

    Le dernier rapport de CIVICUS a dégradé la notation de l'Inde en matière d'espace civique. Une loi sur la citoyenneté controversée et discriminatoire a donné lieu à des manifestations de masse dans tout le pays, qui ont fait l'objet de violentes répressions, faisant de nombreux blessés et au moins 25 morts. Le Jammu-et-Cachemire reste soumis à une répression sévère, notamment par la fermeture prolongée d'Internet qui en est à son sixième mois. Internet a été partiellement rétabli en janvier, mais des restrictions subsistent, ce qui fait de cette fermeture la plus longue jamais enregistrée dans une démocratie. Les fermetures d'Internet sont également utilisées dans tout le pays afin d'entraver la liberté de réunion pacifique. CIVICUS encourage les États à faire part de leurs préoccupations concernant l'Inde et à demander une enquête sur la répression violente des manifestations pacifiques, ainsi qu'à abroger les dispositions discriminatoires de la loi sur la citoyenneté.

    Mandats thématiques

    Le Rapporteur spécial sur les défenseurs des droits de l'homme

    Le mandat du Rapporteur spécial sur les défenseurs des droits de l'homme sera renouvelé lors de cette session. Il s'agit d'un mandat crucial qui a un impact sur tous les domaines d'intervention de CIVICUS, et nous encourageons les États à co-parrainer la résolution à un stade précoce. Le Rapporteur spécial présentera son rapport annuel sur les défenseurs des droits de l'homme dans les situations de conflit et d'après-conflit, et rendra compte de ses visites en Colombie et en Mongolie. CIVICUS encourage les États à affirmer leur co-parrainage de la résolution dès le début de la session.

    Liberté d'expression

    Le mandat du Rapporteur spécial sur la liberté d'expression doit être renouvelé lors de cette session, à un moment où les coupures d'Internet sont de plus en plus utilisées comme une tactique pour limiter la liberté d'expression, l'accès à l'information et la liberté de réunion pacifique. Nous encourageons les États à co-parrainer le renouvellement de cet important mandat à un stade précoce.

    Liberté de religion et de croyance (FoRB)

    Le Rapporteur spécial sur la liberté de religion et de croyance présentera son rapport annuel, qui cette année se concentre sur l'intersection de la religion et de la croyance, du genre et des droits OSIG, et rendra compte des visites de pays au Sri Lanka et aux Pays-Bas. CIVICUS s'intéressera au Sri Lanka et à l'Inde, qui ont tous deux connu des évolutions en matière de liberté de culte.


    Le président-rapporteur de deux séminaires intersessionnels sur la contribution que le Conseil peut apporter à la prévention des violations des droits de l'homme présentera le rapport de ces séminaires.

    CIVICUS soulignera le lien entre l'espace civique et la prévention - le fait que les fermetures dans l'espace civique sont souvent des précurseurs de crises plus larges des droits humains, et qu'en intervenant au niveau de l'espace civique, le Conseil a un rôle à jouer pour assurer la prévention de ces violations des droits humains.

    CIVICUS et les événements des membres lors de la 43ème session du Conseil des droits de l'homme des Nations unies (les événements seront retransmis en direct sur lapage Facebook de CIVICUS):

    Le 27 février (11h00 UTC+1, salle VII), un événement parallèle discutera de la situation critique actuelle au Nicaragua, et de l'importance d'un mandat de surveillance renforcé.

    Le 2 mars (14:00 UTC+1, Salle VII), CIVICUS et ses partenaires organisent un événement sur la crise de l'espace constitutionnel et civique en Inde.

    5 mars (13:00 UTC+1, Salle VII),CIVICUS co-parraine un événement mené par ICNL et les partenaires du consortium Civic Space Initiative sur la lutte contre le financement du terrorisme tout en préservant l'espace civique.

    Le 12 mars (12h30 UTC+1, Salle XXI), CIVICUS co-parraine un événement parallèle sur l'utilisation de la force meurtrière dans les manifestations en Iran et en Irak, et les réponses de la communauté internationale.

    Membres actuels du Conseil :

    Afghanistan; Afrique du Sud; Angola; Arabie Saoudite; Argentine; Australie; Autriche; Bahamas; Bahreïn; Bangladesh; Brésil; Bulgarie; Burkina Faso; Cameroun; Chili; Chine; Croatie; Cuba; Danemark; Égypte; Érythrée; Espagne; Fidji; Hongrie; Inde; Irak; Islande; Italie; Japon; Mexique; Népal; Nigeria; Pakistan; Pérou; Philippines; Qatar; République démocratique du Congo; République tchèque; Royaume-Uni et Irlande du Nord; Rwanda; Sénégal; Slovaquie; Somalie; Togo; Tunisie;  Ukraine; Uruguay.


  • SRI LANKA : « Le contrôle des médias a donné au gouvernement un grand avantage »

    CIVICUS s’entretient avec Sandun Thudugala, directeur des programmes du Law and Society Trust (LST), au sujet des élections législatives qui ont eu lieu au Sri Lanka le 5 août 2020, dans le contexte de la pandémie de la COVID-19. LST est une organisation de recherche et de défense juridique fondée en 1982 à Colombo, au Sri Lanka, dans le but de promouvoir des réformes juridiques pour améliorer l’accès à la justice, la judiciarisation des droits et la responsabilité des institutions publiques.

    A l’approche des élections d’août 2020, le CIVICUS Monitora documenté le fait que les avocats de droits humains et les journalistes étaient victimes d’arrestations, de menaces et de harcèlement. Unrapport du rapporteur spécial des Nations unies (ONU) sur les droits à la liberté de réunion pacifique et d’association, publié en mai 2020, a également montré que la société civile était confrontée à des difficultés d’enregistrement et de fonctionnement et à divers obstacles à l’exercice du droit de manifestation.


  • Sri Lanka government must respect the rule of law and protect civic space

    CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance and The Innovation for Change South Asia Hub are extremely concerned about the political crisis in Sri Lanka and its impact on the rule of law and civic space in the country.

    We are gravely concerned that President Maithripala Sirisena has undermined the rule of law by unconstitutionally removing the sitting Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and replacing him with former President and current Member of Parliament Mahinda Rajapaksa overnight. Rajapaksa’s administration was implicated in serious violations during the final stages of Sri Lanka’s civil war and the suppression of freedoms of the media, expression, and association.

    This was followed by a decision to undemocratically suspend Parliament denying Members of Parliament, who exercise sovereignty on the peoples’ behalf, the ability to assemble at this crucial time. We demand that the Parliament be reconvened immediately allowing representatives of the people to decide the way forward and to prevent the nation from plunging into a state of political instability and impunity.

    Our organisations are also alarmed by reports of the forcible take-over of state media institutions and intimidation of journalists disrupting the free flow of information to the public. We condemn such actions and call on the authorities to ensure that press freedom, a crucial component of a democracy is respected.

    We are also concerned that these political developments may put the civic freedom of Sri Lankans at risk. Citizens must be allowed to exercise their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association.

    We hope that Sri Lanka’s democratic gains of the past several years will not be lost and we stand in solidarity with civil society and human rights defenders from Sri Lanka at this difficult time.


    Omid Salman (I4C South Asia Communications Specialist):

    Josef Benedict (CIVICUS Research officer):


  • SRI LANKA: ‘El control de los medios le dio al gobierno una gran ventaja’

    CIVICUS conversa con Sandun Thudugala, Director de Programas de Law and Society Trust (LST), acerca de las elecciones legislativas que tuvieron lugar en Sri Lanka el 5 de agosto de 2020, en el contexto de la pandemia del COVID-19. LST es una organización de investigación y defensa legal fundada en 1982 en Colombo, Sri Lanka, con el objetivo de promover reformas legales para mejorar el acceso a la justicia, la judicialización de los derechos y la rendición de cuentas de las instituciones públicas.

    Ante las elecciones de agosto de 2020, el CIVICUS Monitordocumentó el hecho de que abogados de derechos humanos y periodistas estaban siendo sujetos a arrestos, amenazas y acoso. Uninforme del Relator Especial de la Organización de las Naciones Unidas (ONU) sobre el derecho a la libertad de reunión pacífica y de asociación, publicado en mayo de 2020, también mostró que la sociedad civil enfrentaba desafíos para registrarse y operar y diversas barreras para el ejercicio del derecho de protesta.

    Sandun Thudugala

    ¿Cuál era la situación de las libertades cívicas y la sociedad civil antes de las elecciones?

    Como ocurre en muchos otros países, en Sri Lanka la situación de las libertades cívicas y el espacio para la sociedad civil siempre ha sido precaria. Incluso bajo el gobierno anterior, que se suponía que apoyaba más a la sociedad civil y a la agenda de derechos humanos, continuaron los esfuerzos para introducir nuevas leyes draconianas para controlar la sociedad civil y socavar las libertades básicas en nombre de la lucha contra el terrorismo.

    La situación empeoró con la elección de Gotabaya Rajapaksa como nuevo presidente en noviembre de 2019. Su campaña electoral, basada en las ideas de la supremacía del budismo cingalés, la sociedad disciplinada y la seguridad nacional, recibió el apoyo de una abrumadora mayoría, y en particular de la comunidad budista cingalesa. El resultado fue interpretado como un mandato otorgado al gobierno para que pudiera socavar las libertades básicas y el espacio cívico en nombre de la seguridad nacional y el desarrollo.

    Ha habido indicios de una mayor militarización de todos los aspectos de la sociedad y del debilitamiento de las instituciones democráticas, como el nombramiento de miembros de las Fuerzas Especiales Presidenciales, que solo rinden cuentas al presidente, en puestos clave de gobierno. También se ha transmitido un claro mensaje de falta de voluntad del Estado para cumplir sus obligaciones internacionales, incluida la Resolución 30/1 del Consejo de Derechos Humanos de la ONU, que el gobierno anterior había apoyado y perseguía el objetivo de promover la reconciliación, la rendición de cuentas y los derechos humanos en Sri Lanka tras el conflicto interno desarrollado entre 1983 y 2009. Lo mismo se observa en relación con los mecanismos nacionales de derechos humanos.

    Han aumentado la vigilancia de las actividades de la sociedad civil y los arrestos de activistas activos en las redes sociales. Esto ha reflejado claramente el intento de socavar las libertades y el espacio cívico ante las elecciones. La situación se vio agravada por la pandemia del COVID-19. La necesidad de hacer frente al virus ha sido utilizada como excusa para incrementar la militarización y la concentración de poder en manos del presidente.

    ¿Cuáles fueron los principales temas de campaña?

    El gobierno, encabezado por el recientemente electo presidente Rajapaksa, del partido Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), quería alcanzar la mayoría de los dos tercios en el Parlamento para estar en condiciones de reformar la actual constitución y otorgar poderes adicionales al presidente. Ese ha sido el principal objetivo de la campaña electoral del SLPP. La necesidad de un gobierno fuerte para proteger las aspiraciones de la mayoría budista cingalesa, defender la soberanía nacional y fomentar el desarrollo económico fueron, por consiguiente, algunos de los principales temas de su campaña. La popularidad que tenía el presidente tras su victoria en las elecciones presidenciales fue utilizada para movilizar a los votantes en apoyo del SLPP.

    Los principales partidos de la oposición estaban divididos, y en la campaña electoral sus conflictos internos fueron más prominentes que sus mensajes electorales. Una de sus principales promesas fue brindar asistencia económica a las personas pobres que habían resultado más afectadas por la pandemia del COVID-19 y el confinamiento.

    Durante la campaña electoral ninguno de los partidos principales puso de relieve cuestiones centrales tales como la necesidad de fortalecer los sistemas de gobernanza democrática, la justicia para las víctimas de la guerra, y la búsqueda de soluciones de más largo plazo para los problemas étnicos o las causas fundamentales de la pobreza rural, el endeudamiento y la desigualdad.

    ¿Hubo alguna discusión acerca de la conveniencia de realizar las elecciones en el contexto de la pandemia?

    El gobierno quería llevar a cabo las elecciones lo antes posible. Estaba dispuesto a realizarlas en abril de 2020, tal como estaba previsto, aun cuando estábamos en lo peor de la pandemia. Casi todos los partidos de la oposición se opusieron a la celebración de elecciones en abril. Posteriormente, la Comisión Electoral decidió posponerlas hasta agosto de 2020 debido a los riesgos para la salud que podría conllevar su realización. En agosto la situación había mejorado considerablemente, por lo que no hubo una gran oposición a la realización de las elecciones, que tuvieron lugar el 5 de agosto.

    Hasta donde yo sé, no se consideró la posibilidad de habilitar el voto vía internet para esta elección. No creo que Sri Lanka tenga la infraestructura y la capacidad para ofrecer esa opción en este momento. Más del 70% de los votantes habilitados emitieron sus votos y, con excepción de las personas que todavía se encontraban en centros de cuarentena, no experimentaron obstáculos significativos a la hora de votar. Aunque sí hubo incidentes cuando algunas fábricas privadas negaron a sus empleados el permiso para ir a votar.

    ¿Fue posible desarrollar una campaña “normal” en el contexto de la pandemia?

    La Comisión Electoral publicó una serie de pautas sanitarias e impuso controles importantes sobre la campaña electoral. No se permitieron grandes mítines o reuniones, pero el gobierno y los principales partidos de la oposición violaron estas pautas sanitarias al organizar abiertamente actos públicos y otras reuniones, y no enfrentaron ninguna repercusión. Quedó claro que los partidos con mayor poder contaban con una clara ventaja que les permitía eludir ciertas reglas. Además, los candidatos de los principales partidos políticos, que tenían más dinero para invertir en campañas en medios electrónicos y en redes sociales, corrieron con una clara ventaja sobre los demás.

    Gracias a su control sobre los medios estatales y al apoyo que recibió de la mayoría de los medios privados, tanto electrónicos como impresos, el gobierno tuvo una clara ventaja sobre la oposición durante la campaña electoral. Los partidos políticos más pequeños de la oposición se encontraron en la posición más desventajosa, ya que no obtuvieron ningún espacio significativo de aire ni de publicidad en los principales medios de comunicación.

    Esto seguramente afectó los resultados de las elecciones, en las que el SLPP, liderado por el presidente Rajapaksa y por su hermano, el expresidente Mahinda Rajapaksa, obtuvo 145 escaños parlamentarios sobre un total de 225. El partido opositor Samagi Jana Balavegaya, establecido a principios de 2020 como resultado de un desprendimiento del Partido Nacional Unido, de derecha, obtuvo 54 escaños. El partido Illankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi, que representa a la minoría étnica tamil, obtuvo 10 escaños, y otros 16 escaños se dividieron entre 12 partidos más pequeños. En consecuencia, el 9 de agosto el hermano del presidente fue designado Primer Ministro de Sri Lanka por cuarta vez.

    ¿Pudo la sociedad civil desempeñar algún rol significativo en el proceso electoral?

    Aparte de participar en el monitoreo de las elecciones, la participación de la sociedad civil independiente en el proceso electoral fue mínima. Este fue un cambio drástico en comparación con las elecciones de 2015, en las cuales la sociedad civil desempeñó un rol clave en la promoción de una agenda de buena gobernanza y reconciliación en el marco de la campaña electoral. Las divisiones dentro de la oposición y el contexto del COVID-19 dificultaron el efectivo involucramiento de las organizaciones de la sociedad civil en el proceso. Algunas organizaciones intentaron producir un discurso sobre la importancia de proteger la 19a enmienda a la Constitución, que limitaba los poderes presidenciales al tiempo que fortalecía el papel del parlamento y las instituciones independientes y los procesos de rendición de cuentas, pero no obtuvieron espacios significativos para discutir estos temas en los medios de comunicación ni en ningún otro espacio público.

    El espacio cívico en Sri Lanka es calificado de “obstruido” por elCIVICUS Monitor.

    Contáctese con Law and Society Trust a través de susitio web o su página deFacebook, y siga a@lstlanka y a@SandunThudugala en Twitter.


  • SRI LANKA: ‘Media control gave the government a definite advantage’

    CIVICUS speaks to Sandun Thudugala, Head of Programmes at the Law and Society Trust (LST), about the legislative elections held in Sri Lanka on 5 August 2020, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. LST is a legal research and advocacy organisation founded in 1982 in Colombo, Sri Lanka, with the goal of promoting legal reforms to improve access to justice, the justiciability of rights and public accountability.

    Ahead of the August 2020 elections, the CIVICUS Monitordocumented that human rights lawyers and journalists in Sri Lanka faced arrests, threats and harassment. Areport by the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, published in May 2020, also showed that civil society faced challenges in registering and operating along with various barriers to protest.

    Sandun Thudugala

    What was the situation for civic freedoms and civil society ahead of the elections?

    As in many other countries, the situation of civic freedoms and the space for civil society has always been in a vulnerable situation in Sri Lanka. Even under the previous government, which was supposed to be more supportive towards civil society and the human rights agenda, efforts to introduce new draconian laws to control civil society and the undermining of basic freedoms in the name of counterterrorism continued.

    The situation got worse with the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the new president in November 2019. His election campaign, which was built on the ideas of Sinhala Buddhist supremacy, disciplined society and enhanced national security, was supported by an overwhelming majority, especially from the Sinhala Buddhist community. This result was seen as a mandate given to the government to undermine basic freedoms and civic space in the name of national security and development.

    There have been signs of an increased militarisation of every aspect of society and the undermining of democratic institutions, such as the appointment of members of Presidential Task Forces – which are accountable only to the president – to handle key governance functions. There has also been a clear message of unwillingness to cooperate with the state’s international obligations, including by complying with UN Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1, which the previous government had co-sponsored and which was aimed at promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka after the 1983-2009 internal conflict, as well as with local human rights mechanisms.

    There have been increased surveillance of civil society activities and arrests of social media activists. This has clearly reflected a trend of undermining civic freedoms and civic space before the elections. The situation was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The need to deal with the virus has been used as an excuse to increase militarisation and the concentration of power in the hands of the president.

    What were the main issues the campaign revolved around?

    The government led by newly elected President Rajapaksa, of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party (SLPP), was seeking a two-thirds majority in parliament to be able to amend the current constitution and give the president additional powers. That’s been the major election campaign goal of the SLPP. The need to have a strong government to protect the aspirations of the Sinhala Buddhist majority, defend national sovereignty and foster economic development were therefore among their major campaign themes. The popularity the president gained after winning the presidential election was used to mobilise voters to support the SLPP.

    The main opposition parties were divided, and their internal conflict was more prominent in the election campaign than their actual election messages. One of their major promises was to provide economic assistance for poor people who were most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns.

    Issues such as the need to strengthen democratic governance systems, justice for war victims, longer-term solutions to ethnic issues or the root causes of rural poverty, indebtedness and inequality were not highlighted during the election campaign by any of the major parties

    Was there any debate around whether the election should be held during the pandemic? 

    The government wanted to conduct the election as soon as possible. It was willing to hold the election in April 2020, as planned, even at the height of the pandemic. Almost all opposition parties were against holding the election in April. The Election Commission subsequently decided to postpone it to August 2020 due to the health risks it might entail. By August, the situation had got considerably better and there was no major opposition to conducting the elections, which took place on 5 August.

    As far as I know, online voting was not considered as an option for this election. I do not think that Sri Lanka has the infrastructure and capacity to adopt such an option at this moment. More than 70 per cent of eligible voters cast votes and apart from the people who are still in quarantine centres, people experienced no major barriers in casting their votes. There were however incidents of some private factories denying leave for their employees to vote.

    Was it possible to have a normal campaign in the context of the pandemic?

    Health guidelines were issued by the Election Commission, which imposed significant controls on election campaigning. No major rallies or meetings were allowed, but the government and the main opposition parties violated these health guidelines by convening public rallies and other meetings openly, without any repercussions. It was clear that the parties with power had a clear advantage in overstepping certain rules. Additionally, candidates from major political parties, who had more money to use for electronic and social media campaigns, had a definite advantage over the others.

    Due to its control over state media and the support it received from most private media, both electronic and print, the government had a definite advantage over the opposition during the election campaign. The smaller opposition political parties were at the most disadvantageous position, as they did not get any significant airtime or publicity in mainstream media.

    This surely impacted on the election results, in which the SLPP, led by President Rajapaksa and his brother, former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, won 145 seats in the 225-member parliament. The opposition Samagi Jana Balavegaya party, which was established in early 2020 as a breakaway from the right-wing United National Party, won 54 seats. The Illankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi party, which represents the Tamil ethnic minority, won 10 seats, and 16 other seats were split among 12 smaller parties. As a result, on 9 August, Mahinda Rajapaksa was appointed Prime Minister of Sri Lanka for the fourth time.

    Was civil society able to engage in the election in a meaningful way? 

    Apart from being engaged in election monitoring processes, the engagement of independent civil society in the election was minimal. This is a drastic change when compared to the 2015 election, in which civil society played a key role in promoting a good governance and reconciliation agenda within the election campaign. Divisions within the opposition and the COVID-19 context made it difficult for civil society organisations to engage effectively in the process. Some organisations tried to create a discourse on the importance of protecting the 19th amendment to the Constitution, which curbed presidential powers while strengthening the role of parliament and independent institutions and accountability processes, but didn’t get any significant spaces within the media or any other public domains to discuss these issues.

    Civic space in Sri Lanka is rated as ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with the Law and Society Trust through itswebsite orFacebook page and follow@lstlanka and@SandunThudugala on Twitter.


  • SRI LANKA: ‘People are scared of expressing themselves freely’

    Ruki FernandoIn April 2019, more than 250 people were killed and hundreds injured in a terror attack in Sri Lanka that targeted three churches and three hotels. The following day, anemergency law came into effect, giving the police extensive powers to detain and interrogate suspects without court orders. Over a hundred people arereportedly being held in custody in connection with the attacks. Since the attacks, civil society has reported a discriminatory ban on face veils, a spate ofattacks against Muslim-owned businesses, mosques and houses in several parts of Sri Lanka and displacement, arrests and reprisals against refugees and asylum-seekers.

    The following month, May 2019, marked a decade since the end of Sri Lanka’s brutal armed conflict. According to civil society groups, the government hasfailed to provide justice for the conflict’s many victims. The Office on Missing Persons and the Office for Reparations were established following delays, but neither is fully functioning. There has been no progress on establishing a war crimes tribunal with international involvement.

    CIVICUS speaks to human rights activist Ruki Fernando about the situation of civic space and civil society in Sri Lanka. Ruki Fernando has been involved in human rights and social justice issues for about two decades and is an adviser toINFORM, a human rights documentation centre in Colombo that was established in 1990 to monitor and document the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, in the context of ethnic conflict and the civil war.

    How do you access the quality of democracy in Sri Lanka today?

    We are heading for another crisis in democracy. I think very good indicators of democracy are how minorities are treated and how dissent is treated. We can see the gradual erosion of the way minorities are being treated in Sri Lanka, both ethnic and religious minorities. And more recently after the Easter Sunday bombings, we have seen a lot of hostility towards the Muslim population. A lot of the arrests were of people who later turned out to be innocent but who were detained on suspicion simply because they are Muslims. And there have also been reprisal attacks directed against the Muslim community.

    At the same time, we have seen a crackdown on the freedoms of peaceful assembly and expression. For example, at the moment we have a writer, Shakthika Sathkumara, who is detained because of a story he wrote. We have other writers who have been threatened with arrests. We are seeing the misuse of laws that supposedly exist to protect human rights, notably the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act.

    What has been the effect of the political and constitutional crisis that occurred in late 2018 between the president and prime minister?

    The relationship between the president and the prime minister has become much worse since the end of the constitutional crisis in 2018 and I think this has very negatively affected the ability of the government to protect and ensure the security of its citizens. It seems the president and the prime minister are both accusing each other over who is responsible for the terror attacks and who was negligent.

    What is the record of the current government in respecting and protecting fundamental rights of association, peaceful assembly and expression in Sri Lanka?

    We have seen a large number of peaceful protests for rights by many groups such as students, farmers, families of disappeared people, people whose land is occupied by the military and people affected by the project such as landfills. In several of them, protesters have been attacked physically and people have been arrested and ill-treated in detention.

    On the freedom of association, in 2018 the government tried to bring in an amendment to the existing laws that would enable them to exercise a lot of control and scrutiny over civil society organisations (CSOs) and other forms of civil formation, including civic movements, but due to outrage and criticism, this has since been withdrawn. Since then we’ve seen some alarming raids on the offices of human rights organisations, humanitarian organisations, particularly in the Northern Province (which was impacted on most severely by the conflict) in the last couple of months. The Easter Sunday attacks are being used as an excuse for these, but the real reasons could be attempts by the state, especially the security establishment, to exercise more scrutiny and control of civic mobilisation. These send a very alarming signal for the freedom of association.

    What is the situation for civil society in Sri Lanka a decade after the end of the conflict in 2009? What are some of the challenges civil society continues to face?

    I would say after the end of the war in 2009 there were two distinct phases. One is the dictatorial regime of the Rajapaksa family, which ended in 2014. During this time there was a very little space for the freedom of association and assembly. From 2015 onwards, we saw an increase in the space for the freedoms of association and peaceful assembly. However, the gains we made from 2015 and 2016 are being rolled back and there is an increasing crackdown.

    Why is this rollback of human rights happening?

    The promises of justice – whether its transitional justice, gender justice, economic justice or environmental justice have not materialised in the way that people expected them to, after 2015. There is frustration among a lot of communities and a large number of communities are agitating now. With the government unwilling or unable to address and provide redress and solutions to the people, they have turned increasingly repressive. This government we have right now is a coalition government. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is linked to one major party, the Sri Lanka United National Party, and another section of the coalition is linked to the other major party, President Maithripala Sirisena's Sri Lanka Freedom Party. They have been in power together since 2015, and I think in 2015 there was a lot of hope that the parties had put aside their past repressive ways. However, I think those repressive ways are re-emerging, and it is not very surprising that these two parties, which have a history of repression, are resorting to it again.

    Some activists and survivors continue to demand truth, justice and reparations for victims of the conflict. How far has this progressed?

    Very little. I think we have seen some very minimal progress on truth processes in relation to some people who have disappeared. We have seen some progressive developments in a few cases and some truth being revealed in the courts through investigations, as well as a few people being arrested. However, just a couple of weeks back we saw the police personnel responsible being acquitted over the killing of a group of young people – the 'Trinco five' case – in 2006. So, although we have seen a few results of some investigations and some people being arrested, we have not seen convictions. We have not seen prosecutions in a majority of these cases. So there has been very slow progress.

    One area where there has been some progress is with the release of land that was occupied by the military, though again, lots of land still remains to be released and community protests continue. Community protests and nonviolent direct actions prompted the release of some land in 2017 and 2018.

    How have the recent terrorist attacks affected the situation for civil society?

    In the months prior to the Easter Sunday attacks, there was a campaign and momentum building up against the anti-terror laws in Sri Lanka. We have a very draconian law that has existed for over 40 years, the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and the government had proposed a replacement for that, the Counter-Terrorism Act, which is equally repressive. There was a campaign against these for several months, but now it’s become very difficult to press forward with this campaign because of the overwhelming public opinion that the law should be used against terrorists. And then immediately after the terror attacks the government brought in emergency legislation that imposes many restrictions on the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression. Truthfully, we have seen a lot of repression using these various regulations in Sri Lanka. A lot of people are very scared now of expressing themselves freely. Many struggles for human rights and justice by affected communities, victim families and survivors of violations have been negatively affected in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday attacks.

    We have seen an increase in the use of the ICCPR Act in recent months. Why is this the case?

    The ICCPR Act must be used against the people responsible for provoking and creating violence against the different religious communities, particularly minorities religious communities. We have not seen that for more than a decade but suddenly we have seen the ICCPR Act being used against the people expressing themselves. I think the most visible example was of a women who wore a symbol depicting a ship’s helm, which was deemed to look like a Buddhist symbol, and she was arrested and detained. More worrying is the detention of writer Shakthika Sathkumara. One of the problems is that under this law there is no bail allowed. So, anyone who is arrested under the ICCPR Act can be detained for months and months.

    What support does Sri Lankan civil society need from the international community and international CSOs to help build greater respect for human rights and democratic freedoms?

    I think it is important to extend support in whatever way possible for those who continue to wage various struggles and to challenge the present government in terms of human rights and social justice on a wide range of issues. The focus of transitional justice needs to be broadened to encompass social justice issues, such as the rights of tea workers, who are campaigning for a minimum wage, something that is yet to be realised. There are a lot of other socioeconomic issues that Sri Lankan communities and activists have been advocating for through their protests, writings and national-level advocacy, but these should be supported internationally as well. International support for human rights and social justice should not be limited only to transitional justice, although that it is an important dimension.

    I think it is important for intergovernmental bodies such as the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council to stay engaged with the Sri Lanka government. Sri Lanka should be on the agenda of the Human Rights Council and there should be close scrutiny about the extent to which Sri Lankan has implemented commitments made nearly four years back in 2015 in the Human Rights Council’s Resolution 30/1. Continuous international engagement by civil society groups internationally as well as by foreign governments and UN Officials is very important.

    Civic space inSri Lanka is rated as ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor

    Follow Ruki Fernando@rukitweets on Twitter


  • SRI LANKA: ‘Trolls accusing people of being traitors are organised and political’

    Ahead of the Sri Lankan presidential elections on 16 November 2019, CIVICUS spoke with Sandya Ekneligoda, a human rights defender and campaigner for justice for families of people who have been disappeared. Sandya is the wife of disappeared cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda and has been subjected to a barrage of hate, abuse, intimidation, harassment and death threats on social media.

    sanya Eknaligoda

    Photo: Ravindra Pushpakumara

    Can you tell us about the campaign on enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka and how you became involved in it?

    My husband Prageeth Ekneligoda was abducted in January 2010. Since that terrible day, I have campaigned for the truth behind his disappearance. When domestic efforts failed, I traveled to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva to press for justice. During my activism journey, I have worked with other mothers of the disappeared to raise awareness. We have asked the government to deliver on the truth behind the thousands of disappearances in our country. We also want the authorities to give support to families who often struggle with their livelihoods once a family member has been taken.

    There has been some progress with the International Convention on Disappearances, signed in 2007 and in effect since 2010, but much work needs to be done to find the truth and support the victims. The Convention has not yet resulted in relevant domestic legislation. To keep momentum going on Prageeth’s case I have attended court over a hundred times tracking the habeas corpus case. Meanwhile, in the north, hundreds of mothers have been protesting on the streets seeking answers about their children. Justice for those disappeared remains a critical issue for the country to resolve.

    What threats have you faced for your advocacy?

    I have faced a number of different threats. I have been called a traitor and received hate speech on Facebook. In 2016, Prageeth and myself became the targets of a defamation campaign that took many forms, including public speeches and posters smearing my name. I believe this was an organised smear campaign by the Rajapaksa clan, the clan of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. I have also been targeted by nationalistic Buddhist monks. Venerable Gnanasara Thero, General Secretary of the Bodu Bala Sena, a Buddhist nationalist organisation, threatened me as I was monitoring Prageeth’s court case. I filed a case against him, and he was found guilty by the court in Homagama in 2019. After this decision I got a lot of vicious threats, including threats to kill me and my children.

    In 2018, I managed to navigate my way through one of the Rajapaksa clan’s attempts to lure me into a trap. They sent one of their men, a former air force officer, to meet me. He offered to disclose information on chemical weapons in return for safe passage to the USA. I do not believe this was genuine; it was a way of distracting me from my important work to seek justice for Prageeth. These obstacles have not stopped me fighting for justice but they make life as an activist challenging.

    What is the situation for civil society in Sri Lanka a decade after the end of the conflict?

    Between 2010 and 2015 the situation for civil society in Sri Lanka was terrible. Repression was so severe we faced imminent threats of being forcibly disappeared or killed if we spoke out. We saw the state using the Prevention of Terrorism Act to try to silence activists. An example of this was the 2014 unlawful detention of Balendran Jeyakumary, an activist campaigning for the disappeared.

    After political change in 2015 the situation improved. There have been some incidents but space to talk about issues has increased. Recently, however, we have seen more clampdowns on the freedom of expression, including the arrest of Shathika Sathkumara, an award-winning writer, as well as of journalist Kusul Perera. This really troubles me. Although the environment is calmer, we see toxic elements appearing in social media. Trolls accusing people of being traitors and disseminating hate speech have emerged on Facebook and other social media platforms. This is organised and political.

    Are there any particular issues affecting civil society and the space for civil society that you are concerned about ahead of the elections?

    The participation in the elections of Gotabaya Rajapkasa, former defence chief and brother of Mahinda Rajapkasa, has re-energised racists and nationalists, who had been a bit dormant after 2015. These elements are now becoming quite vocal and issue threats. For example, following a petition filed by Gamini Viyingoda and Chandragupta Thenuwara querying Gotabaya’s eligibility for elections, Madumadawa Aranvinda, a politician, posted the comment that roughly translated as “there was a name which sounds like Viyangoda which was Ekneligoda and best wishes to you both and good luck.” As my husband was disappeared for speaking out, this was clearly a threat to the petitioners to stay silent.

    Ahead of the elections there’s a looming possibility that violence will erupt. There have already been some examples. When Gotabaya’s legal team won the petition, a Gotabaya supporter set fire to the house of a United National Party supporter. In a highly polarised context, with the two bigger parties fielding strong candidates, it’s possible that the parties will encourage proxies to incite violence. This violence could also turn against civil society activists raising issues. I feel wary of the path ahead as impunity prevails, as reflected in the little progress experienced in mine and other cases.

    What support does Sri Lankan civil society need from the international community and international civil society to help build greater respect for human rights and democratic freedoms?

    If Gotabhaya comes into power there will be a surge in threats. International civil society groups should be ready to help those most at risk, like myself, who have named and shamed him. This is an important time for international civil society to show its solidarity with activists in Sri Lanka and check in with friends and colleagues on protection needs. It’s also really important that organisations continue to work with the victims who raised awareness about the need for truth following the end of the war despite the threats they faced. Civil society organisations must stay vigilant and keep pushing on investigations for important justice cases in Sri Lanka, such as my fight for the truth about what happened to my husband, Prageeth.

    Civic space in Sri Lanka is rated as ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    This interview was undertaken by independent researcher Yolanda Foster on behalf of CIVICUS.


  • 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.


  • Sri Lanka: Civil society subjected to intensified military surveillance and other restrictions

    Joint Statement at the 44th session of the Human Rights Council

    Interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association

    Thank you, Madam President.

    As the Special Rapporteur’s report demonstrates, the space for Sri Lankan civil society is rapidly shrinking. For several months now, civil society organisations have been subject to intensified military surveillance and questioning by different government authorities.

    Worryingly, the COVID-19 pandemic has been exploited by the Sri Lankan government to impose restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, resulting in the arrest and detention of social media commentators like Ramzy Razeek. Senior lawyer and minority and civic rights activist, Hejaaz Hizbullah, who was arrested and detained on suspicion of offences under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act, has now been detained for close to three months without being produced before a judge, after having been misled to believe that the authorities were visiting his house to discuss his potential exposure to COVID-19.

    Since January 2020, the Government of Sri Lanka has established multiple Presidential Task Forces. Decisions have been taken with no oversight by Parliament. The Presidential Task Force to build a “Secure Country, Disciplined, Virtuous and Lawful Society” is fully comprised of security sector personnel and given an ambiguous mandate. Sri Lankan civil society has raised a serious concern that the task force can extend military control over civilian life. Its power can be abused to curtail dissenting voices which are deemed to be “harmful to the free and peaceful existence of society”. The increased deployment of military personnel along with the police, and the disproportionate use of force against peaceful protesters, as observed recently, are also alarming.

    Considering growing concerns over shrinking space for dissent domestically, the Council remains effectively the only forum where Sri Lankan civil society has the possibility to engage openly in dialogue with the Government and other States on human rights concerns in Sri Lanka, and even this space is increasingly under threat due to deepening risks of reprisals against Sri Lankan civil society actors who speak at the Council. Those human right defenders are increasingly vilified as “traitors” in both mainstream and social media.

    Given Sri Lanka’s announced withdrawal from its commitments to the implementation of resolution 30/1, and the clear and consistent recommendations by the OHCHR that the Council should monitor progress towards accountability, the Council needs to take a more robust approach on Sri Lanka. Against this backdrop, we encourage the Special Rapporteur to continue to follow up on the situation and urge the Human Rights Council to enhance its monitoring of Sri Lanka’s compliance with international human rights law, including to ensure that human rights are protected throughout the forthcoming general elections.

    Amnesty International
    Forum Asia
    Franciscans International
    Human Rights Watch
    International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism
    Minority rights group international

    Civic space in Sri Lanka is currently rated as Obstructed by the CIVICUS Monitor

    Current council members:

    Afghanistan, Angola, Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Austria, Bahamas, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chile, Czech Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Denmark, Eritrea, Fiji, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Libya, Marshall Islands, Mauritania, Mexico, Namibia, Nepal, Netherlands, Nigeria, Poland, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, Qatar, Republic of Korea, Senegal, Slovakia, SomaliaSudan, Spain, Togo, Ukraine, Uruguay, Venezuela

    Civic space ratings from the CIVICUS Monitor




  • Sri Lanka: Concerns about missing persons and possible changes to the Constitution

    Joint statement at the 43rd Session of the UN Human Rights Council
    CIVICUS, IMADR, International Service on Human Rights, Franciscans International, Human Rights Watch, Forum Asia, Minority rights group international

    We are deeply concerned by indicators of a significant backsliding on human rights in Sri Lanka, underscored by the government using their address to the Council this week to go back on the important commitments made by Sri Lanka through HRC resolution 30/1.

    Sri Lankan authorities’ indication to revoke the 19th amendment to the Constitution would remove check and balances on the executive and seriously jeopardise the independence of the judiciary and relevant commissions. The Government is reportedly considering reviewing the Office on Missing Persons (OMP) Act. Similarly, the President’s recent callous comments about the fate of thousands of missing persons without any conclusion of investigations in line with international law have added to the distress of families of the disappeared. A Gazette on 22nd January granted powers to a Commission of Inquiry (CoI) to scrutinise investigations into emblematic cases. The COI has attempted to halt criminal proceedings against navy officers accused of the disappearance and killing of eleven youth. We echo the High Commissioner’s concern on the promotion of several military officers who are named in the OISL report for violations of international law.

    Since November 2019, the Ministry of Defence has been assigned as the oversight body for NGOs, significantly increasing the risk of their surveillance. More than a dozen human rights and media organisations have received intimidating visits from law enforcement and intelligence agencies, while death threats against journalists have resumed. The climate of fear has returned to Sri Lanka, in particular among those who continue to call for truth, justice and accountability. Relentless campaigns against minorities also require immediate attention.

    We urge this Council to hold Sri Lanka accountable to its obligations under international law. Given this week’s announcement that the new Government will not continue to engage with the clear framework agreed through resolution 30/1; the failure of past domestic reconciliation and accountability mechanisms; and the ongoing compromise of the rule of law as pointed out by the High Commissioner yesterday, we call on the Council to establish an international accountability mechanism on Sri Lanka.

    Civic space in Sri Lanka is rated as Obstructed by the CIVICUS Monitor (see country profile page)


  • Sri Lanka: Human Rights Under Attack

    Lawyers, Human Rights Defenders and Journalists Arrested, Threatened, Intimidated



  • Sri Lanka: Release poet and drop spurious charges against him

    Joint Statement from CIVICUS and Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC)

    The arrest and ongoing detention of award-winning author and poet Shakthika Sathkumara on spurious charges are a clear violation of his right to freedom of expression, CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance and the Asian Human Right Commission (AHRC), said today ahead of his next court hearing on 18 June.

    Shakthika Sathkumara was arrested on 1 April 2019 by the Polgahawela Police in response to a complaint alleging that Sathkumara’s short story ‘Ardha’ (Half) was derogatory and defamatory to Buddhism. The story is allegedly about homosexuality and child abuse in a Buddhist temple in Sri Lanka, and there is no evidence that the content contains anything that amounts to hate speech or defamation. He was initially remanded by the Polgahawela Magistrate’s Court until 9 April and has remained detained since his arrest. The Attorney General has twice rejected his bail request.

    Sathkumara faces charges under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act of 2007, which criminalises the advocacy of “national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence”. If convicted, he faces a maximum of up to ten years’ imprisonment. No credible evidence has been presented to substantiate any of these charges.

    This is a clear misuse of the law, which was enacted to protect human rights recognised by the international community including fundamental freedoms such as freedom of speech.

    Shakthika Sathkumar’s arrest and ongoing detention are inconsistent with Sri Lanka’s constitutional and international human rights obligations, as well as the country’s ICCPR Act. The right to freedom of expression which includes artistic expression and creativity is guaranteed under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Sri Lanka is a party, as well as Article 14(1)(a) of the Constitution of Sri Lanka.  Sri Lanka is also bound by international human rights law to protect artists and all persons participating in artistic activities.

    Further, under the law he can only be granted bail by a high court judge. Systemic delays inherent in the Sri Lankan justice system means that it could be months before he even appears before a high court. That he has been remanded only on the basis of a police report, without a magistrate ruling that there is basis for detention, is also a violation of fair trial rights and has worrying implications for due process rights in the country. The Inspector General of Police and the Attorney General of Sri Lanka must investigate these concerns immediately.

    CIVICUS and AHRC call on the authorities to release Shakthika Sathkumara immediately and unconditionally, and to drop the spurious charges brought against him.  We also call on the authorities to ensure that writers and artists may work freely and without fear of retribution for expression critical opinions or covering topics that the government or others may find sensitive or offensive.

    Shakthika Sathkumar’s arrest comes in the context of attacks on civic space more broadly in the country. Over the last year, CIVICUS has documented multiple attacks, threats and intimidation against journalists and human rights activists in Sri Lanka and the failure to bring the perpetrators of these abuses to account.

    TheCIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks threats to civil society in countries across the globe, rates the space for civil society inSri Lanka as ‘Obstructed’

    For more information, please contact:

    Josef Benedict at josef.benedict{AT} (CIVICUS) or
    Mohammad Ashrafuzzaman at zaman{AT} (AHRC)


  • Sri Lanka: Resolution adopted at UN Human Rights Council

    Resolution on Sri Lanka adopted at the 46th Session of the UN Human Rights Council

    The UN Human Rights Council maintains scrutiny but impunity concerns remain

    CIVICUS welcomes renewed scrutiny on Sri Lanka by the Human Rights Council, and calls for the Council to take further measures towards an accountability mechanism should the situation continue to deteriorate.

    In a strong report delivered to the Human Rights Council at this Session, the High Commissioner for Human Rights said that this moment represented a ‘key juncture for the Council’s engagement with Sri Lanka.’ The report concluded that domestic initiatives for accountability and reconciliation have repeatedly failed to produce results.

    Sri Lankan civil society who document, monitor and report on past and current rights violations continue to face surveillance, harassment and attacks. They need the strongest possible support from the international community. We therefore welcome that the resolution strengthens the capacity of the Office of the High Commissioner to ‘collect, consolidate, analyse and preserve information and evidence and to develop possible strategies for future accountability processes.’ However, although the resolution adopted at this session maintains much-needed scrutiny on Sri Lanka, it represents a missed opportunity to mandate an international accountability mechanism in the absence of functional domestic processes.

    One year ago, the Sri Lanka administration announced its withdrawal from a UN resolution to promote reconciliation, accountability and human rights, which it had previously co-sponsored. As civic space has been simultaneously squeezed tighter under the Rajapaksa government, human rights lawyers, activists and journalists have been targeted with arrests, intimidation or threats for speaking up. Independent NGOs are increasingly being silenced and even peaceful protests seeking accountability by victims of the civil war have been targeted. We welcome that the resolution raises serious concerns at these trends, describing them as a ‘clear early warning sign of a deteriorating situation of human rights’.

    We call on the Council to take heed of these strong warning signs provided by the High Commissioner, as well as by human rights defenders, by journalists, and Special Rapporteurs, and to take future further measures towards furthering truth and accountability processes if proved necessary.

    Civic space in Sri Lanka is rated as Obstructed by the CIVICUS Monitor


  • Sri Lanka: Warning signs of a deteriorating human rights situation

    Statement at the 46th Session of the UN Human Rights Council

    We welcome the report of the High Commissioner, which concludes that domestic initiatives for accountability have repeatedly failed to produce results.

    Reneging on its international commitments has put any prospect of justice, truth and reparations in Sri Lanka at grave risk. This has been compounded by an escalation of attacks against civil society over the last months, particularly against groups and people working to further human rights. 

    As civic space has been squeezed tighter under the Rajapaksa administration, human rights lawyers, activists and academics have been targeted with arrests, intimidation or threats for speaking up. Independent NGOs are increasingly being silenced as the administration has sought to restrict them. With NGOs who document, monitor and report on past and current rights violations raided and attacked, it is abundantly clear that much-publicized national accountability processes are as such in name only.

    The Human Rights Council once again has opportunity not only to secure justice and accountability for past crimes, but to protect those on the ground who are being subjected to human rights violations now, and those at risk – a risk increased by ongoing impunity – of further violations in the future. Warnings of a deteriorating human rights situation have been given by human rights defenders, by journalists, by Special Rapporteurs, by the High Commissioner. The Council must take action to ensure heightened scrutiny on Sri Lanka, including adopting a resolution mandating enhanced monitoring and other necessary steps towards furthering accountability.

    Sri Lanka is rated as 'Obstructed' by the CIVICUS Monitor