Sri Lanka: State of emergency must not be used to curtail fundamental freedoms

CIVICUS, a global civil society alliance, is concerned with the declaration of a state of emergency by the prime minister’s office in Sri Lanka on 13 July and again by the Acting President on 18 July. Our organisation urges the Sri Lankan authorities to refrain from using the state of emergency to stifle dissent and respect the right to freedom of peaceful assembly.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced on 9 July 2022 that he would step down on 13 July to ensure a ‘peaceful transition of power’ after about 100,000 protesters gathered outside the president’s official residence, amid the worst economic crisis in decades. He then fled Sri Lanka and appointed prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe to be acting president. This led to thousands of anti-government protesters storming Wickremesinghe's office on 13 July calling for him to step down as police and troops fired tear gas and water cannons. Protesters also broke into the main state television station and briefly took over broadcasts.

In response, the authorities announced a state of emergency, the third since the anti-government protests began in March 2022, under the pretext of safeguarding national security. Police imposed an indefinite curfew across the Western Province, which includes Colombo, "to contain the situation". Wickremesinghe also announced that a committee consisting of the chief of defense staff, army, navy, and air force commanders, and the inspector general of police had been appointed to ‘restore order’ and called the protesters ‘fascists’.

Another state of emergency was declared across the island on 18 July ‘in the interests of public security, the protection of public order and the maintenance of supplies and services essential to the life of the community’. The Sri Lankan parliament is scheduled to deliberate to elect a new president on 20 July.

During previous states of emergency in April and May 2022 to quell the protests, human rights groups documented various abuses by security forces including the arbitrary arrests of protesters,  use of excessive  and lethal force, the targeting of activists, violence against journalists who were reporting on the situation, and restrictions on access to social media.

“It is alarming that the authorities have once again resorted to using emergency regulations to stifle protests in the name of national security. During previous states of emergency, we witnessed the arbitrary arrests of hundreds, excessive force against protesters and even incidents of torture or ill-treatment in detention. The authorities must lift the state of emergency immediately, end all restrictions on fundamental freedoms and stop the vilification of protesters,” said Cornelius Hanung, Asia Advocacy and Campaigns Officer of CIVICUS.

The violations against protesters are part of a broader trend of attacks on civic space under the Rajapaksa administration that civil society has documented in recent years including the targeting of activists and critics, the use of the notorious Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), the harassment of Tamil war victims’ families and civil society organisations and failure to hold officials accountable for conflict-era crimes under international law.

As a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Sri Lanka must adhere to its obligation to uphold fundamental freedoms enshrined in the treaty, particularly freedom of expression and of peaceful assembly.

“We condemn the continued use of excessive force against protesters under the pretext of maintaining law and order and other abuses by security forces. Any new government must ensure an independent and impartial investigation into all these violations and perpetrators must be held accountable. Continued impunity will only further erode human rights and the rule of law” Cornelius Hanung said.

In June 2022, Sri Lanka was added by the CIVICUS Monitor to a watchlist of countries that have seen a rapid decline in civic freedoms.


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