Sri Lanka: Submission to the UN Human Rights Committee on the deterioration of civic space

CIVICUS has submitted a report to the UN Human Rights Committee on the state of civic space in Sri Lanka ahead of its review of the state’s implementation of its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) on 8-9 March 2023.

In the submission, CIVICUS documented the ongoing restrictions, criminalisation, harassment and threats of journalists including those who covered the mass protests in 2022. There has also been a lack of progress in holding the perpetrators of past human rights violations against journalists to account. The report also highlights the continued misuse of the ICCPR Act No. 56 – a law meant to protect human rights – to stifle freedom of expression as well as the use of a number of legal provisions to silence individuals for their criticism of the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. The blocking of social media sites is another ongoing concern.

The submission also notes the use of the Police Ordinance No. 16 of 1865 to deny or block peaceful protests. Excessive restrictions were imposed on protests during the pandemic with some activists being detained and forcibly taken to quarantine facilities. Families of disappeared persons in the north and northeast districts also faced systematic harassment for holding marches and protests seeking justice for serious crimes committed during the civil war. Around the mass protests in response to the economic crisis, emergency regulations were issued that lacked due process safeguards and gave unfettered powers to the security forces. Civil society groups documented arbitrary arrests, excessive use of force and allegations of torture or ill-treatment of protesters by security forces. Activists involved in the protests were also targeted including with the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).

The submission highlights the pattern of intensified surveillance and harassment of civil society groups. Many have been questioned by the police about their staff, donors and funding sources. The UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association has also highlighted practices that disproportionately impact on CSOs, particularly in north and east Sri Lanka. They include informal refusals of registration of CSOs working on issues such as disappearances, land rights, LGBTQI+ rights and transitional justice. Human rights defenders and lawyers have also faced harassment and vilification for their work and anti-terror law has been used to target political opponents and members of the minority Muslim and Tamil communities.

The submission calls on the UN Human Rights Committee to make a series of recommendations including: 

  • Ensure that journalists and writers can work freely and without fear of retribution for expressing critical opinions or covering topics that the government may deem sensitive.
  • Ensure that the implementation of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Act No. 56 of 2007 (ICCPR Act) is consistent with international law and standards and ensure the law is not misused to stifle freedom of expression or criminalise critics.
  • Amend the Police Ordinance regarding notification procedures in order to allow for the occurrence of spontaneous or urgent assemblies without risk of criminality or the requirement to negotiate the time, place or manner of an assembly with the authorities.
  • Conduct immediate and impartial investigations into all instances of extrajudicial killing and excessive force committed by security forces during protests and bring the perpetrators to justice, including those with command responsibility.
  • Take measures to foster a safe, respectful and enabling environment for civil society, including by removing legal and policy measures and practices that unwarrantedly limit freedom of association.
  • Immediately revise the Prevention of Terrorism Act in consultation with civil society groups and ensure that it aligns with international law and standards.

More information

Download the Sri Lanka research brief here.

Sri Lanka is currently rated Obstructed by the CIVICUS Monitor. There are a total of 42 other countries in the world with this rating (see all). This rating is typically given to countries where the state generally allows individuals and civil society organisations to exercise their rights to peaceful assembly, freedom of speech and freedom of association, but violations of these rights also take place (see the full description of ratings)



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