Statement by the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Clément N. Voule at the 44th session of the Human Rights Council on 9 July 2020
I visited Sri Lanka from 18 to 26 July 2019 at the invitation of the Government.
My visit took place at a crucial moment when the country was heading towards Presidential elections. At the time, I hoped that my visit would be an opportunity to strengthen democratic gains made by the country, ensuring that these gains remain sufficiently strong to weather any attempt to roll them back.
I am grateful to the Government for its excellent cooperation and support, before, during and after the visit.
You will see that this report acknowledges some key achievements with regard to democratization, good governance, post-conflict reconciliation and transitional justice. It also highlights areas where there has been a lack of progress, particularly in implementing some of the commitments contained in Council resolution 30/1.
With regard to the rights to freedom of assembly and association, I noted that national legislation adequately protects the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association for the most part.
Yet the unequal application of the laws, including informal refusal to enact laws at an administrative level, seriously affects the enjoyment of these rights. Ethnic and religious discrimination, mistrust in State authorities and the heavy militarization of certain areas continue to constitute significant obstacles in order to fully realize the enjoyment of these rights in the country.
I would like to recognize the vital role that civil society has played in the promotion of democracy, providing checks and guidance on governmental actions in the promotion of universal human rights standards. Their actions have been instrumental in the widening of democratic space that the country experienced since 2015, and they will continue to be instrumental in the fight to maintain and increase those gains.
However, people’s confidence in State institutions and progress towards sustainable democracy and development may be jeopardized by a climate of impunity. I also note that more must be doneto enhance social cohesion, to unite people and communities, embracing their differences and rebuilding trust in order to work towards the full enjoyment of human rights for all in Sri Lanka.
At the time of my visit, and notwithstanding the valuable progress made in democratisation in the last five years, I perceived a prevailing apprehension among civil society, who feared there could be rollbacks on these gains.
Fear that important institutions that safeguard democratic rights would be dismantled, a shift back to media restrictions, governmental opacity and a growing climate that requires self-censorship.
Almost one year after my visit, and slightly over six months after Presidential elections were held, I am deeply concerned that the context I found at the time of the visit has already rapidly changed.
For example during the visit, I gladly noted that in 2016 the NGO Secretariat had moved to the Ministry of National Integration, Official Languages from the Ministry of Defence.
However, I was informed that on 10 December 2019 the NGO Secretariat was transferred back to the Ministry of Defencereportedly on the grounds that the affairs of the NGOs should be coordinated within a National Policy Framework.
I was also informed that a February 2020 report of the Parliamentary Sectoral Oversight Committee on National Security recommended that NGOs which are not registered under the NGO secretariat should be declared illegal and sanctioned. The same report recommended mandatory registration of NGOs.
With regard to freedom of assembly, I learnt that in February 2020 a “demonstration site” was established close to the Presidential Secretariat in Colombo as a designated venue for protests and that protests held elsewhere in the capital will be sanctioned.
While certain parties may have welcomed the initiative due to its immediate benefits of easing traffic and non-disruption of the day to day life, I would like to recall that the right to peaceful assembly is often exercised in public places in order to attract the attention of the State, and the general public, which in turn has the effect of facilitating dialogue, pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness.
Therefore, restricting protests on the ground that protests are an “inconvenience to the general public” goes against the very objective of a protest. Moreover, the Human Rights Committee has noted that legislation specifying a single remote area in which assemblies can be conducted unduly limits the right to freedom of expression and assembly”.
I also received several reports of incidents aimed at stifling dissent expressed through peaceful assemblies:
- For example incidents of university students refused entry into the university premises after they protested in Jaffna;
- Police attacks and threats against groups of employees protesting or protesters against microfinance loan schemes;
- Forceful removal of a hut set up by a group of disabled soldiers protesting in the “designated protest site”
- Intimidation, arrest and excessive use of force against individuals protesting with regard to COVID 19 related measures including a three week long indefinite curfew in Kandi district
It was also brought to my attention that the level of surveillance, harassment, interrogation and intimidation of civil society actors in all parts of Sri Lanka has increased, including cases of reprisals against civil society actors who returned to Sri Lanka after attending the Human Rights Council in March 2020.
I would like to express concern regarding the Presidential Directive of 2 June 2020 establishing a Presidential Task Force to build a “secure country, disciplined, virtuous and lawful society” which is led by the Secretary of Defence and comprised of mainly military officials.
The Task Force is mandated, amongst others, with taking necessary immediate steps to curb the alleged illegal activities of social groups that are quote: “harmful to the free and peaceful existence of society at present in some places of the country”. I am deeply concerned that this approach may undermine freedom of expression and assembly and curtail space for government’s critics and peaceful dissents.
As in almost all the countries of the world, the COVID 19 pandemic has not made the exercise of the rights to freedom of assembly and association easier in Sri Lanka, to the contrary.
I strongly believe that crisis cannot be used as an excuse to justify blanket restrictions to these rights and I would like to recall here the 10 principles I issued and that must be upheld in crisis contexts.
I urge the Government to ensure that no acts of reprisals, threats or intimidation occur against those under its jurisdiction who have interacted with me or cooperated with the United Nations.
In light of how the context has evolved, I am concerned about the fate of hard fought gains in relation to civic space and the rule of law, including in the run up to the 5 August parliamentary elections.