The Sri Lankan authorities have repeatedly and unrelentingly stifled the voice of the people.
The President of Sri Lanka, Ranil Wickremesinghe, must repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), a counterterrorism law, that has been weaponized to crackdown on peaceful protestors and stifle dissenting voices, in contravention of Sri Lanka’s international human rights obligations, especially the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.
In the last two years, the Sri Lankan government has intensified the crackdown on dissent, severely curtailing civil society freedom. People from all walks of life, especially minority communities, have been threatened, intimidated, harassed, and jailed, simply for expressing their views. Journalists, poets, teachers, and lawyers have been targeted for doing their jobs in ways that displease the authorities. Further, the state has targeted student activists and trade unionists in reprisal of their work. The government and government-affiliated groups have used smear campaigns, abduction-style arrest, raids of media outlets, travel bans, transfers and arbitrary arrests, and torture and other ill-treatment of protesters while in custody to limit and discourage freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.
The continued references to protesters as ‘terrorists’ and ‘fascists’ by Members of Parliament and the President of Sri Lanka, Ranil Wickremesinghe, are attempts to demonize the protest movement. These attempts culminated in the government using the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act against three protesters, including a protest leader. A study conducted by the Human Right Commission of Sri Lanka found that PTA detainees faced a continuum of violence. The study documented that “violence in police custody was found to be an inherent element of the investigation process, whereby torture is inflicted to extract information, confessions, and evidence from detainees”.
The PTA has enabled numerous instances of arbitrary detention and torture and other ill-treatment since 1979. Despite the Sri Lankan government’s multiple assurances that the PTA would be reformed in line with international human rights standards, to date no adequate reforms have taken place and the PTA continues to be used as a tool to arbitrarily arrest and detain people, violate fair trial rights, and put detainees at risk of torture and other ill-treatment, amongst other violations.
The arrest and detention of individuals on the basis of exercising their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association, within the bounds recognized by human rights law, constitute arbitrary deprivations of liberty.
A new wave of protests erupted across Sri Lanka in March 2022, as a result of a catastrophic economic crisis that is depriving residents of basic necessities, including essential medicines, food, cooking gas, fuel and electricity. During recent protests the authorities yet again responded with a militarized approach, and in a number of instances misused force against peaceful protesters. The government’s responses to these protests in an effort to curb further demonstrations have resulted in serious human rights violations: The army has been deployed with shooting orders to contain the protests; the police used unlawful force and lethal weapons; and the government continues to intimidate and detain dozens of peaceful protesters.
Protest movements lie at the heart of any positive human rights change we have seen throughout history. These changes have only been possible and will only be possible if people come together to support and protect what is right. Amnesty has strength in unity as a global movement and can help ensure that the right to protest is protected and enjoyed by everyone equally. We are in the best position to amplify the calls of people’s movements and to promote effective allyship.
The Sri Lankan government must end the crackdown on peaceful protests using draconian anti-terror laws and create an enabling environment to respect, protect and fulfill the right to protest. People have the right to express discontent peacefully and the state has an obligation to facilitate this right.
Inspiring protest is a powerful force for good. United together we can, and will, make a difference. We are part of a global community where everyone belongs. We all have the right to speak truth to power safely and need to protect this right for future generations.