Sri Lanka: FIDH briefs UN Human Rights Committee on violations of freedom of assembly

On 6 March 2023, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) briefed the members of the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Committee (CCPR), ahead of the CCPR review of the civil and political rights situation in Sri Lanka, scheduled to take place on 8 - 9 March 2023. FIDH raised the issue of violations of Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights by the authorities in the context of the 2022 protest movement. Read the oral statement below.

Madam Chair, Committee members,

FIDH wishes to honor the memory of former Committee member, Professor Christof Heyns, who played a vital role in the development of the Committee’s General Comment No. 37 on Article 21 of the ICCPR on freedom of peaceful assembly.

This document, along with other key international instruments, should guide the actions of authorities worldwide in relation to their handling of public assemblies. Regrettably, the government of Sri Lanka has disregarded General Comment No. 37, as well as its obligations under Article 21.

Just a week ago, a day after a violent police crackdown on a peaceful assembly in Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, one of the 28 protesters who were hospitalized, died of his injuries. It was the most recent example of the authorities’ numerous and serious violations of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly over the past year.

During Sri Lanka’s nationwide protests that took place in 2022, the authorities often used disproportionate and unnecessary measures against peaceful demonstrators.

At last month’s Universal Periodic Review of Sri Lanka, the government claimed that the authorities “have always been restrained” and took “reasonable” measures in the interest of national security and public order. You are likely to hear the same vague and misleading arguments from Sri Lanka’s government during your upcoming dialogue.

The government’s claims are demonstrably false and untenable. Our extensive investigation of events revealed that the overwhelming majority of protests were peaceful, posed no threat to public order, were unlikely to lead to the loss of life, serious injuries, or widespread destruction of property, and did not infringe on the rights of others. Yet, these protests were met with unnecessary and disproportionate legal restrictions and use of force by the authorities.

FIDH documented at least 25 instances in which police resorted to the indiscriminate use of tear gas and water cannons to disperse peaceful protests. The use of force resulted in the death of at least one protester. Scores were injured, and many suffered from the consequences of the use of teargas.

In some cases, authorities targeted persons with disabilities and children who participated in the protests. In others, lawyers and observers were attacked. Journalists were directly targeted, despite being easily recognizable and having identified themselves as reporters. On 9 May, authorities failed to protect peaceful demonstrators from attacks by pro-government elements in Colombo.

In addition, authorities arbitrarily arrested demonstrators for their mere participation in protests. In some cases, arrests involved large number of participants. Draconian national security legislation, the Prevention of Terrorism Act, or PTA, was also used to arbitrarily detain three student protesters for prolonged periods of time. Lastly, authorities unleashed a systematic campaign of harassment, intimidation, and surveillance against protest organizers and participants.

Incidents of destruction of public property and occupation of government buildings should be investigated and those responsible should be held accountable. But these incidents should not be used to penalize the overwhelming majority of peaceful protests participants.

Even more concerning is that none of the members of the security forces responsible for the above-mentioned violations have been held accountable.

Violations of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly in Sri Lanka are not unique to last year’s protests. Tamil communities in the North and the East of the country have seen their right to freedom of peaceful assembly unduly curtailed for more than a decade, with authorities obstructing them from memorializing and commemorating those who died in the civil war.

Madam Chair, protests in Sri Lanka will continue. The Committee can play an important role in pre-empting further violations of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly.

We call upon the Committee to: 1) raise the issue of the serious and repeated violations of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly; 2) recommend the government investigate these violations and ensure accountability for abuses; and 3) recommend authorities adhere to the provisions of Article 21 of the ICCPR and other relevant international principles and standards.

Thank you.

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