Sri Lanka: Hold police accountable for use of lethal force against protesters

Tharaka Basnayaka / NurPhoto via AFP

Colombo, Paris, 20 April 2022. The use of live ammunition by police to disperse a demonstration in Sri Lanka on 19 April 2022, which resulted in the death of a protester and the injury of at least 14 others, must be fully investigated and those responsible must be held accountable, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Center for Human Rights and Development (CHRD) say.

Police opened fire on a large group of protesters in Rambukkana, a town located about 100 km northeast of the capital Colombo in Sabaragamuwa Province, after some of them tried to set a vehicle on fire and pelted police with stones. Demonstrators had gathered to protest fuel shortages and rising fuel prices.

“Amid growing public dissatisfaction with the government, the use of live ammunition against protesters signals a dangerous escalation of violence and repression against freedom of assembly. Sri Lankan authorities must immediately launch a full, impartial and independent investigation into the use of lethal force on protesters, hold those responsible accountable, and ensure that the policing of assemblies strictly adheres to relevant international standards”

FIDH Secretary-General Adilur Rahman Khan

The demonstrators were protesting the severe shortages of fuel and oil in the country and an increase in fuel prices that came into effect on 18 April 2022. According to the police, the protesters had blocked a railway line for over 15 hours. An indefinite police curfew has been imposed in Rambukkana following the unrest.

The incident was the first deadly shooting in the context of a series of predominantly peaceful protests that began in mid-March around the country against the government’s economic and financial mismanagement, which led to shortages of food, fuel, gas, essential medicine, and resulted in daily blackouts exceeding five hours. Beginning on 9 April 2022, peaceful protests took place for 11 consecutive days in front of the President’s Office in Colombo, where groups have occupied the Galle Face green area to call for the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. During a protest on 31 March in front of Mr. Rajapaksa’s private residence in Colombo, police used teargas, water cannons, and arrested approximately 50 protesters.

“It is imperative that Sri Lankan authorities respect and protect fundamental human rights, including the right to life, during the ongoing protests. Law enforcement authorities must refrain from the use of force and instead adopt appropriate de-escalation techniques to comply with international standards and minimize the risk of violence. The situation of an unavoidable necessity to use force has not yet arisen, as the countrywide protests have been predominantly peaceful”

CHRD Director K.S. Ratnavale, Attorney at Law

FIDH and CHRD urge the Sri Lankan authorities to respect and protect the right to freedom of peaceful assembly in accordance with domestic and international law and standards.

The right to peaceful assembly is protected under Article 14(1)(b) of Sri Lanka’s 1978 Constitution. In addition, Sri Lanka is a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which enshrines the right to freedom of peaceful assembly under its Article 21.

According to the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Committee’s General Comment No. 37, when the use of force is unavoidable, it should meet the strict criteria of necessity and proportionality. “Necessity” requires that law enforcement may resort to the use of force to achieve a legitimate law enforcement objective when no reasonable alternative appears available. “Proportionality” requires that law enforcement officials assess the type and level of force to be proportionate to the threat posed by an individual or group of individuals.

In addition, according to the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, firearms should not be used against persons “except in self-defense or defense of others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury, to prevent the perpetration of a particularly serious crime involving grave threat to life […] and only when less extreme means are insufficient to achieve these objectives.” The principles stipulate that the “intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.”

Press contact:
Ms. Eva Canan (French, English) - Tel: +33 (0) 6 48 05 91 57 (Paris)

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