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‘Concern, concern, concern’ – UN Special Rapporteur says Sri Lanka has ‘rapidly changed’

UN Special Rapporteur Clément N. Voule expressed repeated concern at how “rapidly” changes had taken place in Sri Lanka since presidential elections last year, citing ethnic discrimination, miltiarisation and intimidation of civil society in an address to the UN Human Rights Council yesterday.

Addressing the Council, Voule said “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”.

He spoke of the Ministry of Defence’s takeover of various state institutions including the NGO Secretariat and ministry for official languages, as well as ongoing attempts to stifle dissent.

“I also received several reports of incidents aimed at stifling dissent expressed through peaceful assemblies,” the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association continued. “For example incidents of university students refused entry into the university premises after they protested in Jaffna.”

Voule was referring to earlier this year, when Tamil students were refused entry to the University of Jaffna campus, after they expressed support for protests as Sri Lanka marked its Independence Day.

The Special Rapporteur went on to list out several other areas of concern since the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as president last November.

“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,” he said

“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.”

“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,” he concluded.

“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.”

Voule’s address comes after his report stated that the increasing surveillance in Sri Lanka in 2019, particularly after the Easter Sunday attacks, “is clearly aimed at creating a climate of intimidation," and warned that the North-East remained "heavily militarized".

Recent weeks have seen a military crackdown in the North-East with dozens of Tamils arrested and several incidents of state violence, including the army shooting dead an unarmed Tamil man.

See the full text of his address here.

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