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UN Special Rapporteur expresses concern for rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association on follow up visit to Sri Lanka

In a recent report published by the United Nations Human Rights Council, the UN Special Rapporteur on peaceful protest and assembly expressed deep concern about the worsening human rights situation in Sri Lanka.

The Special Rapporteur expressed concern for the island’s over-policing of peaceful protests stating that “Sri Lankan police frequently appear to respond to protests that are disfavoured for political reasons by arresting their participants, in violation of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. Police have arrested peaceful protesters calling for accountability in relation to Tamil war victims; for environmental protection; for more equitable socio-economic policies; for better working conditions; and for education rights.”

The report was issued in follow up to the Special Rapporteur’s four latest country visits, with Sri Lanka’s visit conducted from 18 to 26 July 2019. The report released broadly highlighted issues concerning peaceful protests and assembly across the island. Issues outlined ranged from arbitrary police arrests, the ongoing use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, use of excessive police force, use of COVID-19 regulations to ban peaceful assembly, surveillance and harassment of activists, and stalling in transitional justice efforts. 

The Special Rapporteur called on Sri Lanka to “refrain from using national security legislation, including the Prevention of Terrorism Act, to criminalize protestors legitimately exercising their right to freedom of peaceful assembly”.  

The Special Rapporteur also expressed concern for the excessive force to disperse assemblies on numerous occasions, mentioning the protests on the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances on 30 August 2020. 

Incidents in which Sri Lankan state security forces conducted human rights violations continue to remain unresolved, the report added, noting the Welikada prison massacre, in particular, which saw 53 Tamil political prisoners violently murdered by Sinhala prisoners during Black July. 

The island’s culture of surveillance and harassment was decried with the Special Rapporteur calling on Sri Lanka to “immediately end all forms of surveillance and harassment of and reprisals against human rights defenders, other actors, and victims of human rights violations”

The Special Rapporteur also calls for Sri Lanka to implement “comprehensive security sector reform and demilitarization, in line with the country’s transitional justice commitments” as well as provide support to important institutions like the Office on Missing Persons to ensure such institutions are able to work free from government influence. Transitional justice efforts have stalled or regressed, concluded the Special Rapporteur. 

The full report can be found here.  

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