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US representatives urge action on Sri Lanka amid escalating tensions

United States Representatives Ilhan Omar, Bill Johnson and Jim McGovern on Friday urged the State Department to assert the need for respect for due process, religious minorities and the rule of law. 

“Tensions are escalating in Sri Lanka, where the peace remains fragile. I urge the Ambassadors for Religious Freedom and War Crimes Issues to respond before matters get worse,” said Rep. Ilhan Omar. “The United States must stand for religious freedom and human rights here and abroad. As we work with our Sri Lankan partners to respond to the terrible attacks of Easter Sunday, we must maintain our emphasis on post-war reconciliation and the importance of justice and accountability.”

“I am deeply concerned by crackdowns on religious freedom in the wake of the Easter Sunday attacks,” said Congressman Jim McGovern. “The Government of Sri Lanka must not let these attacks erode or undermine the hard-won rights of the Sri Lankan people, who have already suffered immensely from decades of civil war. I am encouraged by the State Department’s willingness to work constructively on this issue, and hopeful that the United States will continue to speak out strongly in favor of human rights and the rule of law in Sri Lanka.”

Read full letter below: 

Dear Ambassador Brownback and Ambassador Currie,

            We write to express our grave concerns about the situation in Sri Lanka in the wake of Easter Sunday’s horrific terrorist attack. As you know, Sri Lanka has been clinging to a fragile peace since the end of its civil war ten years ago. The response to these recent attacks has the potential to undermine that peace, instigate persecution and human rights violations, and exacerbate already existing ethnic and religious tensions in Sri Lanka.

            The perpetrators of the attacks were motivated not by faith but by nihilism. A crackdown on religious freedom against both the Muslim and Catholic minorities, renewed hostilities between Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese and Tamil communities, and the sowing of chaos and distrust between neighbors is exactly their goal. We commend the U.S. State Department for its quick response to the attacks and its clear dedication to helping the Sri Lankan government bring the perpetrators to justice.

At the same time, the United States, in its dealings with our Sri Lankan counterparts, must be asserting the need to respect religious and ethnic minorities, to respect due process and the rule of law, to avoid scapegoating entire communities for the acts of an extremist few, and to ensure the process of post-war reconciliation and justice is not sidetracked.

            The implementation of the post-attacks Emergency Law has already demonstrated deeply troubling signs for religious freedom in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government has passed a law banning face coverings, which is clearly targeted at the Muslim minority, and some reports claim the de facto implementation of the ban has included all head coverings, including nuns’ habits and hijabs. They have also, under the Emergency Law, cancelled Sunday Mass at Catholic churches for two consecutive Sundays. It is of vital importance that the Sri Lankan government ensure the Emergency Law is lifted in a timely manner to prevent further disruption to those wishing to practice their Catholic faith, and to ensure that harassment and violence against Muslims is not tolerated.

            Especially given the recent history in Sri Lanka, we believe there is an urgent and imminent need for the United States to balance the absolutely appropriate and understandable focus on security and dismantling terrorist networks with the imperative to maintain the civil and human rights of Sri Lankan minorities, including Muslims, Christians, and Tamils. We simply must do both at the same time, both for the principled defense of human rights, including the essential need to protect religious minorities from persecution, and for a more effective counter-terrorism strategy.

Therefore, given the urgency of the situation, we respectfully request within 30 days of receipt of this letter:

A briefing from your offices on your strategies and engagement in Sri Lanka;

A written overview of the role your offices will play in the State Department’s engagement in Sri Lanka, with particular attention to the short- and long-term effects of the Emergency Law on vulnerable Sri Lankan populations.

Thank you for your consideration of our request. We appreciate the work you are each doing to advance human rights and U.S. interests in Sri Lanka, and we look forward to working with you.