Sri Lanka’s new president must ensure basic rights of all: Human Rights Watch

Sri Lanka President Ranil Wickremesinghe should ensure that his administration adopts measures to protect the basic rights of all Sri Lankans, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a letter addressed to the president outlining key human rights concerns.

HRW South Asia director Meenakshi Ganguli writing to Wickremesinghe on Tuesday August 08 acknowledged the challenges facing Sri Lanka’s newly sworn in president, but raised concerns over what protestors have called a crackdown.

“Human Rights Watch is extremely concerned by the draconian and abusive state of emergency currently in effect, and the security forces’ use of unnecessary and excessive force against protesters and journalists, as well as arbitrary arrests, abductions, intimidation and reprisals that have contributed to a growing climate of fear and repression,” said Ganguly.

“You have acknowledged that the protests were ‘conducted on a non-violent basis and creative manner.’ But you have also said that some have ‘turned towards terrorism.’ And you have denied that your government is ‘hunting down the protesters’ – though the facts belie this claim,” she said.

Gangulay wrote that the emergency regulations introduced on July 18 contain vague, overbroad, arbitrary and excessive curtailments of human rights, including of fundamental rights that cannot be suspended even during a state of emergency.

Ganguly said in order to protect the human rights of Sri Lankans, Wickremesinghe’s administration should:

Ensure that people are able to freely and peacefully express their views safely and without fear of reprisal or arrest
Investigate and appropriately prosecute officials and security force personnel responsible for serious violations of human rights regardless of position or rank
Withdraw emergency regulation provisions that are vague, overly broad and disproportionate or that violate fundamental rights
Refrain from using the military, which are not trained in law enforcement, in policing protests
Order security forces to end the harassment, intimidation and arbitrary arrest of people believed to have participated in or supported recent protests, as well as civil society activists, lawyers and journalists
Stop accusing protesters of “terrorism,” which in the context of Sri Lanka’s history can lead to serious human rights violations
Amend the constitution to ensure that the judiciary, attorney general, Election Commission, Public Service Commission, Police Commission, Judicial Service Commission and Human Rights Commission, which are mandated to protect fundamental rights, are independent of the executive
Ganguly also called drew attention to allegations of discimination against Tamil and Muslim minorities. She said the government should take the following measures in this regard:

Announce a formal moratorium on the use of the PTA until rights-respecting counterterrorism legislation is enacted, and release remaining prisoners arbitrarily detained under the PTA
Amend the ICCPR Act to prevent its abuse in prosecuting members of ethnic and religious minorities for speech that is protected under international human rights law
Undertake to curtail speech that incites violence, discrimination or hostility against specific groups
End acts of discrimination, intimidation and violence at places of worship
Allow members of the Tamil community to freely commemorate and memorialize victims of the civil war
Disband and revoke orders of the Presidential Task Force for Archaeological Heritage Management in the Eastern Province, which discriminates against religious minorities
With regard to social and economic rights, Ganguly noted that, as recognised by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), to mitigate the adverse impacts of proposed macroeconomic adjustment on vulnerable groups, particularly by strengthening safety nets.

“However, Sri Lanka’s principal current social protection scheme, Samurdhi, is widely recognized to be ineffective. The World Bank assessed that in 2019, even before the current crisis, that ‘less than half of the poor were beneficiaries of Samurdhi… and benefit amounts remain largely inadequate.’ It is crucial that your government develops a more robust, inclusive and transparent social justice program,” wrote Ganguly.

“As the [IMF’s] Article IV report shows, Sri Lanka’s tax-to-GDP ratio is among the lowest in the world. Among the huge tax cuts introduced by the Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration shortly after entering office, cuts to income taxes benefitted the wealthiest households. While the Article IV report proposes raising income tax rates, it also proposes increases to VAT, which disproportionately burdens low-income families because it consumes a larger share of their income. Moreover, if steps are taken to reduce or remove fuel subsidies, it is critical that this is done in a progressive manner or with an adequate compensatory system to ensure affordability for low-income people in advance of the reforms.”

In her letter, Ganguly highlighted increased defence budgetary allocation, a fall in a Transparency International corruption perception index, among other things.

Ganguly’s recommendations with regard to ensuring social and economic rights are as follows:

Establish a new social protection mechanism that is both adequate to protect everyone’s rights from the effects of the economic crisis and designed to prevent mismanagement and corruption. In particular, consider universal programs as recommended by the United Nations Development Programme and UNICEF
Implement progressive tax measures that do not further burden people living in poverty; implement any reduction or removal of subsidies in a progressive manner or with an adequate compensatory system to ensure affordability for low-income people in advance of reforms
Adopt policies to increase women’s access to employment by reducing barriers, including by providing state-funded maternity leave and access to affordable menstrual hygiene
Restore the independence of institutions including the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption
Resume Sri Lanka’s participation in the World Bank and United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s Stolen Asset Recovery (StAR) initiative, and include a commitment to do so as part of an agreement with the IMF
Conduct independent and impartial investigations into allegations of high-level corruption and appropriately prosecute those responsible
End attempts to implement the recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry to Investigate Allegations of Political Victimization, and revive police investigations into conflict-related crimes;
Adopt the anti-corruption legislation that was developed during your previous term as prime minister and is currently before parliament
Ensure that auditing of the Ministry of Defence meets the same criteria as other government departments; end audit exemptions for “secret services” that can be used to obscure the use of public funds