Ahmed Shaheed, Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief of the United Nations Human Rights Council, presented a report1 to the Human Rights Council on 24 February, based on his visit to Sri Lanka at the invitation of the Government of Sri Lanka from 15 to 26 August 2019.
The report was a detailed one comprising of 18 pages. Government of Sri Lanka responded2 briefly to the report on 2 March. In addition to that Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, Dr. Deepika Udagama also responded3 to the report on 2 March. Intention of this article is to review the report and the two responses briefly.
Article 10 of the Constitution is as follows: “Every person is entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.”
Article 12(2) of the Constitution is as follows: “No citizen shall be discriminated against on the grounds of race, religion, language, caste, sex, political opinion, place of birth or any one of such grounds”
There are two provisos to that. Article 14(1)(e) is as follows: “Every citizen is entitled to the freedom, either by himself or in association with others, and either in public or in private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.”
It is the duty of the Government to ensure that all the citizens do enjoy these rights. However, we know that these rights of the comparatively small ethnic and religious groups are violated frequently and the Government is reluctant to enforce the law in fear of the opinion of the majority ethnic and religious groups. Not only that. We also know that political groups either in the government or in the opposition support these violations with a view to increase their support base within the majority ethnic and religious groups.
We know that Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was reluctant to enforce the law during communal riots in 1956. It was Governor General Oliver Goonetilleke who ordered to enforce the law against the rioters and shoot if necessary. We know that President J.R. Jayewardene was reluctant to enforce curfew during the first few days of the July 1983 riots. After several days when he addressed the nation, he blamed the victims.
We know that President Mahinda Rajapaksa patronised the Bodu Bala Sena and allowed the initiation of riots by not responding their inflammatory speech in time during the riots against Muslims in June 2014 at Aluthgama. He dared to order to shoot the innocent demonstrators at Rathupaswala and Negombo and not the rioters at Aluthgama.
We know that President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe were reluctant to enforce the law and delayed the enforcement during several organised riots against Muslims during the last regime. One can give different political interpretations for the actions or inactions but in the last analysis the oppressed in this country, ethnic and religious minorities, got suppressed.
Report of the Special Rapporteur
The report of the Special Rapporteur was a harsh criticism of the policy and actions of the Government in respect of freedom of religion or belief in Sri Lanka. It is difficult to give a reply to it since the contents of the report were nothing but the truth. That is why the response of the Government to the report of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief was very diluted and not focused.
The Special Rapporteur says that the culture of impunity in Sri Lanka is one of the main causes of the present situation. He says that some expressed surprise about the continued attacks even during the hours of curfew. It was reported that the reason may be either the Police could not control the situation, or they may have participated in those violent incidents.
The Special Rapporteur points out the complaints he has received about main- stream media which spread hateful narratives towards Muslims. National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka Incident Report 2019 referred to false rumours and violence against a Christian community in Batticaloa called for through Facebook in January 2019.
The Special Rapporteur appreciates the intervention of Office for National Unity and Reconciliation and the Civil Society, for religious harmony. He emphasised the importance of reforming the Muslim marriage and divorce law and pointed out that Bhikkunis are not permitted to have their ordination name on their National Identity Cards whereas Bhikkus are allowed.
He observes that the education system in Sri Lanka remains divided by ethnicity or language and noted that the schools of mixed ethnicities and religions are much fewer in comparison. He says that the government funds and supports religious schools by the Buddhist community while those run by other religious communities are privately funded.
The Rapporteur notes that the current education system deepens the division among different religious and ethnic groups and needs urgent reform with a new curriculum that promotes the values of tolerance, embraces diversity, and fosters a common or unifying “Sri Lankan identity”.
This is a very important suggestion and I believe that the State should give due recognition for this suggestion. During ancient times education in Sri Lanka was with a religious bias and was concentrated at Buddhist monasteries and pirivenas. Christian missionaries adopted the same principle. Education now is a contributor for divisions among the ethnicities.
Response of Sri Lanka
We can agree to the initial remark of the statement: “The facilitation of the visit, at a time of numerous national challenges, was a manifestation of the Government’s policy of open and constructive dialogue with UN human rights mechanisms.”
The response includes the remark that although the people of Sri Lanka living amicably and had embarked on the path of reconciliation and national healing over the last decade, the Easter Sunday attacks reminded us that we are fighting a common adversary in terrorism, radicalisation and extremism, which is a global threat.
It is evident that the response tries to cover the inability of the management of the affairs of the Government by bringing forward a security threat. During a short period, the security forces were able to control the security situation by arresting the persons concerned. However, we know that the security forces did not show that efficiency for controlling the communal clashes.
The Sri Lankan response rejects the comments of the Special Rapporteur such as “Sri Lankan security forces colluding with mobs and not acting to prevent or stop the violence”; the “lack of response from the authorities against this violence”; and the claims that “acts of violence are indulged by the silence and inaction from the authorities”.
We knew from the then published videos that the attacks were carried out when the members of the armed forces were looking on. Pictures of the Bhikkus who were engaged in hate speeches while armed security personnel were watching were published.
With regard to references to restrictions on dress code, the response pointed out that the regulation concerned was a temporary measure under the Emergency Regulations aimed at preventing concealing of identity, in view of the imminent security threat that existed at the time. However, we have witnessed the inability to justify this circular by the signatory to it, the Secretary of the Ministry of Public Administration, at the hearing of the Select Committee appointed by the Parliament to report on the Ester Sunday attacks. Terrorists came without any cover of a dress.
It is not appropriate to mention in the response that the report has sought to portray instances where criminal investigations have been conducted to prevent acts of terrorism in accordance with the law, as an endeavour to violate the freedom of religion or belief. The report portrays that it was the perception of the Muslim community that the security forces considered all of them were suspects. There was an article on 8 March, 2020 in Anidda newspaper where it was stated that a soldier asked the Muslims to get down with identity cards when a public bus was stopped at a check point at Anuradhapura. This justifies the claim by the Special Rapporteur.
The report states that Sri Lanka also categorically rejects the inaccurate assertion in the report that the ICCPR Act has not been applied to protect minorities but has become a “repressive tool” curtailing freedom of religion or belief. The statement in the report is accurate since Shakthika Sathkumara was arrested and kept in Remand Prison for a long time based on the provisions of this Act.
The following was stated in the response: “With regard to comments made in the report about alleged discrimination based on “supremacy” of Buddhism over other religions, we wish to highlight that Article 9 the Constitution requires the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana while assuring all religions the rights granted under the Constitution.”
Following is the relevant reference in the report:
Even though Article 9 says that all religions shall be assured of the rights as provided in Articles 10 and 14(1)(e), most people not only see that Buddhism is granted “supremacy” over other religions or beliefs they have actually experienced discrimination based on religion.
Therefore the Response was not directed accurately.
Response of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka
This report was well-appreciated by the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka. This is quite in contrast to the response of Sri Lanka.
The commission agrees to the observations and the recommendations of the report. The commission states that the issue is politicisation of religion. The commission recommends an integrated school system which exposes all children to the rich heritage of religious, linguistic and cultural diversity of Sri Lanka which was suggested by the report.
Sri Lanka cannot do away with the regulations imposed by the United Nations Human Rights Council to which it agreed initially. Dire straits of the economy of Sri Lanka also contributes to that. If Sri Lanka does so the country will be pushed towards China by the inability of the country to balance among political power houses.
The main importers of Sri Lankan goods are the European Union and the United States, not China. By leaning towards China, Sri Lanka will have to face political and economic turbulences. There is one factor to control all these effects. That is to neutralise extremist Sinhala Buddhist hegemony which is the main support base of the present Government.
By doing this single action and as a result of the chain of reactions associated with it, the points raised by the Special Rapporteur in his report will start disintegrating one by one. Points raised against Sri Lanka by the Human Rights Council will also start disintegrating one by one. Degradation of Sri Lanka in front of the international community will also be stopped. Tamil and Muslim extremism will start to fade away. Not only that; we should be able to implement a foreign policy not aligned to any powerhouse and get support of all of them.
However, it is not an easy task to neutralise this factor. Bandaranaike tried to do it and got assassinated. He got assassinated by the monster he had created. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is a creation of that monster. Therefore, to eliminate it would be an extreme difficult task.
1 https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/RegularSessions/Session43/Pages/ListReports.aspx – A/HRC/43/48/Add.2