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Report: Unlawful use of weapons during protests 2022 in Sri Lanka

Report: ‘READY TO SUPPRESS ANY PROTEST’
SRI LANKA: UNLAWFUL USE OF WEAPONS DURING PROTESTS

During 2022 and 2023, Sri Lankan law enforcement authorities responded to unprecedented protests in Sri Lanka with unlawful use of tear gas and water cannon and the misuse of batons. Law enforcement authorities used tactics of obstruction, surveillance, and intimidation of protests, creating a chilling effect on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. The suppression of protest must stop and the government must ensure that law enforcement authorities adopt an approach to policing of public assemblies that complies with international standards and upholds the right to freedom of peaceful assembly in Sri Lanka.

The government is ready to suppress any protest. After [President] Ranil came into power his agenda has been to use the full strength of the forces and full weight with water cannon, tear gas, army to prevent protesters from organizing and coming out.”
– Chintaka Rajapakse, a prominent protester and human rights defender

Executive Summary 

Amnesty International investigated the use of force during 30 protests that took place in Sri Lanka between March 2022 and June 2023. During the investigation, Amnesty International conducted 39 qualitative interviews and an open-source investigation into 95 verified videos of 30 protests, gathered on social media. Amnesty International’s research shows a pattern in the unlawful use of tear gas and water cannons and the misuse of batons by Sri Lankan law enforcement authorities with video evidence revealing that in at least 17 protests – more than half of the protests analysed – law enforcement fell well short of abiding by international law and standards. Such an approach to policing of public assemblies that does not comply with international standards restricts the right to freedom of peaceful assembly in Sri Lanka.

The right to freedom of peaceful assembly is guaranteed under Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Sri Lanka acceded to in 1980 and ratified in 2005. Freedom of peaceful assembly is not unlimited; the right may be restricted under narrow grounds that are outlined in the ICCPR. The UN Human Rights Committee – the treaty body that offers authoritative interpretations of the ICCPR – notes in General Comment No.37 (2020) on the right of peaceful assembly, that the right of peaceful assembly is “a valuable tool that can and has been used to recognize and realize a wide range of other rights, including economic, social, and cultural rights. It is of particular importance to marginalized individuals and groups. Failure to respect and ensure the right of peaceful assembly is typically a marker of repression.” Public authorities, including the police, have a positive duty to facilitate and protect peaceful assemblies and the right to freedom of peaceful assembly.

In February 2022, the economic crisis, with high inflation, rising commodity prices and shortages of food, fuel and medicines triggered several protests in Colombo and other cities across Sri Lanka. As protests intensified, people called for the resignations of then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, and for accountability for the economic crisis, corruption, and human rights violations. The security forces responded with a violent crackdown, which included the unlawful use of lethal and less lethal weapons against protesters.

In the following months, the large-scale protests and an occupy movement known as the Aragalaya led to former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fleeing the country in July 2022. The use of unlawful force by law enforcement officials as a response to protests, however, continued when the current President, Ranil Wickremesinghe, entered office in July 2022. In November 2022, the new President stated in Parliament that he would mobilize the military and bring in a state of emergency to end any plans to initiate another Aragalaya. Nevertheless, protests continued in 2023 in response to the government’s repression of largely peaceful protesters, the prolonged economic crisis, high costs of living and increase in taxes as a precondition for the International Monetary Fund’s bailout plan.

At the same time, protests continued in the Northern and Eastern provinces of the country. These protests were mounted by families of people who had been forcibly disappeared by state entities and non-state actors throughout the protracted internal armed conflict between the Sri Lankan armed forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) between 1983 and 2009. Security forces and intelligence agencies continued to carry out surveillance, intimidation, harassment, and obstruction of these peaceful protesters.

In 2022 and 2023, Amnesty International documented the use by the police, of large quantities of tear gas against peaceful protesters without giving them an adequate opportunity to disperse, and without making any reasonable effort to limit risk of injury. Police fired tear gas grenades behind protesters and while they were trying to disperse, in breach of international human rights standards.

They also repeatedly failed to take adequate precautionary measures when using tear gas, firing into areas where children and bystanders were unnecessarily exposed to the effects of chemical irritant, such as near schools and on the street or other open areas.

Amnesty International also documented the use of water cannon by police at close range against peaceful protesters and in situations where protesters posed no threat to police officers and were attempting to disperse. Police also fired water cannon directly at a media correspondent reporting live from a protest, despite clear and visible signs of cameras and other media equipment. In the north of the country, police used water cannon in a largely peaceful protest by family members of the disappeared, who were continuing protest for truth and justice for their relatives 14 years after the end of the internal armed conflict in Sri Lanka.

The response of the police to a peaceful protest on 3 February 2023 is emblematic of their systematic and unlawful use of tear gas and water cannon in peaceful protests. Videos verified by Amnesty International show the combined use of water cannon and tear gas against protesters who were sitting peacefully, without giving them sufficient time or opportunity to disperse. The videos show how police used water cannon at close range against protesters and where protesters were pressed up against walls and gates, creating a risk of head and other injuries, in breach of international guidelines. Afterwards, police officers in steel helmets and full anti-riot gear chased protesters down nearby streets and alleyways, assaulting them, and threatening journalists who were filming the incidents.

Sri Lankan authorities used surveillance and intimidation of protesters before, during and after protests. They failed to protect peaceful protesters where third parties such as state-sanctioned groups obstructed peaceful protesters and deployed the military – who are not trained or equipped to carry out law enforcement functions – to handle public assemblies. Obstructing protests in this manner serves to provoke situations that will require the use of force, rather than defusing conflict to avoid the need to use force; this is in breach of the obligations of the state.

The response of the police to a peaceful protest on 3 February 2023 is emblematic of their systematic and unlawful use of tear gas and water cannon in peaceful protests.
Amnesty International found the approach of the Sri Lankan police to public assemblies was shaped from the outset by an assumption that an assembly would be unlawful and violent, necessitating the use of force, rather than starting from an obligation to facilitate and protect peaceful assemblies.

Despite widespread violations by law enforcement agencies and security forces, not a single police officer or member of army personnel has been prosecuted or convicted for the unlawful use of force during protests in 2022 and 2023. The lack of accountability for the unlawful use of force by police during protests exists within the context of a wider culture of impunity, where police and military personnel have rarely been held accountable for grave violations of human rights. Political interference with police functions, routine use of torture and other ill treatment by police against those held in police custody, and the failure of state authorities, including the Inspector General of Police (IGP), to investigate human rights violations have been widely documented.

The Sri Lankan state is responsible under international law to investigate effectively, impartially, and in a timely manner, any allegation or reasonable suspicion of human rights violations by law enforcement officials. Intentionally or negligently preventing an investigation into the unlawful use of force by police during public assemblies, or omitting to investigate such abuses, would itself be a violation of human rights.

AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL CALLS ON THE SRI LANKAN AUTHORITIES TO ENSURE THAT:
• the police adopt an overall approach to assemblies that is based on the facilitation of peaceful gatherings and guarantees the right to freedom of peaceful assembly of all
protesters.
• the police operational framework and practice of officials is such that weapons like tear gas or water cannon, which affect a wide area and have a high potential for harm, are only used proportionately and when necessary, in situations of widespread violence, for the purpose of dispersing a crowd, and only when all other means have failed to contain the violence. They may only be used when people are able to disperse, not when they are in a confined space or where roads or other routes of escape are blocked.
People must be warned that these means will be used, and they must be allowed an opportunity to disperse.
• prompt, independent, impartial, and effective investigations are carried out into the unlawful use of force by law enforcement officials against protesters in 2022 and
2023. If the investigations find sufficient credible evidence, those suspected of criminal responsibility must be prosecuted and tried in fair trials before ordinary civilian courts.
This applies to those with responsibility at all levels, including superior officers who knew, or should have known, that officials under their command were committing, or
had committed, such unlawful acts and who did not take all measures in their power to prevent or report such use.

Read the full report: ASA3778962024ENGLISH

 

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