Image: Shehan Gunasekara/Daily FT.
“The High Commissioner is deeply concerned by the trends emerging over the past year, which may represent early warning signs of a deteriorating human rights situation,” states the latest report of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) dated 27 January.
For how long can the truth be suppressed? For how long can racism hide behind the cover of ground water contamination? For how long are the true medical professionals going to tolerate this unscientific charade desecrating the ethics of medical practise, the integrity of the profession and their self-dignity?
This tomfoolery has now hit the international arena. The world is looking down upon Sri Lanka as acting:
(1) in violation of fundamental rights entrenched in its own Constitution;
(2) in violation of international obligations;
(3) in violation of human rights;
(4) in contrary to scientific evidence available in the field of virology and epidemiology and,
(5) is causing disaffection within communities by its discriminative policies against religious minorities.
These are very serious matters. It is now not only the burial matter but many other issues too have been dug up. As citizens, you and I, may have to ultimately bear the burden and face the wrath of the international community. For how long can the world be fooled? The OHCHR Report has urged, ‘Member States to pursue alternative international options for ensuring justice and reparations and support a dedicated capacity to advance these efforts.’
This is a two-pronged approach of the OHCHR. The first is collective action and, as a backup, individual State action. The shame that has befallen this country is the mere fact that Sri Lanka has been picked by the world body for negative scrutiny. As a country, we have been ashamed in the international stage. Our deficiency in the skills of sophisticated engagement protocols, exacerbated by myopic and ‘kneejerk’ foreign policies will have ramifications:
(1) on our international relations especially, in the sphere of bi-lateral, unilateral and multi-lateral engagements;
(2) the image and reputation of Sri Lanka in the diplomatic fora, isolation from her international peers and others with whom she has ties;
(3) on foreign participation in the economic activities of Sri Lanka like trade, financial flows, investment;
(4) on the ownership of assets abroad, travel by Government officials; and,
(4) the human rights record of our country
The unsustainable policy stand of forced cremation of COVID-19 dead besides belying science, is also in violation of the fundamental rights in the Constitution, international obligations and human rights. Any sane person reading through the facts below will understand this.
1) The virus was first identified in December 2019 and all the countries of the world buried those who died of COVID-19 infection. The Ministry of Health Provisional Clinical Practice Guidelines on COVID-19 Suspected and Confirmed Patients dated 27 March 2020 allowed for burial of dead bodies under certain conditions.
2) This decision was changed four days later, on 31 March, requiring that all COVID-19 victims be cremated. (The Extraordinary Gazette notification 2170/8 of 11 April 2020). Thereby, deliberately denying the right for the Muslims and Christians (and some from the Buddhist/Tamil communities) to bury their dead according to their religious teachings or personal wishes.
3) According to the Government, the reason for not allowing burial is to prevent contamination of the ground water by the COVID-19 virus.
It is interesting to evaluate this position of the Government in the light of scientific evidence.
a) World Health Organisation – in its guidelines dated 24 March 2020 regarding the disposal of COVID-19 infected bodies have clearly laid down burial as one of the safe methods of disposal. (1).
b) The World Health Organisation document states, the claims that the virus spread directly through groundwater have not been scientifically substantiated and there is no indication that the virus could be transmitted through drinking water. (2)
c) WHO, CDC and ECDPC – On the basis that burial is safe, the World Health Organisation (WHO), Center for Disease Control and Prevention of United States ((WHO), CDC) and the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDPC) had issued clear and extensive guidelines on handling dead bodies for cremation or burial. (3).
d) Experts Team – On 24 Dece-mber 2020, the Ministry of Health of the Sri Lanka Government appointed an Experts Team in the field of immunology, virology and microbiology to provide their recommendations on whether burial can be allowed. (4).
The Experts Team in their report clearly stated that the virus cannot replicate in a dead body and the remaining virus would die over a period of time. It stated that the virus infection is not a water-borne disease therefore, contamination of water is very remote. The Experts Team recommended cremation or burial with guidelines. They also emphasised that the dignity of the dead and their families should be respected and protected. (5).
e) College of Community Physicians of Sri Lanka (CCPSL) – One of the leading medical institutions, in their positional paper, voiced their specialist opinion. It stated that with more than 80 million global infection cases and 1.7 million deaths, there is no evidence in the nearly 85,000 published scientific literature on COVID-19 that the virus was transmitted through a dead body. Further the spread directly through groundwater have not been scientifically substantiated. Virus may not spread from dead bodies but there is a possible to spread through hospital sewage, waste from isolation and quarantine centres, faecal-oral transmission but not from the dead bodies.
They concluded urging that each citizen of Sri Lanka should be allowed to be cremated or buried as per his/her and the family’s desire within the strict guidelines recommended by the Ministry of Health. (6).
f) Sri Lanka Medical Association (SLMA) – Another leading medical institution in their response to the issue of COVID-19 death management in Sri Lanka had expressed their views in favour of burial.
There are no reports of the virus being infective via ground water. Even in the case of severe waterborne diseases like Cholera, burial of infected dead bodies was allowed. It is unlikely that the virus could remain infectious within a dead body for any significant period of time. The council of the Sri Lanka Medical Association is with the view that burial of COVID-19 dead bodies could be permitted in Sri Lanka. (7).
Further, it stated that disposal of COVID-19 dead bodies has affected ethnic harmony in Sri Lanka. In view of the cultural diversity of Sri Lanka, it is essential to have a proper policy for disposal of the dead which is acceptable to all.
United Nations Human Rights
(a) United Nations High Commissioner for human rights (OHCHR) – In its latest report dated 27 January 2021, titled, “Sri Lanka on alarming path towards recurrence of grave human rights violations” the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) details as follows:
“The UN High Commissioner is deeply concerned by the trends emerging over the past year, which may represent early warning signs of a deteriorating human rights situation. With regard to burial, the High Commissioner notes that WHO guidance stresses that “cremation is a cultural choice”. (8).
As stated above, the World Health Organisation in its guidelines dated 24 March 2020 regarding the disposal of COVID-19 infected bodies have clearly laid down that burial as one of the safe methods of disposal.
(b) UN Special Rapporteurs – The following four UN Special Rapporteurs:
(i) Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief;
(ii) the Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health;
(iii) the Special Rapporteur on minority issues; and,
(iv) the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism in a communication to the President of Sri Lanka stated as follows:
“We are concerned that the amendment is inconsistent with the Infection Prevention and Control for the safe management of a dead body in the context of COVID-19 guideline provided by World Health Organisation (WHO Guideline). Furthermore, we are concerned of the lack of consideration provided and the lack of sensitivity in the MoH Guideline to different communities and their religious and cultural practices.” The Special Rapporteurs reiterated the point that WHO Guideline provides that people who have died from COVID-19 can be buried or cremated. (9).
(c) Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) – The Commission on 20 November 2020, highlighted that any restriction on a fundamental right, even at a time of crisis, must be imposed under strict justifications. It recommended to permit burial of bodies of persons who succumb to the COVID-19 virus while adhering to required health guidelines. It also urged the Government to ensure compliance with the Constitution of Sri Lanka and Sri Lanka’s international obligations. (10).
(d) Civil society, rights activists and civil organisations – Recognised individuals consisting of professionals, academics, lawyers, specialists, intellects, reverend priests and 29 civil society organisations issued a statement urging the Government to permit burial of the COVID-19 dead bodies.
They said that the Government’s ongoing forcible cremation policy without proper scientific evidence has caused much suffering and grievance to certain religious groups. The statement called upon the Government to enable those from religious minority to bury their dead. (11).
More than 190 countries in the world have buried the COVID-19 infected dead bodies and are continuing to do so. There is not a single shred of evidence that ground water has been contaminated.
The above provides a synopsis of the ongoing human rights violation by the forced cremation policy of the Sri Lanka Government. Before any action is imposed on Sri Lanka by outside bodies, it will be prudent for the Government to revisit the current policy and permit burial. This will safeguard and protect the image and reputation of Sri Lanka internationally. Such a decision will also allow the Muslims and Christians (and some from the Buddhist/Tamil communities) to bury their dead as per their wishes.
1. Infection Prevention and Control for the safe management of a dead body in the context of COVID-19 dated 24 March 2020 https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/331538/WHO-COVID-19-lPC_DBMgmt-2020.1-eng.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
2. (Water, sanitation, hygiene, and waste management for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. World Health Organization, 29 July 2020 https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/ WHO-2019-nCoV-IPC-WASH-2020.4).
3. College of Community Physicians of Sri Lanka, https://ccpsl.org/.
4. Letter of appointment of a panel of virologist, microbiologist and immunologist for expert opinion on safe disposal of human remains of COVID-19 infected people. Dated 24 December 2020. Ref No: SH/CORONA/05/2020-Vol II. Signed by Maj. Gen. (Dr.) S.H. Munasinghe, Secretary Ministry of Health, Sri Lanka.
5. Disposal of corpse of persons infected with SARS-Cov-2 virus – Recommendations by the Expert Group dated 28 December 2020.
6. College of Community Physicians of Sri Lanka, https://ccpsl.org/.
7. Response of the Sri Lanka Medical Association (SLMA) to the issue of COVID-19 death management in Sri Lanka.
8. Link to report: https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/ Countries /LK/ Sri_LankaReportJan2021.docx
9. Reference: AL LKA 2/2020 8 April 2020.
10. Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) Observations and Recommendations on Extraordinary Gazette No.2179/8 dated 11 April 2020.
11. Statement of civil society and civil organisations dated 4 January 2021.
(The writer is an Attorney-at-Law and former Corporate and Legal Advisor. He can be reached via [email protected])