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Sri Lanka : Ensuring freedom of association and of expression through protests remains a priority for GSP+ implementation (EU report)

Joint Report to the European Parliament and the Council on the Generalised Scheme of Preferences covering the period 2020-2022

Sri Lanka has taken significant steps towards the protection of human rights since its readmission into the GSP+ scheme in 2017. However, challenges remain and a risk of backtracking on reforms was identified in the years between 2020 and 2022.

Aragalaya – A mass movement

In March 2022, popular discontent translated into a mass movement, overcoming ethnic, class, gender, and generational divides. The protests highlighted that Sri Lanka’s civil society is organised and capable of mobilisation, and for a significant period they were able to protest in the spirit of democracy and freedom of expression and assembly. While this points to some deeply felt grievances, during the period of the protests Sri Lankan citizens across communities could enjoy space for dissent.

On the other hand, the economic and financial crisis has had a severe negative impact on
an increasingly large part of the population, particularly the most vulnerable, leading to rising concerns for socio-economic rights. As the political and economic and financial crisis continued after July 2022, the use of a more repressive response has become apparent. Following the imposition of a State of Emergency on 18 July 2022, the arrests of the movement’s leaders increased this concern.

Ensuring freedom of association and of expression through protests remains a priority of GSP+ implementation and a challenge.

There is an actual risk of repressive action by the State, as seen in the disproportionate use
of force against civil protestors. In this challenging context, it is paramount that the State
shows restraint and continues to guarantee freedom of association, freedom of expression
and the right to protest free from intimidation. The process of reform will be more
sustainable and robust if Sri Lankan civil society is part of it and if the approach is truly

Further, the reform of the domestic legislative framework to comply fully with the human rights conventions presents important ongoing challenges. Reforms of existing legislation and any new legislation must align with international human rights standards.

PTA and commitments made since 2017

The 1979 Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) has been used to arbitrarily arrest and detain individuals for years without due process, and its amendment in accordance with international standard is a GSP+ monitoring priority. Its amendment in March 2022 deserves to be highlighted as a first step of positive reform in accordance with the commitments made by Sri Lanka in 2017.

The amendment aims to increase judicial oversight, expedite hearings, reduce the length of pre-trial detention and to allow suspects to challenge their detention in court. However, the amended PTA continues to diverge from international standards. In November 2022, Sri Lanka expressed its strong commitment to prepare a comprehensive legislative proposal to replace the PTA in accordance with the Constitution, and in line with international norms and best practices, with a view to its finalisation in 2023.

Anti-Terrorism Bill

On 22 March 2023 the Government published an Anti-Terrorism Bill to replace the PTA. While providing improvements in some areas, concerns regarding compliance with international human rights standards remained. A new draft of the Bill was published on 15 September 2023. Civil society and legal experts have raised concerns that the new proposal still contains a number of problematic elements. It is important that the concerns and recommendations of legal experts, stakeholders and civil society are taken into account.

Online Safety Bill

A draft Online Safety Bill was published in September 2023. The Bill has raised concerns
about lack of clarity in defining harmful content, which could lead to the censorship of
legitimate and non-harmful material. The Bill should provide adequate safeguards for the
fundamental right of freedom of expression.

20th Amendment

In the area of accountability and reconciliation after the end of the civil war, independent
institutions established under the  19th amendment (2015) of the Sri Lankan Constitution such as the Office on Missing Persons and the Office of Reparations, are key. They continue to operate, but the perception of their independence and effectiveness suffered after the 20th amendment of the Sri Lankan Constitution in October 2020, which gave sweeping powers to the President by empowering him to appoint the chairs of independent institutions.

Status of HRCSL

In October 2021, recommendations by the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions to downgrade the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) from its
“A” status sent a strong signal to the Sri Lankan Government and led to some corrective
actions. A new chairperson was appointed at the HRCSL, and funding was attributed for its functioning. The Government also reacted to concerns that followed the move of the non-governmental organisations (NGO) secretariat, which monitors the registration and
operations of NGOs, from a civilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs under the Ministry for Public Security in July 2022. However, these actions were not sufficient as the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions downgraded the HRCSL to a “B” status because of, among others, the lack of transparency in the appointment process and of pluralism in its membership and staff.

21st Amendment to the Constitution

In October 2022 Sri Lanka adopted the 21st Amendment to the Constitution, whose stated
aims are to strengthen democratic governance and independent oversight of key institutions, public scrutiny, as well as to deploy anti-corruption measures, with the reestablishment of the Constitutional Council and Independent Commissions. The implementation of the 21st Amendment will show whether it is sufficient to guarantee the
separation of powers, appropriate checks and balances, and the capacity of independent
institutions to continue functioning.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission?

The first half of 2023 has seen efforts by the President to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a reconciliation mechanism based on accountability.
Progress through the establishment of a functioning secretariat is underway, but some
stakeholders have raised questions about the Commission’s effectiveness and independence.

Covid 19 and Muslim burials 

The COVID-19 situation led to discriminatory policies and practices such as the policy of
compulsory cremation of those that deceased from COVID-19, irrespective of their
religion. This policy, in contravention of Muslim tradition, was condemned locally and
internationally and in response to calls for an inclusive, non-discriminatory approach,
burials were allowed again in February 2021.

“One Country One Law”

The “One Country One Law” task force was appointed in 2021 and headed by a militant
Buddhist monk. This was perceived as a potential threat to ethnic and religious non-discrimination, although the Government downplayed its divisive potential by stating that its prime aim was to prevent the practice of early marriages. Its report from 2022 was not
made public.

Discrimination of LGBTIQ citizens

There has been no substantial progress on legislation against the discrimination of
LGBTIQ citizens and same-sex consensual relations remain criminalised under Sections
365 and 365A of the Criminal Code. A private member bill was introduced in the Sri
Lankan Parliament in August 2022 to amend these provisions, which would constitute an important step forward if adopted.

On the death penalty, Sri Lanka has maintained a de facto moratorium on executions since
1976. In December 2022 Sri Lanka was among the 125 countries to vote in favour of a
resolution on a moratorium at the UN General Assembly, reiterating the positive vote in

Conclusions and priorities

Both positive and negative elements could be observed during the monitoring cycle as
regards the human rights situation in Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan civil society has shown
resilience, and the Aragalaya protest movement in 2022 saw the participation of
protesters and activists from diverse backgrounds.

Treatment of minorities remains a concern

On the other hand, the treatment of minorities remains a concern in particular as efforts towards reconciliation are slow, and the 1979 Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) continues to be applied including after the protest movements in 2022, causing fear amongst the population and suffocating dissent. Substantial reform or repeal of the PTA in line with human rights standards remains a priority, just as Sri Lanka’s need to re-commit to reconciliation and accountability.

Other challenges

Other challenges remain in tackling hate crimes, allegations of torture under police detention, decriminalising same sex relations, fighting discrimination against LGBTIQ persons, fighting inequality between men and women, domestic violence, and child abuse. In the aftermath of the 2022 protest movement, it is necessary that harassment and threats against human rights defenders, journalists and lawyers is avoided.

Excerpts from the report: The EU Special Incentive Arrangement for Sustainable Development and Good Governance (GSP+) assessment of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka covering the period 2020-2022
Joint Report to the European Parliament and the Council on the Generalised Scheme of Preferences covering the period 2020-2022

(Subheadings and emphasises are from SLB)

Read the full report:ST-15996-2023-ADD-8_en


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