Photo courtesy of The Telegraph

The Sri Lankan Cabinet has agreed a ban on wearing burqas and other full face veils in public, which is almost certain to be approved by Parliament. This follows other measures targeting Muslims and other minorities.

Many in Sri Lanka and internationally condemned this as a breach of human rights. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Ahmed Shaheed, tweeted that burqa bans are incompatible with international law guarantees of the right to manifest one’s religion or belief and of freedom of expression.

Minister of Public Security Sarath Weerasekara had earlier claimed that the burqa affects “national security” and is a “sign of religious extremism”. Yet the ban is likely to damage, rather than improve, national security and is a dangerous distraction from attempts to tackle the coronavirus pandemic. Indeed it undermines the building of trust which would help the nation to unite to counter the rise in infection, as well as other hazards.

Targeting minorities, undermining human rights

The background to the ban includes a gradually worsening situation for Muslims other minorities and dissidents in Sri Lanka which, as in the past, has paved the way for a wider erosion of human rights and democracy. This has included harassment and attacks by hate groups misusing Buddhism to gain power, shielded by the regime, and attempts to blame the entire community for the Easter Sunday bombings in 2019, although many Muslims had previously pleaded with the authorities to act against the ringleaders and Indian intelligence had provided specific warnings not long before the attacks.

In previous years, among some Sri Lankan Muslims, social conservatism had grown in influence (as had occurred in various faith communities across the world), with an impact on how women dressed. A small number now wore the burqa, which would have been very rare a few decades ago. Most religious conservatives were far from politically radical and tended to comply with the authorities but there were a tiny handful attracted by the ideology of groups such as ISIS.

After the bombings, there was a temporary ban on face coverings in public that might make it harder to know someone’s identity, supposedly on national security grounds. However this offered little real advantage, since female security officers could anyway conduct checks in spaces offering privacy where women could unveil if needed, and added to the stigma faced by Muslims.

Victimisation and harassment continued after the ban was lifted while repression more generally got worse and human rights and democracy were eroded. This took a fresh turn during the pandemic.

Cruelly, grieving relatives of Muslims who had died of COVID-19 were denied the opportunity to bury the dead as is required by their faith while the government insisted on cremation instead on spurious grounds of public health. Elsewhere in the world, burials had gone ahead, since these presented no threat to the public. In early 2021, rulers finally gave way but initially chose, as a site, a Northern island which would have been highly unsuitable. After protests, the location was shifted, although burying loved ones still involved long journeys for many.

This concession was part of a drive to win support from Muslim-majority states in the run up to a United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) gathering at which a resolution critical of Sri Lanka’s political leaders was to be discussed. The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, had produced a report which drew attention to the worsening rights situation in Sri Lanka, including victimisation of minorities, as well as failure to probe past violations, committed by both the armed forces and the Tigers.

Yet in other ways, the government was hardening its stance. On March 9 a regulation was passed allowing people to be detained for two years without trial if accused of causing “religious, racial, or communal disharmony.” This was an expansion of the already harsh Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), allowing the state to hold people in “reintegration centres” without proof of wrongdoing. This drew international condemnation.

“The Sri Lankan government has added a new weapon to its arsenal of abusive laws, putting religious and racial minorities at greater risk of torture and prolonged detention without trial,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. The PTA had already been used to target Muslims who were far from terrorists, such as Ahnaf Jazeem, a young poet who wrote a book of verse promoting peace and spirituality.

Then the Minister of Public Security announced plans to ban the burqa, as well as shutting down over a thousand Islamic schools. Again this was widely criticised, in Sri Lanka and overseas, while a minority was left feeling increasingly marginalised and unsafe.

It was perhaps unsurprising when, on March 23, the UNHRC passed a strong resolution calling for greater accountability by the government for its treatment of the people of Sri Lanka. The announcement that ministers are pressing ahead with the burqa ban was a further sign of defiance of human rights norms, meaning that all Sri Lankans outside the president’s inner circle are ultimately at risk from misuse of state power.

Violating human rights

As the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) pointed out freedom of religion and belief is guaranteed under Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), of which Sri Lanka is a signatory. Any limitation on freedom of religion must be non-discriminatory and must be necessary and proportionate to protect public safety, order, health, morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. According to the UN Human Rights Committee, under the ICCPR “the observance and practice of religion or belief may include not only ceremonial acts, but also such customs as…the wearing of distinctive clothing or head coverings.” As ICJ Legal and Policy Director Ian Seiderman pointed out, “The Sri Lankan Government’s justification for banning face coverings rings hollow during a time when it has quite sensibly made the wearing of face masks in public mandatory to address the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief of one’s choice is also guaranteed by Article 10 of the Constitution of Sri Lanka. Under Article 12, all persons are equal before the law and no citizen should be discriminated against on the grounds of race, religion, language, caste, sex, political opinion or place of birth. Article 14 (1) (e) ensures the freedom to manifest one’s religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.

In some parts of the world, there has been support for banning the burqa on the grounds that it reflects beliefs oppressive of women. Yet even if people reject those strands within major religions which have more restrictive attitudes on gender, giving male politicians or police officers the power to dictate how women should dress, and to use force against those who fail to obey, is far from liberating. And the practical effect of refusing to let some women wear clothes in which they feel comfortable to go out and about is to isolate them and deepen any disadvantage they face. While no woman should be pressured to wear a burqa and people of all faiths and none should be free to debate the pros and cons of specific practices, women’s rights are best protected in settings of equality and justice for all.

Damaging national security

Far from increasing national security, a burqa ban, by alienating Muslims still further and promoting an approach to politics based on division and abuse of power, is almost certain to bolster violent extremism under the guise of Islam. Such a move would result in constant flashpoints on the streets, deeper isolation of women and a sense of humiliation even among those who would not dream of wearing burqas. This would weaken yet more the position of Muslims seeking a peaceful, multicultural Sri Lanka.

Researchers studying countries in Europe which had put restrictions on wearing veils in public spaces found, in 2019, that far from reducing extremism, these restrictions were strongly and positively correlated with an increase in terrorist activity. The research team, Stuti Manchanda and Nilay Saiya from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, checked that it was not the case that greater violence had led to tighter laws on face coverings but rather the opposite.

This should perhaps not come as a surprise to Sri Lankans, given the events of the late 1970s and early 1980s. In a 1983 report by the ICJ, Ethnic Conflict and Violence in Sri Lanka, Professor Virginia Leary found in 1981 that the Prevention of Terrorism Act appeared to have promoted rather than prevented terrorism. “Since 1979, when the Act was adopted, terrorism has not declined but rather increased in the northern Tamil area. Increased police and army surveillance of the population have not curtailed the violence but seemingly stimulated it. This experience is similar to that of some other countries which have attempted to control terrorism by armed force rather than dealing with the fundamental factors contributing to the recourse to violence.”

In a supplement in 1983, ICJ staff confirmed this: “Many observers have commented that the harassment and violence by the army and police have contributed to growing support for the Tigers.” The suffering which resulted is hard to forget.

The president and his close associates may hope that by stoking conflict, he might again cast himself as the saviour of Sinhalese Buddhists, even if a fair number of them are harmed or killed, along with members of minorities. The wellbeing and even survival of ordinary Sri Lankans may not be a high priority to those whose wealth and connections protect them to some extent.

But this is a dangerous game to play, especially amidst a pandemic, when trust and mutual care may be vital in reining in the destructive spread of the virus. If those in charge will not act humanely and responsibly at this time, it may fall to others to do what they can to combat human rights abuses of all kinds, including failure to provide for basic economic needs or protect the health of those on low incomes. Acts of concern and solidarity which build bridges across communities may make a major difference in the long term, however grim the current situation may seem.