Photo courtesy of The Morning

The arrest of several protestors calling for Sri Lanka’s president and his associates to step down amid the ongoing economic crisis, has drawn attention to the grave human rights situation which persists despite a ministerial reshuffle. Hopes that the regime had learnt its lesson, of a shift towards restoring democracy and responsible partnership with others to improve the situation of ordinary people, have not been fulfilled.

Arrests and intimidation

As the GotaGoGama protest at Galle Face Green intensified on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s birthday, 21 people were arrested after protesters blocked two additional entrances to the presidential secretariat. There were four women and 17 men, including a Buddhist monk. The police claimed they needed to clear a path for a delegation from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to the finance ministry for a meeting of which demonstrators later explained they were unaware. However this could have been achieved without arrests.

Fears that youth activists were being targeted were reinforced on 22 June, when seven were detained when they reported to a police station. Apparently they had been accused of damaging public property during a protest in front of police headquarters. They included a Buddhist monk, Ven. Rathkarawe Jinarathana Thera, and actor Jehan Appuhamy, who had recently walked for three days to Galle Face Green bearing a wooden cross and calling for justice for victims of the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings and their families. On the way, he had been greeted by thousands of people dissatisfied with the regime.

Tharindu Uduwaragedara, a member of the Sri Lanka Young Journalists’ Association, was instructed to appear before the Criminal Investigation Department (CID)’s Computer Crimes Unit on June 28. Air Force Intelligence appear to have complained about his YouTube channel that reports on social and human rights issues.

This followed earlier attempts to intimidate GotaGoGama activists, according to those who were targeted.

A credibility gap

While many in minority communities have long felt profoundly alienated from the president and his inner circle, many majority ethnic Sri Lankans have lost faith too as questions are being asked internationally as well. While various overseas states and their business allies may spot commercial opportunities or wish to offer assistance for other reasons, this will not necessarily lead to greater security for the poor and marginalised in particular, but also for others not part of the ruling elite. Even basic economic stability might not be secured on a more than temporary basis unless there is a credible leadership with accountability, transparency and separation of powers.

Earlier in June, in an interview with a Bloomberg journalist, when President Rajapaksa backtracked on proposals to end the concentration of power in the executive presidency and enable democracy to be restored, this was hardly reassuring. He also indicated that he was taking a hands on approach to negotiations with potential international partners rather than leaving this to the prime minister, other ministers or officials.

In mid June, the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) Core Group on Sri Lanka made up of the governments of Canada, Germany, Malawi, Montenegro, North Macedonia, the UK and the United States, issued a statement. It expressed concern over the violence which had taken place. “We stress the crucial importance of upholding democracy, human rights and the rule of law, and maintaining independent institutions. We also urge the Sri Lankan authorities to address long-standing impunity and corruption, and underline the need for good governance and sound economic policies,” it stated. “Our concerns over surveillance and intimidation of civil society persist and we stress the importance of protecting civil society space.”

The issue remained on the UN HRC agenda. Follow up to country visits to Tunisia, Armenia, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe: Report of the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, drew attention to serious ongoing concerns. “Sri Lankan police frequently appear to respond to protests that are disfavoured for political reasons by arresting their participants, in violation of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. Police have arrested peaceful protesters calling for accountability in relation to Tamil war victims; for environmental protection; for more equitable socio-economic policies; for better working conditions; and for education rights,” he noted.

As Amnesty International pointed out shortly after, economic and social rights were also an issue; austerity measures should not violate these. Mark Malloch Brown, president of the Open Society Foundations and a former Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations, warned of the risk of the IMPF “bailing out corrupt politicians instead of people in need”.

The protestors continue to attract interest and win admiration from across the world. If the regime continues to resort to repression while undertaking only superficial or very limited reform and to put its own interests over the wellbeing and even survival of ordinary Sri Lankans, it will further undermine its credibility.