Today is Human Rights Day

As the world marks another Human Rights Day, Sri Lanka is sinking deeper and deeper into an authoritarian regime where human rights are routinely flouted and international criticism is regularly ignored. The return to “normality” for a few means no more petrol queues or shortages of gas and milk powder but for the majority of people, this so-called stability has brought no relief from crushing hardships in face of escalating prices for essential food, electricity, petrol and gas. By spending money to just survive, there is nothing left for health or education.

And things are only going to get worse, as President Ranil Wickremesinghe keeps saying. UNICEF predicted that the situation will deteriorate between October 2022 and February 2023. “An estimated 6.2 million people (28 per cent of the population) are moderately acute food insecure, while 66,000 people are severely acute food insecure. Two in five households (41.8 per cent) spend more than 75 per cent of their expenditures on purchasing food, leaving little to spend on health and education. Many families have exhausted their savings and are struggling due to crippling inflation,” the organization said in its humanitarian appeal for Sri Lanka.

As the country grapples with its worst economic crisis, leaving the poor behind while the well off continue with their oblivious lifestyles, the regime led by President Wickremesinghe has made it its mission to brutally crackdown on protests, even using the Prevention Of Terrorism Act (PTA) to detain three dissenters without bail for several months.

The government’s heavy handed tactics drew condemnation from international and national human rights organisations, the latest being the CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform of over 20 organisations that tracks restrictions to civic freedoms across the globe. It categorised Sri Lanka as a repressed state, just one step away from the worst category – a closed state.

The CIVICUS Monitor said in its Global Assessment on Protest Rights 2022 report that the government used the State of Emergency Regulations to curtail protests and to arrest and detain suspects without warrants and due process safeguards. CIVICUS noted that the police used excessive and unprovoked force against peaceful protestors and bystanders. Journalists have been targeted for their reporting on the crisis. These actions were inconsistent with Sri Lanka’s obligations under the UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The protesters have been vilified and demonised by ruling party politicians as well as President Wickremesinghe, who holds office courtesy the very people he is railing against. Justice Rohini Marasinghe, in her capacity as Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission, told the fourth Universal Periodic Review in Geneva that “Hundreds roamed the streets against the government and its economic policies. They all rallied against the leaders who had steered the country into the worst economic crisis. They were not terrorists nor insurgents, as described by the military. They only demanded what was legitimately entitled from the Government.”

As a party to the UN’s International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the government has to ensure that all its citizens have adequate and equitable access to basic necessities such as work, food, housing, health care, education and culture.

Despite the spate of citizens’ uprisings in authoritarian states such as China and Iran, the world has not forgotten Sri Lanka. Sandya Ekneligoda was named among the BBC’s list of 100 inspiring and influential women for 2022. As a human rights activist and campaigner, she helps women whose relatives were forcibly disappeared in their quest for justice and accountability. Her husband Prageeth, an investigative journalist and cartoonist, went missing in January 2010.

On Human Rights Day, the Sri Lanka Campaign called on the countries with human rights sanctions regimes including the UK, US, Canada and Australia and the European Union to sanction several people, singling out Defence Secretary Kamal Gunaratne and former Army Commander Shavendra Silva, saying that they “continue to hold positions of significant power and influence despite credible allegations of command responsibility for mass atrocity crimes. Because of their impunity in Sri Lanka, it is imperative that the international community takes action against them.”

Other people mentioned included former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka, Fisheries Minister Dounglas Devavanda, Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan known as Karuna and Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan known as Pillayan.

The sanctions are supposed to provide accountability for and deter serious violations of human rights particularly cases of sexual violence, enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, human trafficking, violence against human rights defenders and journalists and violence against individuals due to their religion.

The desperation of those struggling to feed their families and send their children to school, as well as the disgust felt for the rampant corruption of a repressive Rajapaksa regime led to the people’s struggle or aragalaya that resulted in the ouster of the top leaders and some corrupt bureaucrats. But nothing much has changed; the same members of parliament carry on with their errant ways and there are almost daily exposures of yet another corrupt deal. What happened to the people’s struggle and will the people rise up again?

Father Jeewantha Peiris has been front and centre of the aragalaya, a tall and imposing figure with his flowing locks and pristine cassock. During those four months, he travelled to Colombo each week from his parish in Doloswala, a remote corner of the Ratnapura district, going back on weekends to attend to his flock of estate workers, a marginalized and discriminated group who have little access to nutritious food, good education or adequate health care.

For his troubles, Father Jeewantha is facing three court cases for which he has to come to Colombo. A travel ban means his passport is impounded. His phone, containing telephone numbers to do with his work as a counsellor, was taken by the police in violation of his privacy.

Father Jeewantha spoke to Groundviews about why he got involved in human rights work, the ongoing injustices in the country and what the future holds for the people’s struggle.

Why did you decide to take part in the people’s struggle?

For more than three years I have worked with Tamil estate workers in the Doloswala and saw how they are marginalized and discriminated against and do not have even basic facilities. The children have no access to education and many are malnourished. The economic crisis made things much worse; Rs 1,000 a day is not enough. Their misery pushed me to get involved in the people’s struggle.

How will the people’s struggle be carried forward?

We have spontaneously formed a key group of 50 to 60 people to coordinate the citizens’ struggle after facing intimidation and assault when our camp was burnt while we were protesting in a non violent way. We have an action plan for the way forward for the second phase of the struggle that involves organising people on a regional basis to fight against economic injustice. We are mobilising people to demand an election for a change in government because this government has no mandate from the people. We have formed People’s Councils to consolidate people’s power at the grass roots level by mobilising farmers, fishermen, trade unionists, factory workers and others to enhance their  political literacy and empower them for a democratic struggle. The minorities and oppressed people need to get their rights. There has to be a change in the political, economic, social and cultural systems. We are preparing a new constitution by having discussions with professionals to abolish the executive presidency and have a people oriented constitution by getting them involved in the process. It was economic injustice that caused the protests beginning with the agriculture crisis. This economic injustice caused by politicians is still continuing along with state repression. Under the PTA Tamil people have been detained for decades without trial so we are calling for the abolishing of the PTA. It will take at least a decade to establish real human rights and practice democracy and social democracy. The struggle is not about just protesting but it is about creating awareness and bringing people together with no divisions and no racism or extremism. We have the help of the international community. I am very hopeful because many professionals and intellectuals, the young generation and people on social media are cooperating for change but it’s a long journey.

What is the current state of human rights in the country?

The human rights situation is getting from bad to worse; there is still no justice for the violence that took place on May 9. Protesters are facing travel bans, continuous court cases, surveillance and intimidation. The PTA is used against democratic protesters. There is state militarisation to repress human rights defenders. There is no respect human rights and the government takes no notice of the Human Rights Commission or the LLRC proposals. The Ranil Wickremesinghe regime is destroying human rights and democracy. The international community must create pressure on government to respect human rights and  fall in line with democracy. The government is not allowing people to express their difficulties through protests, although it is their democratic right. This is a huge hinderance. A social explosion is at hand if people’s issues are not addressed. The estate sector is unable to face the economic crisis. Parents of school going children cannot buy stationary. There are no ways and means to uplift poor people. Privatisation of successful enterprises is happening at the  whims and fancies of politicians for commissions. Tourism cannot be successful if there is economic injustice. Sri Lankans need to have a dignified life. Big business people tell us to stop protests when the majority do not have food, daily earnings, health care or education. The increase in indirect taxes is borne by poor people while direct taxes are not touched. There is no mechanism to stop corruption. Why increase military expenditure to oppress people when people have no medicine? Without stopping corruption we can’t get out of this. Thieves and drug dealers are holding power, so there have to be fresh elections for a change. People’s power must be given a chance.