Photo courtesy of New York Times

During 30 protests between March 2022 and June 2023, Sri Lanka’s law enforcement personnel did not adhere to international law and standards, using excessive force against peaceful protesters in at least 17 protests by using water cannon, tear gas and batons, according to a new investigative report by Amnesty International titled Ready to Suppress Any Protest Sri Lanka: Unlawful Use of Weapons During Protests.

Amnesty International conducted 39 interviews and examined 95 videos from social media to gather evidence of unlawful use of weapons, including in the north and east where those seeking justice for their forcibly disappeared relatives are routinely harassed and intimidated when they take to the streets to demand answers.

The state has a duty to uphold the right to peaceful assembly and to prevent violent elements from infiltrating and disrupting peaceful protests. Most law enforcement officers are woefully ignorant of the international laws and covenants governing the right to peaceful protest that the country is obliged to adhere to as a member of the international community; the right to protest is also enshrined in Article 19 of the constitution.

In the 17 cases where excessive and disproportionate force was used against the protesters, not one police or military officer has been held accountable. “This lack of accountability exists within the context of a wider culture of impunity, where police and military personnel have rarely been held accountable for human rights violations; it also emboldens law enforcement officials to continue violently suppressing protests,” said Amnesty International in a press release.

“From the outset, the Sri Lankan police approached the 2022-23 protests assuming that they would be unlawful and violent and that they would need to use force to repress them. The police failed to recognize that people have the right to peacefully protest, and that the authorities have a duty to facilitate and protect protests. Instead, they targeted, chased, and beat largely peaceful protesters,” said Smriti Singh, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for South Asia.

In March 2024, Amnesty International wrote to the police outlining the allegations in its report and requesting an official response but had not received a reply yet.

The police force still sticks to old colonial laws, which define any protest as a riot that needs to be quelled by force; the concept of peaceful protest is not accepted or acknowledged and neither is the idea that the right to freedom of peaceful assembly is legal and indeed a fundamental right; it is guaranteed under Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Sri Lanka ratified in 2005. However, the right to freedom of peaceful assembly can be limited in special circumstances.

In many countries around the world, especially in South Asia, citizens exercising their legal right to protest are met with excessive and disproportionate force by the police and the security forces acting on behalf of the regimes in power. In recent months, the western world has also been rocked by hundreds and thousands of people taking to the streets in support of the Palestinian people even as their governments continue to sell arms used to slaughter helpless civilians. Some of the protesters have been arrested but the sheer numbers have prevented any real force being used. In the Netherlands, the image of  environmental activist Greta Thunberg being roughly hauled away by police for protesting against fossil fuels subsidies has reverberated around the world.

The growing movement to suppress those who speak truth to power prompted Amnesty International to launch a global campaign called Protect the Protest in 2022 and, as part of the campaign, to research and report on the unlawful use of weapons in protests in Sri Lanka in an effort to get authorities to stop the crackdown on peaceful protests and adhere to international laws.

The police and the military have a duty to facilitate and protect peaceful assemblies. Firearms should be used as a last resort. The use of water cannon and tear gas is strictly regulated and should not be used if bystanders and children are at risk. These weapons should not be used if people do not have sufficient time and space to disperse quickly. In addition to direct health impacts, there are also psychological effects when people are confronted with water cannons and tear gas, which should only be used when there is a threat of serious public disorder.