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The 'repression' of SL’s civic space

The 'repression' of SL’s civic space

08 Dec 2022 | BY Sumudu Chamara

  • A global online platform monitoring governments’ restrictions on civic freedoms finds SL ‘repressed, a step away from a closed State’

In a context where the Sri Lankan Government’s questionable management of protests and dissent continues to remain a national-level topic, an international coalition has, based on national civic space ratings, categorised Sri Lanka as a “repressed” State. The “repressed” State is just one step away from the worst category – a “closed” State.

This rating was issued by the CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that brings together over 20 organisations that tracks restrictions to civic freedoms across the globe. It issued the aforementioned ratings concerning 33 different restrictions related to the freedom of association, expression and peaceful assembly.


Civic space in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is among the 131 countries in the world and 27 countries in the Asia Pacific region where protests were documented in the past year. In a statement, CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance that issued the “Global Assessment on Protest Rights 2022” report, based on the CIVICUS Monitor data, noted that Sri Lanka is one of the four countries in the Asia Pacific region where the killing of protestors was documented in the past year, and this was referring to the Rambukkana shootings in April 2022. The report identified Sri Lanka as one of the countries where killings occurred with impunity.

Adding that monitoring by the CIVICUS Monitor has shown that the Sri Lankan Government repeatedly used the State of Emergency Regulations to curtail mass protests related to the economic crisis and to arrest and detain suspects without warrants and due process safeguards, CIVICUS noted that the Police also used excessive and unprovoked force, including tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets against peaceful protestors and bystanders. Journalists having been targeted for their reporting on the crisis and protests were also highlighted.

It described Sri Lanka’s situation: “In July 2022, a coordinated joint operation by the Sri Lankan military, the Police and special forces forcibly removed parts of the three-month long ‘GotaGoGama’ peaceful protest site in front of the Presidential Secretariat in Colombo. Security forces severely beat protestors and lawyers and removed many tents from the pavement. Human rights defenders and activists have also been targeted and some remain in detention. 

“In August 2022, Ceylon Teachers’ Union General Secretary Joseph Stalin was arrested while in September 2022, Youth for Change National Organiser Lahiru Weerasekara was arrested as he was returning on his bike from a peaceful protest at Galle Face. Student activist Wasantha Mudalige remains in detention under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act (PTA), while student activist Ven. Galwewa Siridhamma Thera was released on bail on 23 November 2022 but was immediately rearrested (he has since been enlarged on bail). They were both arrested around the student protests on 18 August 2022.”

The report noted that in a context where the Sri Lankan Government has repeatedly used the State of Emergency regulations to curtail mass protests related to the economic crisis, it has allowed the authorities to arrest and detain suspects without warrants and due process safeguards, and also allowed to impose curfews, restrict access to the internet, and to shut down social media in the country.

It added: “In Sri Lanka, more than 100 people involved in the mass protests over the economic crisis have been arrested, including students, civil society activists and unionists. There have been reports of alleged torture and ill-treatment in detention and some people have been charged with ‘unlawful assembly’ and’ obstructing the duties of Police officers’, among other offences. The Government also used the draconian PTA to detain three student activists in August 2022. Other tactics used to penalise protestors include travel bans.”

In this context, CIVICUS called on the Sri Lankan Government to halt its assault on the right to protest, investigate all violations by the security forces and bring the perpetrators to justice, while emphasising that these actions appear to be inconsistent with Sri Lanka’s obligations under the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).


Oppression by governments

The report discussed the overall situation observed in countries where protests took place in the past year, stressing that governments use diverse tactics to suppress protests and protestors.

 “Across the globe, governments are using a range of tactics to crack down on protestors. Although international human rights law and standards establish that, as a general rule, States must ensure the right to peaceful assembly, restrictions of the right often begin even before any protest occurs. Authorities prevent demonstrations by refusing permission or blocking routes adjacent to a planned protest area. Organisers face intimidation, harassment, and surveillance when planning a protest, and sometimes are subject to house arrest just before a protest.”

Adding that restrictions that precede protests create a chilling environment by generating an atmosphere of fear and violence that discourages people from exercising their right to peaceful assembly, it was noted that this means that protests are more common in countries with an open and enabling civic space compared to closed and repressed environments.

“Detention is not only used as a tactic to stop protestors from taking part, it is also used to disrupt protests while people are gathering and during protests to break them up. Excessive force is also frequently deployed. International human rights law establishes that force should only be used if strictly unavoidable. 

“However, excessive force was used in over 57 countries during the past year. In at least 24 countries, protestors were killed while peacefully protesting. Although every person should be able to observe and report on protests, journalists are often victims of violence and arrests while covering protests. At times, violations continue after protests, with the harassment and prosecution of protest organisers and participants.”

In addition, it was pointed out that the lack of accountability for violations of the freedom of peaceful assembly is common, despite the obligations placed on States under international human rights law to provide adequate and prompt remedies to protestors whose rights have been violated.


Recommendations

This situation calls for a number of reforms, according to the report, which further pointed out that the responsibility of protecting the freedoms and rights pertaining to protests, association and expression lies primarily with the respective governments.

The report urged that the States respect the right to peaceful assembly and ensure its free exercise without discrimination, allow assemblies to take place without unwarranted interference, and ensure that protestors are protected. Among its recommendations were the halting of hostile rhetoric that stigmatises peaceful protests, such as portraying them as destabilising and as a threat, and adopting all necessary measures to ensure that individuals, organisations and communities exercising their right to the freedom of peaceful assembly are not subjected to attacks, harassment, threats, and intimidation from State and non-State sources.

In regard to legal reforms, the report called on the States to amend all laws and regulations in order to fully guarantee the right to the freedom of peaceful assembly and to adopt best practices on the freedom of peaceful assembly, as put forward by the 2012 report of the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the Rights to the Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association, which calls for simple processes for the notification of assemblies being held rather than permission being required, and by General Comment Number 37 on the right to peaceful assembly adopted by the UN Human Rights Committee in 2020.

In addition, it put forward recommendations for reforms in the justice and law enforcement sectors: “Ensure the independent, thorough and impartial investigation of human rights violations in the context of protests, including arbitrary arrests, excessive force, and extrajudicial killings committed by security forces, and hold perpetrators with command responsibility accountable. Provide recourse to judicial review and effective remedy, including compensation, in cases of the unlawful denial of the right to the freedom of peaceful assembly by State authorities. Ensure that public health emergencies such as Covid-19 are not used as a pretext to suppress the right to the freedom of peaceful assembly, and ensure that quarantine measures are never used to punish or prevent people joining peaceful protests.”

Steps to improve the law enforcement and defence force officials’ ability to operate in a human rights friendly manner was also a part of the recommendations. It was recommended that the States establish and strengthen independent Police oversight and investigatory bodies, including by providing sufficient resources, and ensure that they are able to effectively investigate allegations of the unlawful use of force against protestors. In addition, the States were urged to review, and if necessary, update, existing human rights training and protocols for Police and security forces with the assistance of an independent civil society to foster a more consistent application of international human rights standards, including the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms.

Ensuring that journalists, human rights defenders and others involved in monitoring or reporting on assemblies are not prohibited from, or unduly limited in, exercising these functions, including with respect to the monitoring of the actions of law enforcement officials, was also recommended, regarding which the report further noted that the said parties must not face reprisals or other harassment, and that their equipment must not be confiscated or damaged. The report further recommended that the States cease internet shutdowns and repeal any laws and policies that allow for network disruptions and shutdowns, including in the context of protests, and refrain from the use of biometric identification and recognition technologies such as facial recognition for the arbitrary surveillance of protestors online and offline.

Moreover, it recommended that the States unconditionally and immediately release all protestors who have been detained for exercising their right to the freedom of peaceful assembly and drop all existing charges against them or quash their convictions, and also publicly condemn at the highest levels, all instances of the use of excessive and brutal force by the security forces in response to the protests.


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