Burial of Covid deceased: Group mulls complaining to UN

By Ruwan Laknath Jayakody


A small group of activists and victims aggrieved by not being allowed to bury their kin is presently contemplating complaining to the United Nations Human Rights Committee (OHCHR) over the issue, as they feel all possibilities of obtaining any redress locally for the contentious matter have been exhausted, The Morning learnt.

The Committee, which holds its sessions in Geneva, Switzerland, where United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) sessions are also held, is a body of independent experts that monitors the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) by its State Parties, of which Sri Lanka is one.

All State Parties are obliged to submit regular reports to the Committee on how rights are being implemented. The Committee in turn examines such, and addresses its concerns and gives recommendations to the State Party in question in the form of concluding observations. The First Optional Protocol to the ICCPR gives the Committee competence to examine individual complaints with regard to alleged violations of the Covenant by States that are party to the protocol.

Speaking to The Morning yesterday (7) on the Government’s decision to continue with the cremation of the Covid-19-positive deceased – as elucidated by Minister of Health Pavithra Wanniarachchi in Parliament, despite the College of Community Physicians of Sri Lanka (CCPSL) and the Sri Lanka Medical Association (SLMA) recommending that burial too could be allowed under strict health guidelines on the basis of the available scientific evidence – human rights activist Shreen Abdul Saroor, who was among the petitioners who challenged the Government’s decision in Supreme Court (the petitions were not granted leave to proceed), noted that the Muslim community was being pushed to look for a solution internationally.

“We have gone before court. We have gone to the Parliament. We have written to the President and the Government, and so too have sections of the international community. In this regard, locally, nothing can be done anymore. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic situation, we cannot go in person to Geneva, so we have to push people outside Sri Lanka to take action. The Organisation of Islamic Co-operation countries which have supported the Sri Lankan State are also being antagonised because of this decision of the Government of Sri Lanka. Invoking the international process is being contemplated now, in a context where Sri Lanka is already nailed down for other matters, such as the atrocities allegedly committed during the tail end of the war,” she explained.

In recent times, virologists such as Prof. Malik Peiris and MP Prof. Tissa Vitharana as well as medical bodies such as the CCPSL and the SLMA have publicly announced that based on the available science, the burial of the Covid-19 deceased can be permitted.

The CCPSL issued a statement explaining that out of approximately 85,000 scientific papers published on Covid-19, not a single case of the virus spreading through a dead body has been recorded. In their position paper, the College had further stated that the claims that it spreads directly through groundwater have not been scientifically substantiated, noting that there is no indication that the virus could be transmitted through drinking water. The SLMA issued a similar statement, asserting that the Covid-19 deceased could be buried as the virus is unlikely to remain infectious within a dead body.

All these views challenge the Government’s position on mandatory cremation (gazetted by the Ministry of Health after a previous gazette issued by the Minister of Health permitted both burial and cremation) and argue in support of permitting safe burials. International actors, including the United Nations Resident Co-ordinator in Sri Lanka, and several local religious leaders too have made appeals to the same effect.

The parents of an infant, who was Covid-19-positive and was thus hastily cremated, have filed a lawsuit citing, among others, alleged torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment on the part of the authorities, including those at the Lady Ridgeway Hospital for Children.

Most recently, several Christian groups, who previously showed solidarity to the agitations of the Muslim community in this regard, largely from the sidelines as petitioners, legal counsel, and peaceful protesters, have also come out vociferously in public support of the cause.