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No rush to ban burqa: Keheliya

By Mihi Perera and Dinitha Rathnayake

 

Cabinet Spokesman Minister Keheliya Rambukwella stated that the Government is not in a rush to take a decision on the proposed ban of the burqa as they are still considering the facts, and that a final decision will be taken only after consultation to reach a common consensus.

“We have to think about all the aspects as this is a sensitive matter that concerns national security. All authorities, including Dr. (Sarath) Weerasekera, are discussing this matter. However, we are not in a rush to take a decision and the proposal will be submitted to the Cabinet accordingly. We will take time to decide on enforcing a ban on the burqa and the niqab. A final decision will be taken after consultation and once a common consensus is reached on the matter,” he stated while addressing the weekly cabinet media briefing yesterday (16).

The proposal to ban face veils was made by Minister of Public Security Admiral (Retd.) Dr. Sarath Weerasekera. The Morning on Monday (15) exclusively reported, quoting Dr. Weerasekera, that the said cabinet paper includes both the burqa (entire face veiled) and the niqab (the face veiled with only the eyes visible). The hijab (entire face is visible) has been spared. All three clothing items are those worn by some females in the Muslim community.

Already, Pakistani High Commissioner to Sri Lanka Maj. Gen. (Retd.) Muhammad Saad Khattak and the largest parliamentary Opposition party, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), have expressed opposition to the proposed move, with the former stating that any ban of the niqab would hurt ordinary Muslims and the latter stating that it would aggravate existing problems. It is as yet unclear whether the statements made yesterday by the Cabinet Spokesman are a reaction to the Pakistani High Commissioner’s comments.

The Sri Lankan Government is counting on the support of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation countries at the ongoing United Nations Human Right Council’s (UNHRC) 46th Session where a resolution on the country has been tabled by the Core Group of Countries on Sri Lanka and which is set to be voted on soon.

When inquired as to whether the proposed burqa ban would affect Sri Lanka at the UNHRC vote, Rambukwella said: “We are not the only country that is considering the ban of the burqa because it poses a threat to national security. Therefore, there is no connection between this internal decision and an international forum.”

It is reported that the cabinet paper regarding the ban on the burqa has been presented to the Cabinet of Ministers on 15 March but has not been taken up for consideration. According to government sources, the cabinet paper is scheduled to be taken up at the next cabinet meeting.

Meanwhile, Foreign Secretary Admiral (Retd.) Prof. Jayanath Colombage yesterday stated that the proposed ban on wearing the burqa and the niqab was merely a proposal which is still under discussion. He noted that a decision has not been taken by the Government to impose such a ban.

“This proposal has been based on the precautionary measures that are needed on national security grounds, following the investigations of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) on the Easter Sunday attacks. The Government will initiate a broader dialogue with all the parties concerned, and sufficient time will be taken for the necessary consultations to be held and for consensus to be reached,” he observed.

Dr. Weerasekera, speaking to The Morning, said that this ban was recommended by a previous Parliamentary Select Committee which also had the representation of Muslim ministers among its membership.

Meanwhile, a question was posed as to why a ban was not imposed on full-face helmets as it also poses a threat to national security at yesterday’s cabinet media briefing. This is pertinent in light of several robberies including of banks and jewellery stores that have taken place in the past where the robbers could not be identified on CCTV cameras as they had donned full-face helmets.

Co-Cabinet Spokesman Minister Dr. Ramesh Pathirana, in response, stated that full-face helmets will be allowed for use as there is a mounting rate of road traffic accidents. He noted that it is not practical to ban full-face helmets.

Dr. Weerasekera told us earlier this week that Covid-19 masks and full-face helmets are not included, as they can be removed in public upon requests made for identification and for security concerns, but that the removal of religious clothing cannot be done in public.

Rambukwella also stated that Sri Lanka should not wait for an incident that poses a threat to national security to take place in order to take precautionary measures.

Sri Lanka’s proposal to ban face veils came a week after 51.2% of the people of Switzerland voted in favour of banning wearing face covers in public, including the burqa and the niqab, in a referendum. France became the first European country in 2011 to ban wearing the full-face veil in public, followed by Belgium imposing a similar ban the same year.