Home » Downgraded to Repressed: Assessing Sri Lanka’s Ever Shrinking Civic Space

Downgraded to Repressed: Assessing Sri Lanka’s Ever Shrinking Civic Space


Photo courtesy of Al Jazeera

The CIVICUS Monitor, an organization that tracks the status of civic space around the world, has downgraded Sri Lanka’s civic space in 2023 to repressed from obstructed due to authorities attacking protesters, harassing journalists and intimidating activists. The next grading is closed.

Civic space is defined as the respect in law, policy and practice for freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression and the extent to which the state protects these fundamental rights.

Since 2018 Sri Lanka’s civic space had been categorised as obstructed until the 2023 downgrading to repressed.

In its 2023 report, People Power Under Attack, the CIVICUS Monitor said that almost one third of the world’s population lives in countries with closed civic space, the highest percentage since 2018. This decline from 26 per cent living in closed countries in 2018 to 30.6 per cent today points to a major civic space crisis that requires immediate, global efforts to reverse. This year the CIVICUS Monitor also recorded the lowest percentage of humanity living in open countries where civic space is both free and protected. the report said.

“We are witnessing an unprecedented global crackdown on civic space,” said CIVICUS Monitor lead researcher Marianna Belalba Barreto in a press release to present the report. “Unfortunately, Sri Lanka’s leaders have chosen to join this worldwide assault on citizens’ rights.”

“In Sri Lanka, the findings show a sharp decline in civic space. Just one year after mass protests ousted the previous government, the new government does not hesitate to use force to intimidate or disperse gatherings of people criticising the country’s rulers. Authorities have tear-gassed student protesters, assaulted reporters and broken up memorial vigils in the north and east. They even arrested a comedian for her jokes,” the press release said.

Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Monitor’s Civic Space Researcher, answered questions from Groundviews on why Sri Lanka has been downgraded and what the international community can do to help activists to protect civic space.

Sri Lanka’s rating has downgraded to repressed. What were the changes from 2022 to 2023 that brought this about?

There were a number of factors that influence the downgrade. Firstly, over the year we saw the judicial harassment of human rights defenders. Many were hauled up by the police and intelligence for interrogation or prosecution while others have faced surveillance, intimidation and threats. In May 2023, human rights defender and human rights lawyer Priyalal Sirisena received threatening phone calls from unidentified persons who warned him to stop his work and actions against a minister while youth activist and standup comedian Nathasha Edirisooriya was arrested in the same month and charged under the restrictive International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act. Lawyer and human rights defender Hejaaz Hizbullah is being persecuted for his work a trial human rights have said was unfair.

Journalists were also targeted with judicial harassment and restrictions for undertaking their work and assaulted during protests. In April 2023, journalist and human rights defender Ramachandran Sanath was summoned to appear before the Terrorism Investigation Department (TID) office in Nuwara Eliya while in July 2023 Tharindu Uduwaragedara was assaulted and unlawfully detained by the Borella Police while covering a peaceful trade union protest in Colombo.

There were reports of excessive force including the use of teargas by the police in response to several protests, particularly by students, as well as intimidation of people from the Tamil minority seeking justice for past crimes in the Northern and Eastern provinces and restrictions on their protests. In January 2023, police used water cannon on ethnic Tamil protesters in Jaffna as they rallied against President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s visit to the district. In June 2023, the authorities used excessive force to disperse hundreds of students protesting in the capital. The protest march had been organised by the Inter-University Students’ Federation (IUSF) to demand the release of people arrested during last year’s anti-government protests. The ICCPR Act is used to stifle expression while the Prevention of Terrorism Act was used to target and harass activists, journalists, protest leaders and minorities. A revised version of the anti-terror law still puts rights at risk while an Online Safety Bill could be used to further restrict online expression.

Last year saw a surge of people power that got rid of corrupt leaders. However now it’s back to the status quo. How can the momentum of people’s power be maintained?

As we saw the people power movement that came about following the economic crisis was extremely effective in bringing about the end of the Rajapaksa regime. However, the battle for human rights reforms will be ongoing struggle as we have seen in many countries. It is essential that protest leaders and activists use this time to learn lessons and consolidate. Work needs to be done to continue engaging with different sectors of society including those in the North and East. It is also important to bring in new people into the movement through political and human rights education and learn from struggles in other countries. Finally, the push for justice and accountability for those who suffered violations during the protests must continue. Protest leaders can work with human rights groups and lawyers to file case in the courts to hold perpetrators accountable and to seek for legal reforms and a more accountable police force.

What can people practically do when they are faced with arrests, water cannons and tear gas? 

The use of excessive force and firearms during protest can be very challenging for those involved in protests for the first time. Protesters who are arrested or were ill-treated will need support, legal advice and efforts to ensure accountability. There are things that can be done by human rights groups to train protesters on the right to protest, how to document and record violations and where they can seek legal advice if arrested and detained. There also needs to be better monitoring of protests by the national human rights commission, lawyers and NGOs. This can be a tactic we have seen in many countries to deter violence by the police and hold them accountable. At the same time, the right to peaceful assembly is a fundamental freedom protected in international human rights law including the ICCPR that Sri Lanka has ratified. There is a need to ensure that the Sri Lanka law enforcement respect these rights and pressure has to be brought on them both at the national and international level.

What can the international community do to improve the situation?

The international community can play a critical role in speaking up for human rights. There are foreign missions in the country that can provide solidarity to human rights defenders, journalists and protesters by visiting those in detention, attending trials and highlighting the issues they are facing in the media. They can also provide capacity building for new activists. At the same time, NGOs and states can use international mechanisms such as the UN Human Rights Council and other platforms to raise these issues and call for concrete reforms in law and practice. Where there is a failure of action, states can also consider sanctioning perpetrators of violations including banning their travel or freezing their accounts.

Can reports such as yours can influence governments to behave better?

Reports such as this won’t change the government overnight but does shine a light on the civic space abuses taking place, the laws and tactics being used by the government and also highlight those being targeted. They also become a tool to counter the narrative by the state in national and international spaces that the human rights situation is improving. Such reports also provide additional evidence and amplify what local NGOs and activists are already documenting but may have not received adequate attention. In the long term, government cannot continue to ignore such abuses if they want any legitimacy.

Is Sri Lanka on the way to a closed status?

Sri Lanka was once seen as moving in a positive trajectory for civic space. However, the developments over the last two years show that is definitely heading in the direction of being closed if it continues to maintain draconian laws such the anti-terror legislation or the ICCPR Act to target critics, harass and intimidate human rights defenders and restrict peaceful protests especially in the North and East. The Ranil Wickremesinghe government seems to be continuing the violations perpetrated by his predecessor and also ignoring the concerns and recommendations raised by the UN and other human rights groups. If the necessary human rights reforms do not take place in the next few years and the repression of human rights defenders and civil society persist, a downgrade of its civic space ratings is very likely.

Read the full report here:https://monitor.civicus.org/globalfindings_2023/

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