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Freedom of Movement in Sri Lanka and Human Rights Commission


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On December 8, 2023, the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) determined that the Navy had violated my right to freedom of movement by blocking me from traveling to the remote Iranaitheevu island in Kilinochchi district on March 5, 2021. The HRCSL had recommended the Navy not to impose any restriction on Sri Lankan citizens to enter Iranaitheevu, including requesting prior authorization or notice, unless the restrictions are by law. The HRCSL had also asked the Navy Commander to issue clear instructions to this effect in the form of a circular to officers stationed in the North Central Naval area.

The HRCSL had recognized that freedom of movement is guaranteed under article 14 (1) (h) of the constitution and article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Sri Lanka is a party. The HRCSL had also referred to the historic Supreme Court judgement determining that freedom of movement can only be restricted by law according to article 15 (7) of the constitution. The HRCSL also made reference the UN Human Rights Committee’s General Comment 27 that also recognizes any restrictions on freedom of movement must be by law.

Given the possibility of future similar infringements of freedom of movement of citizens on travelling to Iranaitheevu, the HRCSL had decided my complaint should not be referred to conciliation or mediation and that certain recommendations had to be made to the Navy.

Considering the regularity of arbitrary restrictions imposed by the Navy on persons travelling to Iranaitheevu, this is a significant determination and recommendation but it could have been better.


On March 5, 2021, two journalists and I were prevented by the Navy from travelling to Iranaitheevu. We had rented a van and undertaken a long overnight journey from Colombo to Mulankavil from where we had arranged to rent a boat from the local fisherfolk to travel to Iranaitheevu island. Community leaders in Iranaitheevu, including the parish priest, were waiting for us. I had planned to join a meeting and protest by the residents of the island that day. I also wanted to write an article about socio-political -economic situation on the island and visit the historical Catholic church, which I had done on previous visits. But due to the arbitrary restrictions imposed by the Navy I could not do any of this.

The official spokesperson of the Navy had told The Morning newspaper and MediaLK website on the same day of the incident that Navy doesn’t allow anyone other than residents to go the island. Eleven days later, on March 16, 2021, the same Navy spokesperson had told the Daily Mirror newspaper that “Anyone who wishes to go to Iranaitheevu is allowed to enter the island now.” The use of the word now implies at least some people were not allowed to go earlier. When asked whether any legal document was produced to restrict movement (other than islanders) on March 5, he had said the Navy had commenced an inquiry and would investigate the matter seriously. But no results of the inquiry (if any) have been shared with me or the HRCSL including in the Navy’s written submission to the HRCSL.

According to a report published in the Daily Mirror newspaper by a journalist who was with me and prevented from traveling to Iranaitheevu, “The Navy personnel at the Iranaimathanagar point said that they have been informed by the Thalaimannar commander not to allow anyone other than islanders to enter the island.” An official at the District Secretariat has stated that “If you make a prior notice in advance, they (Navy) will allow the entry. As a government body we have not imposed any restrictions but the restrictions are for certain people based on illegal activities.” This implies that the Navy has restrictions for certain people going to Iranaitheevu island or that they will only allow people to go if they make prior notice.

One islander, an eyewitness to the incident, was quoted as saying “Why can’t they allow you to go? You are here to find out people’s issues and stand for them. If you are not allowed, the protests our people do on the island are in vain. Thus, the responsible authorities will not be aware of this burning issue. I think there is greater influence from the top government official. Any news pertaining to this issue should be allowed to be published. As people of Iranaimathanagar we are not against the media entering the island. We need the support of the media to bring this issue to the spotlight.”

Restrictions on traveling to Iranaitheevu

There have been regular incidents of the Navy unlawfully preventing persons from travelling to Iranaitheevu island. The Daily Mirror report of March 16 quoted an islander as saying “Though we had boat passes yesterday we were not allowed to go to the island as our names were not in the list. Even people who are born in Iranaithivu but are not in the list were not allowed to enter”. On March 5, 2021, several other people were also not allowed to visit Iranaitheevu island.

The Navy tried to prevent me and a group from traveling to Iranaitheevu island on January 9, 2019 and we were only allowed to go after the intervention of the HRCSL. Another person was prevented from going in December 2018 about which a complaint had been made to the HRCSL and also referred to in a reply to a tweet from the HRCSL. Another person was prevented from traveling to Iranaitheevu island on January 6, 2019, which I had mentioned in an email to HRCSL on the same day.

On October 1, 2023, Elke Scholiers, a foreign photojournalist and filmmaker went to visit Iranaitheevu and tweeted that “The navy and Ministry of Defence at Mulangavil is restricting my movement as a photojournalist to visit the Island Iranaithivu. Obtained documentation to access island and legally work in Sri Lanka. The navy also advised me to not tweet.” She later tweeted that she was able to reach Iranaitheevu island after six hours of negotiations with Navy officials and with the help of the Ministry of Home Affairs and HRCSL after making about 50 calls and sending around 15 emails in six hours.

Limitations of the HRCSL’s response 

A complaint was made to the HRCSL as soon as the journalists and I were barred from going to Iranaitheevu on the morning of March 5, 2021. The coordinator of the HRCSL’s Jaffna branch acted swiftly, making several interventions with the Navy, to allow us to travel and prevent imminent violations. He kept me informed of his efforts. But his efforts and our own efforts to negotiate with officers of the Navy on site were not successful. Hence, the HRCSL had examined the complaint, considering submissions from me, the Navy, and the District Secretary as well as available evidence, which had led to the significant determination and recommendations on December 8, 2023.

But the HRCSL had failed to declare violations of my other rights as consequence of violation of the right to freedom of movement despite these being specifically pointed out. They include:

  • Freedom of speech, expression, and publication, Article 15 (1) (a) of the constitution. I could not write and publish the intended article about the situation in Iranaitheevu island.
  • Freedom of assembly, Article 15 (1) (b) of the constitution. I was prevented from joining the protest that was happening in the island and from joining a meeting with the residents organized by the Parish Priest and community leaders.
  • Freedom of religion or belief, article 10, Article 14 (1) (e) of the constitution. I was prevented from praying and worshipping in the Catholic church.
  • Right to equality and non-discrimination, Article 12 (2) and Article 12 (3) of the constitution. By preventing me from traveling to the island and allowing residents to travel, I was discriminated based on the area of residency.

The HRCSL is familiar with the incident in October 2023 when a foreign journalist with relevant documentation was obstructed from visiting Iranaitheevu. Despite this and my request for recommendations to cover anyone, the recommendation is limited to Sri Lankan citizens. I requested the recommendations to include any public place in Sri Lanka but the HRCSL recommendations only covered Iranaitheevu. Last month, I had complained to the police and the HRCSL about the police unlawfully stopping me and four other journalists from accessing Mayilthmadhu to meet some farmers in the Eastern province.

The HRCSL also rejected my requests to recommend that the Navy acknowledges the violations and submits a written apology to me, reimburses costs incurred by me in traveling towards Iranaitheevu and pays me reasonable costs as compensation for violating my rights. I had also asked the HRCSL to award me a reasonable sum of money that in HRCSL’s opinion was sufficient to meet the expenses that have been incurred by me in making this complaint to the HRCSL according to Article 11 (g) of the HRCSL Act but the HRCSL had also failed to do so.

The determination and recommendations are significant but as a victim of the violations I hope the HRCSL can come up with more comprehensive, forward looking and victim centred determinations and recommendations. These will help prevent future violations by acting as a deterrent for potential violators, encourage victims to complain when faced with rights violations and build confidence in the HRCSL.

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