Rethinking Human Rights in the Struggle against Terrorism in Sri Lanka

Sanchita Chatterjee
24th April 2021

Human rights and security are widely regarded as opposing principles. In the creation and execution of any counter-terrorism policy, it is generally recognised that newly heightened security climate puts at risk a range of fundamental rights and freedoms, along with the rights to a fair trial, privacy, and the freedoms of association and faith or belief, including international human rights law. The case of Sri Lanka is no exception. The April 2019 Easter bombings in Sri Lanka is one of the deadliest attacks Sri Lanka has seen in its history. Hundreds of Christians and foreign visitors were killed and wounded in a series of suicide bombings. Three Christian churches in the capital Colombo, in Negombo (north of Colombo), and in the eastern town of Batticaloa including three high-end hotels in Colombo, as well as a small guesthouse south of the capital, were attacked in the seven coordinated bombings. The attacks were Sri Lanka’s first taste of jihadist mass terror, perpetrated by a rogue offshoot of a Sri Lankan Salafi militant group, the National Tawhid Jamaat (NTJ), with inspiration and funding from individuals suspected of having links to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

In the midst of the turmoil, the government moved rapidly to tighten security, declaring a state of emergency on April 22, 2019, the day after the attacks. The president issued emergency regulations granting security forces, including the army, broad investigative, arrest, and detention powers. Following this, police and army raids were conducted throughout the island, mostly in Muslim villages and neighbourhoods. Hundreds of people were arrested, and police found concealed arms caches and safe houses used by the attack network, as well as knives and small swords hidden in Muslim communities and near mosques, allegedly for defence against anti-Muslim mob attacks.

Muslims account for around 9% of Sri Lanka’s 22 million inhabitants, with Sinhalese Buddhists accounting for 75% of the population. The reaction against Sri Lankan Muslims in the aftermath of Easter has been harsh and threatening. Nationalist politicians and religious leaders from the majority Sinhalese Buddhist ethno-religious group have used the Easter attacks and the fears they sparked to support a discourse “Extreme” that blames Muslims collectively for rising extremism in the country.

With impunity, the government has permitted militant Sinhalese Buddhist organisations to escalate their post-war anti-Muslim campaign of economic boycotts, media pressure, and coordinated violence. After the Easter bombings, there have been island-wide Muslim boycotts, mob attacks on hijab-wearing women, and old and new media speculation campaigns by Sinhala nationalists. For the first time, the Sri Lankan state has switched from failing to protect Muslims to deliberately violating their rights by using emergency laws to arrest hundreds of Muslims on poorly constructed or false grounds.

During the crisis, Sri Lankan President Mr. Sirisena signed an emergency order banning all face coverings, including the burqa and niqab worn by some Sri Lankan Muslim women, only days after the Easter attacks. Many Muslim women have reported being abused on the street and being denied service at government agencies and private businesses while wearing a headscarf, even though their faces were visible, in the aftermath of the ban.

The question of the recent human rights concern in the country is not a new one. The Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) in the country is a controversial act implemented in 1978 as a stopgap measure, has ended in repeated arbitrary detentions and allowed torture of detainees for a long time. Statements from the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counter-Terrorism concluded that in 2017, the legislation “has fostered the widespread and systematic use of torture.”  The Act became a mean to stigmatise the minority groups including the Muslim minorities, where they have been singled out for abuse, arbitrary arrests, and detention. In 2015, then-President Maithripala Sirisena voted in favour of a unanimous UN Human Rights Council resolution committing Sri Lanka to a number of human rights initiatives, including the replacement of the PTA with counterterrorism legislation that adheres to international legal standards. Many of these commitments were never fulfilled, but the government and the UNHRC reiterated their promise in early 2019.

A new counter-terrorism statute was submitted in parliament in 2018 replacing the existing one. Despite its flaws, the proposed act would have repealed many of the PTA’s most violated clauses, but it was never enacted. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the subject has become a source of concern, with anti-Muslim sentiment being fuelled online and in some parts of the Sinhala-majority main stream media. For many years, radicalization within the Sri Lankan community was largely dismissed as a Muslim-on-Muslim problem.  The government also wants to put in place a more stringent regulatory structure to enable madrassas (Islamic religious schools) to upgrade their curriculums. Such schools have long been chastised for promoting Wahhabism ideas. In response to concerns about the dissemination of extremist ideologies on the internet, the government has also prepared a scheme to evaluate and honour trained religious teachers.

Recently on March 2021, Sri Lanka’s government has declared that the burqa will be outlawed and that more than 1,000 Islamic schools will be closed, the latest steps impacting the country’s minority Muslim community. Separately, the government also declared that it would use a contentious anti-terror law to combat religious “extremism,” giving it broad powers to detain suspects for up to two years for “de radicalization.

The government’s actions on burqas and schools come after an order issued in 2020 mandating the cremation of COVID-19 victims, which Muslims oppose because they prefer to bury their dead. Following criticism from the US and international human rights organisations, the ban was lifted earlier this year. The new Rajapaksa government has stated that the PTA will remain in effect while completely ignoring the latest counter terrorism statute submitted on 2018. While it is important to remember that security and human rights issues may and do collide, a security consensus that gives human rights protection a secure place and intent will be a significant and welcome step forward.

* The author is a Research Intern at the Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies (KIIPS)