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Human Rights

“Harassment and victimisation based on religion in SL” – UN envoy

By Imesh Ranasinghe

UN Special Rapporteur Ahmed Shaheed speaking to the media on Monday (22 Aug) at the United Nations office at Colombo / RepublicNext

United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief Ahmed Shaheed says he found after the Easter attacks Muslims felt harassed and victimised because of their faith.

Shaheed made these remarks this evening (26 Aug) in Colombo at a press conference where he unveiled the preliminary findings in his report about the assessment of the freedom of religion or belief in Sri Lanka.

Shaheed points out in his report that regardless of who is the leader of the country “if there is no commitment across the whole structure to ensure accountability for the protection of communities, the people will suffer.”

He said that it is important that politicians promote inclusive policies during the election period to ensure that they are standing up for those who are victimised and marginalised based on religion or belief.

The Special Rapporteur states that Sri Lanka has emerged from a long internal conflict which generated tremendous security challenges. Presidential and Parliamentary elections in 2015 brought in a government with a pledge to strengthen fundamental freedoms and the rule of law that comprises inclusiveness, justice and respect for human rights for all the people in Sri Lanka.

This led to the adoption of Human Rights Council resolution 30/1 on promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka.

Bodu Bala Sena rally in Kandy/Samanthi Warawerella RepublicNext

“But after the Easter attacks, there was a dramatic change in the situation of the country and after the government proclaimed the State of Emergency some religious communities have been affected in their practice and the manifestation of religion or belief” he found.

While suspicion and distrust among the religious communities led to an increase of hate speech and violence against the Muslim community.

“Many complained that they faced increasing harassment and victimisation based on religion or belief,” he added.

He also praised the work of the Office of National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR) where they launched a project known as “Heal the past, build the future” that brings together the religious leaders, youth, government representatives and civil society actors to raise awareness in transforming conflict.

Further, he said that the constitution of Sri Lanka protects freedom of religion or belief while article 9 of the constitution declares that “Buddhism shall be given the foremost place by the state” 

“I heard frequently from my interlocutors that they feel that the state was structurally unable to treat other religions on an equal basis owing to this provision and ruling,” said Shaheed.

And that a 2003 supreme court ruling determined that the state was constitutionally required to protect only Buddhism. Said that he had heard of cases of violence against minorities perpetrated by the majority community where perpetrators were clearly identified in video recordings but remained unaccountable and when a complaint was brought forward by the Buddhist community the action was swift.

He also added that the LGBTQI+ community had also reported that religious teachings had significantly marginalized them and it had led them to deep personal struggles for those who attempt to reconcile their religious identity with their sexuality.

Face covering ban in public places under emergency regulations have also led to a rise in intolerance towards those who observe religious dress codes, especially the Muslim women, “ Some people had prevented Muslim women and girls simply with hijab or abaya from entering some hospitals or exam halls or made verbal insults at workplaces,” he said.

Many complaints about the role of the media were also received by Shaheed in promoting hateful narratives towards Muslims and inciting to hostility and discrimination against them.

“Some blamed that privatised and politicised electronic media played a large role in demonising individuals and groups while some media perpetrated the narrative that Muslim medical professionals were secretly carrying out large scale sterilisation of Buddhist women,” he said.

He also made some recommendations to the government for immediate consideration, some of them are,

  • The State must prosecute those responsible for violence and incitement to violence, make effort to dismantle the networks of hate and facilitate access to justice to victims of hate crimes.
  • The state should develop systems and mechanism to monitor and respond to hate speech in conformity with the International Human Rights standards.
  • Government leaders and religious leaders must speak out against hateful narratives and reject efforts to ostracise and stigmatise minority communities and persons in vulnerable situations.

The official final report will be presented to the Human Rights Council in March 2020.