Two reports on religious freedom violations in Sri Lanka released less than a week apart demonstrate growing concern over human rights and interfaith relations on the island. A major UK religious freedom group and a US government special committee have both painted an increasingly problematic scene. Countries concerned about minority rights in Sri Lanka should engage Colombo on the merits of these reports.
In the grip of civil war for more than two decades, Sri Lanka rarely tops the action lists of policymakers today. The conflict pitted the Sinhalese against the Tamils, with the predominantly Sinhala Sri Lankan government fighting the Liberation Tiger insurgents of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). But in addition to ethnic friction, religious divisions persist. Sri Lanka is predominantly Buddhist, with large populations of Hindus, Muslims, Catholics and Protestant Christians.
It is along religious lines with ethnic overlays that the two reports highlight the concerns. CSW, based in the UK, Posted “A nation divided: the state of freedom of religion or belief in Sri Lanka. The report details the and political challenges limiting religious freedom for minorities.
Regarding the Christian minority, the report found continued government discrimination, with Christians primarily “targeted by legal means, through orders to close or register their places of worship.” The 2008 circular continues to pose challenges for church registration. The problems of places of worship are not limited to Christians, as the CSW report revealed: as Buddhist archaeological sites by the archaeological department.
CSW highlighted how the 2019 Easter attacks traumatized Christians and caused divisions between them and the Muslim community, with whom they had generally enjoyed a positive relationship. I remember experiencing this courtesy during a visit to Sri Lanka in 2018 in a special US diplomatic role focused on religious minorities. In a meeting at the Slave Island Mosque in Colombo with Muslim leaders and Protestant Christians, each in turn highlighted the challenges of the other community. But, unfortunately, relations remain fragile after the bombings and retaliatory attacks against Muslim communities.
The CSW report also found that the Muslim community suffers “serious” violations of religious freedom. âA key factor in the violations is the perception by Sinhala Buddhist nationalists that Muslims are a threat to both Buddhism and Sinhalese. Buddhist extremists have used social media to start riots attacking Muslim neighborhoods, with little response from police. The report also noted attempts to “reduce the visibility of Islam through the destruction of mosques and restrictive positions on religious clothing.”
Concerns about Muslim religious freedoms were echoed days later by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). USCIRF is an independent advisory body to the U.S. government, separate from the State Department, that makes recommendations on U.S. policy related to the promotion of religious freedom. The fact that USCIRF chose to report on Sri Lanka for the first time in six years shows concern about the country’s trajectory.
USCIRF report, “Conditions of freedom of religion in Sri Lanka,” warned on the use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) to target Muslims and imprison them for long periods on the basis of trumped-up charges. He also noted how the âSri Lankan government has proposed several measures that target the Muslim community and would restrict Islamic religious practices,â such as banning the burqa and closing Islamic schools. USCIRF also highlighted Sri Lanka’s use of criminal blasphemy laws against minorities and free thinkers.
International pressure is needed to encourage the government of Sri Lanka to reform. However, it will not be easy due to the orientation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brother Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa towards policies that promote Buddhism and Buddhist nationalism. They won the election on a divisive political platform and will not walk away quickly. Thus, exacerbating interfaith tensions that lead to human rights violations could fulfill the campaign’s promises.
In addition, the authoritarian movements of the Rajapaksa brothers are worrying. Their decision in early 2020 to withdraw Sri Lanka from UN Human Rights Council resolution 30/1 on post-war accountability and human rights was a harbinger. Passing the 20th Amendment a year ago strengthened the presidential system and removed essential controls. Talking about a new constitution could further strengthen this centralizing tendency. Moreover, the pro-Chinese inclination of the Rajapaksa leaves them exposed to the worst examples of human rights violations and one-party rule.
The United States, European powers and Asian countries like India, Japan and South Korea all have an interest in seeing Sri Lanka change course. The CSW report provides a comprehensive list of recommendations to encourage a different direction. The mechanisms of the United Nations carry considerable weight and have a well-established track record, so they must be protected and enforced. Bilateral pressure for legal reforms, such as the PTA and the 2008 circular, is needed. And if Sri Lankan officials are involved in serious human rights violations, the US Global Magnitsky law offers the possibility of targeting individuals with sanctions. In addition, social media companies have a responsibility to moderate their content in order to prevent incitement to violence against minorities.
Although small by Asian standards, the nation of 23 million deserves more attention as these trends could impact millions of people. In addition, these issues extend beyond human rights to island stability. As USCIRF concluded, âIf the government chooses to implement measures that further limit the enjoyment of religious freedom by religious minorities, the road to reconciliation will be even longer than before. “