Voule lauds SL's HR progress since 2015 | Daily News


Voule lauds SL's HR progress since 2015

UN Special Rapporteur Clément Nyaletsossi Voule on Friday commended Sri Lanka for making great strides with regard to the democratisation of the country and the enjoyment of human rights of its people in the last four years.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association, making his end-of-mission press briefing at the UN Compound in Colombo, however cautioned the government against the discriminatory application of legislation, the continued state of Emergency, extremism and the propagation of hate speech among the public, both online and offline.

Voule will present his full report to the 44th session of the UN Human Rights Council in June 2020. During his visit from July 18–26, which he undertook at the invitation of the government, he met Foreign Affairs Minister Tilak Marapana, Labour Minister Ravindra Samaraweera, National Integration, Official Languages, Social Progress and Hindu Religious Affairs Minister Mano Ganesan and Attorney General Dappula de Livera.

He had also exchanged views with the Governors of the Northern and Southern Provinces, representatives from the Defence and Finance Ministries, the Board of Investment, the Army, Air Force and Police.

He also thanked Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, Chief Justice Jayantha Jayasuriya, PC, and members of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, the Office of Missing Persons, the National Police Commission and the Election Commission for sharing their views with him.

“I am alarmed by the high levels of hate speech, both on and offline, that seem to have spiked after the Easter Sunday attacks in the country. Despite the fact that sufficient legislation is in place to effectively combat and prosecute hate speech through inter alia the ICCPR Act 2007, hate speech has been used to target minority communities, while highly publicised instances of hate speech within the majority community have remained largely unpunished,” he said.

“Hate speech and misinformation have been able to propagate at alarming speeds due to the use of social media which has remained largely unchecked. While the government has instituted social media shutdowns at certain points in order to combat this, I note that such shutdowns also have an adverse effect on the ability of people to freely assemble and associate online. With this in mind, I underscore that there must be sufficient safeguards and monitoring mechanisms in place to effectively combat hate speech and misinformation online, with internet or social media shutdowns only being used as a measure of last resort,” he said.

The UN Special Rapporteur also commended the 19th Amendment to the Constitution as a “watershed moment of democratisation of the country.” Observing that it introduced a number of measures for the reduction of the executive powers of the President, re-introduction of the Constitutional Council and right to access information, he said these “provided invaluable contribution towards democratic transparency in the country and the protection of human rights.”

Commenting on the transitional justice following the civil war, he commended the government on its establishment of the Office of Missing Persons and the Office for Reparation. “They are of utmost importance in promoting reconciliation and I urge the government to provide its vital support to their endeavours,” he said.

With regard to the freedom of assembly, he raised concerns that the approach of the Police in managing assembly “seems to rest on the negative perception that protests and demonstrations are generally a nuisance and should be prevented, instead of being treated as a fundamental right of the people.”

“Some provisions in Sri Lanka’s Police Ordinance with regard to managing protests are in conflict with the international human rights standards. I have also received report that the Vagrant Ordinance of 1841 has restrictions on the gathering of the LGBTI community. Following the Easter Sunday attacks, the President declared Emergency and it has been extended. These regulations have further limited the right to peaceful assembly,” he added.

Observing that deep-seated ethnic and religious divides persist in the country though the war ended a decade ago, the UN Special Rapporteur also complained Sri Lanka has failed to implement comprehensive security sector reforms since the end of the conflict.

“I am very concerned at the numerous accounts I received of surveillance, including online surveillance, used to monitor the activities of the civil society sector and intimidate those protesting peacefully for their demands to be heard,” he added.

UN Special Rapporteur Voule, who met with protesting Tamil villagers from Keppapilavu during the course of his visit, said the protesters stated that a court order had removed them from their protest site beside an army barrack where they had been peacefully gathering for 782 days citing Army security concerns.

“The protesters demand the return of their land occupied by the military. They did not complain of any physical intimidation, but they were psychologically affected by the effort to demoralise and discourage them in their struggle,” he said.

Speaking on the freedom of association, he admired the recent addition of online registration procedure for NGOs which simplifies the process. “Following the objections from the civil society, I am pleased to say that the relevant Minister withdrew the draft NGO Bill, opting instead to permit civil society to create their own draft law for discussion,” he said.

“With regards to legislation, the Prevention of Terrorism Act remains, at the very least, problematic for the enjoyment of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. However, equal concern has been expressed by civil society over the contents of its potential successor, the Counter-Terrorism Act. While it is clear that there are legitimate security concerns to take into consideration, any law enacted with regards to counter-terrorism should be drafted in continuous consultation with civil society, which can play an important role in ensuring that any eventual law enacted is human rights compliant and addresses the concerns of all sectors of society, including those of the security community,” he noted.

“I am indeed daunted by the widespread fear of setbacks to the democratic gains, which has been expressed to me by all sectors of society. It is important that the country’s political leaders do not dismiss the people’s desire for peace, freedom, rule of law and democracy and do not undermine the progress that has been hard fought for, particularly in the run up to upcoming elections,” he stressed.

During his visit, the UN expert travelled to the North, South and East, in addition to Colombo. 

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