24 advocacy groups say Sri Lanka’s forced COVID-19 cremation victims will not give up fight

ECONOMYNEXT – The victims of forced cremation of COVID-19 or COVID-19 suspected dead had in the highest court in Sri Lanka are deeply disappointed, 24 human rights organisations, civil society collectives, women’s rights groups and other bodies said in a joint statement yesterday.

“Victims and communities are now left without a recourse in Sri Lanka for the continued injustice they suffer,” the statement said.

On Tuesday (1), the statement said, the country’s Supreme Court by a majority decision refused to grant leave to proceed to the 11 applications filed by petitioners belonging to Muslim, Christian and Catholic communities challenging the Sri Lankan government’s forcible cremation policy on the grounds that it violates the right to freedom of religion and belief of some faiths and that the said regulation, in fact, violates the law under which the regulation has been made as the law itself permits either burial or cremation.

“Several eminent lawyers represented the petitioners and argued that the state had provided no evidence that the burial of COVID-19 or suspected COVID-19 dead is a danger to public health. Hence, they said the government by imposing this new restriction violated the constitutionally protected and safeguarded rights of religious beliefs and practice for whom burial is a critical religious practice, in addition to being a fundamental right.

“One of the judges had dissented probably on the basis that there were issues that required consideration. Given the sensitivities and importance of the issue, it was felt that the court could have granted leave to be heard in full or referred it to a larger bench,” the collective said.

The statement noted that some of the petitioners had said on Tuesday that the distraught families of the victims have been asking them to explore the possibilities of how they could continue to fight for justice and hence would consider all options.

“We fully understand that due to the pandemic there is a public emergency under which certain rights can be limited including the manifestation of freedom of religion and belief. We also understand that Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, Muslims and others have all been affected by these restrictions; but in all other cases where rights are limited there is evidence of the need to do so,” one of the petitioners was quoted as saying.

According to the statement, it was highlighted that Catholics, Christians and Muslims, in the deliberations have agreed to all the restrictions including with regard to gathering, handling, washing, praying and specialized mode of burying and all they want was only to be buried adhering to all health conditions.

The collective further said that, under international law, limitations of rights such as the freedom to practice one’s religion have to be prescribed by law and the limitation must be necessary and proportionate. Restrictions and limitations on religious gatherings, congregational prayers and mass celebrations of religious festivals, it said, can be necessitated on the grounds that social distancing is vital to reduce the spread of the virus and are being adhered to and cooperated voluntarily.

“Over and over again we have asked the government to give us the reasoning for this policy and they have failed to provide any evidence that burial of COVID-19 dead can contribute to the spread of the virus or provide any health threat,” the statement quoted a son who did not consent for the cremation of his father and hence had to abandon the father’s remains as saying.

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The activists went on to say that there has been national and international criticism of the government of Sri Lanka on its rare decision to cremate COVID-19 and COVID-19 suspected dead, in spite of clear guidelines by the World Health Organisation (WHO) explaining that the burial of such victims poses no danger to public health. The Resident Coordinator of the United Nations office in Sri Lanka, United Nations special experts and regional human rights groups, the statement said, have separately written to the government calling for the policy to be changed to ensure COVID-19 dead were handled with dignity and human rights of all are protected. Numerous national civil society organisations, religious groups and individual activists have also written letters and signed petitions to the government calling for a change to the policy, it added.

“Human rights groups have been warning that the ethnocentric position of the government, in the context of the state’s failure to challenge hate campaigns and violence against Muslims, points to racism and discrimination targeting the country’s approximately nine per cent Muslim population.

“These measures affect more than one religious group, but it is particularly terrifying Muslims for whom the burial of the dead is a non-negotiable religious practice. They feel targeted, bullied and threatened by the manner in which the government is acting on this,” the statement said.

As of 3rd December 2020, Sri Lanka had over 25,000 cases of COVID 19, 124 deaths, of which over 50 were Muslims, it added.

The statement was a collective release by

  1. Centre for Policy Alternative
  2. International Centre for Ethnic Studies
  3. Law and Society Trust
  4. Women’s Action Network
  5. Alliance for Minorities
  6. Affected Women’s Forum
  7. Suriya Women’s Development Centre
  8. Sisterhood initiative
  9. Hashtag Generation
  10. Rural Development Foundation
  11. National Peace Council
  12. Mannar Women’s Development Federation
  13. National Fisheries Solidarity Movement
  14. Human Elevation Organisation
  15. Eastern Social Development Foundation
  16. Islamic Women’s Association for Research and Empowerment
  17. Association of the Parents and Family Members of the Disappeared
  18. Muslim Women’s Development Trust
  19. Aalumai Women’s Group
  20. Nisha Development Centre
  21. Jaffna People’s Forum for Co-Existence
  22. Muslim Women Research Action Forum
  23. Centre for Social Concerns
  24. Liberation Movement (Colombo/Dec04/2020)

Reported by Himal Kotelawala

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