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UN special rapporteur on religious freedom: SL rejects “inaccurate assertions”

Sri Lanka rejected today what it called inaccurate assertions and inadequate assessments made by the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief.

A statement by the Government of Sri Lanka issued at an interactive dialogue of the 43rd UN Human Rights Council session in Geneva with Special Rapporteur (SR) Ahmed Shaheed yesterday noted with concern that limited time was made available to Sri Lanka to adequately respond to Shaheed’s report.

Shaheed was in Sri Lanka in August last year, four months after the Easter Sunday attacks. His advanced unedited report, compiled in the wake of this visit and shared with Sri Lanka on February 3 for comments, raised concerns on religious freedom in the island.

The deadline imposed on the government for feedback was last Friday (February 28).

“Within the limited time available, Sri Lanka wishes to provide some general observations on the SR’s report. We request that our full observations, which will follow, be published as part of the report,” Sri Lanka’s statement said.

In his report, Shaheed said that despite positive developments since 2015, tensions among ethnic and religious communities persist. Significant gaps exist, he said, particularly in upholding accountability and access to justice as well as ensuring non-recurrence of human rights violations.

The SR also referred to statements made by President Gotabaya Rajapkasa in the run-up to last year’s presidential polls that the UN official said had effectively rejected the pledges made by past governments with respect to post-war accountability and reconciliation.

In its response, Sri Lanka accused the SR of failing to contextualise his findings.

“Sri Lanka received the SR in August 2019, barely four months after the country had suffered a series of horrendous terrorist attacks by certain local groups inspired by ISIS which targeted innocent civilians at worship and at hotels on Easter Sunday, causing the death of 258, including 45 foreign holidaymakers,” the government said.

The Rajapaksa administration also spoke generously of the efforts made by the previous Yahapala administration in a time of crisis.

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“The facilitation of the visit, at a time of numerous national challenges, was a manifestation of the government’s policy of open and constructive dialogue with UN human rights mechanisms,” it said.

“In the aftermath of the attacks, the government immediately took all possible measures to prevent any retributive acts of civil unrest, maintain law and order, and most importantly to ensure the safety and security of all people, particularly the Muslim community,” it added.

The statement went on to declare that the people of Sri Lanka have lived amicably despite racial and religious differences for centuries, and continue to do so.

“Having suffered the scourge of separatist terrorism for nearly three-decades, they had been enjoying their hard-won peace and freedom, and had embarked on the path of reconciliation and national healing over the last decade. However, the Easter Sunday attacks reminded us that we are fighting a common adversary in terrorism, radicalisation and extremism, which is a global threat,” it added, stopping short of identifying the said threat.

In this context, the government said, it is unfortunate that the SR’s report has, to a large extent, sought to judge the space for freedom of religion or belief in Sri Lanka through the few months that followed the Easter Sunday attacks.

“As may be recalled, the scale of these attacks brought about a national emergency in Sri Lanka which called for prompt action by the state to identify and neutralise terrorist elements in different parts of the country in the interest of safety and security of all communities, while maintaining the delicate balance between national security and human rights,” it said.

Sri Lanka also noted the “constructive and reconciliatory approaches and calls made by the civil and political leadership of the country” which helped contain the situation – developments that it said were widely acknowledged and appreciated.

“The Muslim community particularly took proactive measures to cooperate with the security agencies in their investigations and search operations. Suspects who were arrested were afforded their legal safeguards and independent institutions were provided access to monitor their situation,” said the statement.

Referring to incidents of mob violence that occurred three weeks after the terrorist attacks, Sri Lanka said the violence was caused by “unruly mobs” and was not communally motivated.

“These mobs were efficaciously neutralised by the government through a number of arrests and by bringing to justice alleged perpetrators. The country fast returned to normalcy, reassuring the safety and security of all Sri Lankans and visitors to the country,” it said.

“Through giving effect to relevant legal provisions and following necessary legal processes, order and rule of law has been firmly re-established. The security forces of Sri Lanka merit particular commendation for their prompt and professional action in this regard,” it added.

Therefore, Sri Lanka went on to say, the government rejects the inaccurate references in the SR’s report to “serious concerns” regarding “Sri Lankan security forces colluding with mobs and not acting to prevent or stop the violence”; the “lack of response from the authorities against this violence”; and the claims that “acts of violence are indulged by the silence and inaction from the authorities”.

“It is regrettable that these inaccurate accounts have been included in the report, even after they have been fully rebutted and explained by the government soon after the alleged incidents,” it said.

“It is also regrettable that the report has sought to portray instances where criminal investigations have been conducted to prevent acts of terrorism in accordance with the law, as an endeavor to violate the freedom of religion or belief,” it added.

With regard to references to restrictions on dress code, Sri Lanka noted that the regulation concerned was a temporary measure under emergency regulations aimed at “preventing concealing of identity, in view of the imminent security threat that existed at the time”.

Sri Lanka also categorically rejected what it called the inaccurate assertion in the SR’s report that the ICCPR Act has not been applied to protect minorities but has become a “repressive tool” curtailing freedom of religion or belief.

“In this regard, we wish to point out that since its enactment in 2007 to date, 90% of the suspects who were arrested under the ICCPR Act have been from the majority Sinhala community,” the government said.

Referring to comments made in the report about alleged discrimination based on “supremacy” of Buddhism over other religions, Sri Lanka noted that article 9 of the constitution requires the state to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana while assuring all religions the rights granted under the Constitution.

“No provision in Sri Lanka’s constitution or national laws permits discrimination of an individual based on religion or belief in any sphere of public life. On the contrary, article 12 of the constitution prohibits discrimination based on race, religion, language, caste, sex, political opinion, place of birth or any such grounds,” it added.

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