Intolerance towards the right of Muslims to practice freedom of religion in Sri Lanka
Author: Sarah Thanawala, GHRD, October 2021
On 13 March 2021, a proposal was put forth by the Minister of Public Security, Sarath Weerasekara, to the Cabinet of Ministers to ban face covers or burqas worn by Muslim women in public, as well as to shut down more than a thousand Islamic schools called madrassas (The Guardian, 2021). The proposal was made as a ministerial statement on the Presidential Commission of Inquiry Report on the Easter Sunday attacks (Chaudhary, 2021). Weerasekara quoted national security and religious extremism as reasons for seeking the cabinet’s approval (The Guardian, 2021). On 27 April 2021, the cabinet approved the proposed ban (Aljazeera, 2021). This legislative proposal follows the Emergency Regulations that banned burqas in public in response to the Easter Sunday attacks in 2019 (Reuters, 2019).
On 21 April 2019, a series of deadly attacks were carried out on Easter Sunday, predominantly targeting the Christian community. The blasts that killed hundreds of civilians were carried out by a Sri Lankan Islamist terrorist group, National Thowheeth Jama’ath, affiliated to Islamist State (ISIS) (UK Home Office, 2021). The attacks exacerbated and legalized arbitrary actions by the State as well as the society against the Sri Lankan Muslims.
As per the current situation of the proposal, in order to be passed as legislation, the proposal will be sent to the Attorney General’s Department, where it waits to be approved by the Parliament (Mallawarachi, 2021). Since the Rajapaksa government holds the majority in the Parliament, the approved proposal stands a high probability to be passed as a law (Mallawarachi, 2021). The ban fundamentally restricts the rights of the minority community in their practice of religion without sufficient proof that such a ban would be beneficial from a national security perspective. More importantly, it directly discriminates against Muslim women as it severely restricts their right to express their beliefs or religion through face veils. As observed by various international human rights organizations, such a ban also restricts Muslim women to their homes and away from public spaces, which instigates more harm than the vague and ambiguous counter-terrorism measure of the Government by banning burqas (Amnesty International, 2020).
CONTEXT: ATROCITIES AGAINST THE MUSLIM COMMUNITY
While Buddhism accounts for the majority religion in Sri Lanka, the population consists of several minority groups, with 9.7% representing the Muslim community (UK Home Office, 2021). The ban on burqas and madrassas can further be contextualized by factoring in other societal discriminations and state-inflicted atrocities against Muslims. Following are some of the events that mark the marginalization of Muslims in Sri Lanka.
Atrocities under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), 1978
The PTA was enacted as a temporary measure in 1978 and has since been in force in Sri Lanka (DeVotta, 2021). Since its implementation, Sri Lanka has faced increasing scrutiny from the international community on account of the rampant human rights violations due to the discriminatory provisions of the PTA (European Parliament, 2021). The Act provides vague definitions of what can be considered an ‘offence’andfacilitates arbitrary arrests, detentions, and torture. Under the guise of counter-terrorism legislation like the PTA, the minority communities, including Muslims, have been especially disproportionately targeted. Disturbingly, on 12 March 2021, new de-radicalization regulations to the PTA were issued that sought to further exacerbate the arbitrary provisions by sending suspects for rehabilitation without any legal remedy and allowing arrests without any evidential proof (DeVotta, 2021). In April 2020, Hejaaz Hizbullah, a prominent human rights activist and lawyer, was arrested under the PTA and detained without any charges (Siddiqui, 2021). Hizbullah and many other such activists detained over time paint a grim picture of abuse under the PTA.
Societal discriminations (Anti-Muslim violence)
As a Minority community in Sri Lanka, Muslims have faced discrimination and marginalization throughout Sri Lankan history. Anti-Muslim violence has been a factor that has scarred the Muslim community from freely practising their religion (UK Home Office, 2021). The 2019 Easter bombings have caused a disturbing rise in societal discrimination against Muslims – such as “physical attacks on Muslims, a boycott of Muslim businesses, harassment on public transport, and hate campaigns…” (UK Home Office, 2021).
Crematorium discriminations during COVID-19
While the entire world was gripping under the COVID-19 pandemic, the Sri Lankan Government aggravated the grief of the families of COVID-19 victims by disallowing the last burial rites (BBC, 2021). In early 2020, the Government’s rule of cremations of COVID-19 deaths led to deeply hurting sentiments of the Muslim community (BBC, 2021). Disturbingly, the guidelines were enforced despite the World Health Organization allowing both burials and cremations (WHO; Amnesty International 2021). The cremation guidelines remained in force for a year, only to be lifted on 25 February 2021 (BBC, 2021).
SRI LANKA’S DOMESTIC AND INTERNATIONAL OBLIGATIONS
The Constitution of Sri Lanka protects the rights of minorities. It specifically protects the right to practice religion under its Article 9 (affirms duty to ensure all religions are granted rights), Article 10 (freedom of religion), Article 12 (right to equality) and Article 14(1)(e) (“freedom .. either in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching”) (The Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, 1978).
State-sanctioned restrictions on the freedom to practise religion, including the freedom to wear a burqa in public or run madrassas, is in contravention of Sri Lanka’s obligations towards International legal frameworks. The freedom to practice religion is protected by fundamental human rights treaties such as article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – considered to be customary international law – obligating every State to respect its protections and preventions. Furthermore, article 18 of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) protects the freedom of religion to be practised in public or private. Article 18(4) of ICCPR further protects the right of parents to ensure the religious education of their children. In addition, the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), under its Article 13(3), protects the right of parents to ensure religious and moral education of children.
Paragraph 4 of the Human Rights Committee, general comment 22, particularly states that “The observance and practice of religion or belief may include not only ceremonial acts but also such customs as the observations of dietary regulations, the wearing of distinctive clothing or head cover…” (OHCHR). The general comment further reiterated the right to teach, as well as to establish schools and distribute religious texts and beliefs (OHCHR). The proposal was accepted by the cabinet despite the UN expert expressing concerns that the ban would clearly stand in violation of international law (Mallawarachi, 2021). In the UN Report, the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, on his last visit to Sri Lanka in August 2019, observed that “religious minorities also face restrictions in the manifestation of their religion or belief” (United Nations, 2020).
Sri Lanka has ratified both the ICCPR and the ICESCR, and is under an obligation to ensure to protect the right to religious freedom under its Constitution.
The social and legal atrocities against Muslims clearly signifies that the minority community is unfairly targeted solely based on religion. Ban of burqas and shutting down of madrassas is the most recent example of Sri Lanka’s blatant denial of the community’s right to establish and run religious institutions and the rights of Muslim women to express their religious identity through face veils. While the ban still awaits to be passed by the Parliament, the international actors, such as the UNHCR, must take urgent actions in ensuring that the ban is shelved before it is presented to be legislation. The immediacy on the part of the international community is especially potent considering Sri Lanka’s active, state-sanctioned discrimination through its domestic laws and absolute lack of accountability in protecting the interests of Sri Lankan Muslims.
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Amnesty International (2021, March 19). Sri Lanka: Increased marginalization, Discrimination and targeting Sri Lanka’s Muslim community. https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/asa37/3866/2021/en/, accessed 17 October, 2021
Amnesty International (2020, June 8). Eliminating Tolerance and Discrimination based on Religion or Belief and the Achievment of Sustainable Development Goal 16 in Sri Lanka. https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/asa37/2487/2020/en/ , accessed 17 October, 2021
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