Protesters just want their voices heard, UN expert says amid crackdown in Sri Lanka

Police officers try to stop a protest against the rising living costs, outside President Gotabaya Rajapaksa's seafront office in Colombo on 18 March, 2022. (Credit: Keystone/AFP/Ishara S. Kodikara)

Violence and repression marred the streets of Sri Lanka this week as one protester was killed by the police. Over the last month the island state raged with demonstrations as anger against the ruling party for its handling of the economic crisis deepened.

“This was already a country that was under the international human rights commission’s agenda for many years on issues of transitional justice, accountability, and other past violations linked to the civil war,” Clément Voule, UN special rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly, told Geneva Solutions.

Despite the promise of an “impartial and transparent” investigation into the clashes between the police and the protesters, more Sri Lankans have joined the movement against the government.

A severe shortage of foreign currency has left the government unable to pay for necessary imports including food and fuel. As people face rising food insecurity and debilitating power cuts, demonstrators have taken to the streets.

“People protest because they are facing challenges or particular situations, and they want their governments to hear their voice,” Voule said.

‘Gotabaya Gota go’

Hundreds of Sri Lankans have transformed the streets in front of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s home into a protest camp.

With tents, food, and even portable toilets, the protesters vow to stay put until he resigns. The chants of “Gotabaya gota go” is a complete reversal from his landslide victory in the 2019 elections.

Many in the government believe calls for resignation are pointless because the country’s economic crisis and shortages will not be solved with new elections.

After the largely peaceful protests outside the president’s house on 1 April were met with tear gas and water cannons by the police, the United Nations called for the Sri Lankan government to engage in dialogue with the protestors.

“Just because the protesters are asking for [the president’s] resignation doesn’t mean the government shouldn’t open dialogue with the protestors,” said Voule. “Dialogue will make sure that protesters understand how the government wants to resolve the crises and why it was not foreseen.”

However, as more Sri Lankans join the protest spontaneously, no political party or leader has emerged to engage in dialogue.

“Usually, the government says there is no possibility of dialogue because the protests are leaderless. They may not have a leader, but they have a message,” said Voule.

“Dialogue also means that the government needs to listen to the legitimate claims of the protestors”, he added.

Voule suggests that the government asks the protesters to send representatives, or even addresses the crowd in front of the presidential office to negotiate with them a peaceful end to the demonstrations.

A contracting civil space

Since his visit to Sri Lanka in 2019, Voule has observed a rise in tensions and suspicions against Sri Lankan civil society.

“This has created what we call in general, a backlash against democracy, as the democratic space which people can participate in is no longer there,” he said. .

The 2019 and 2020 elections brought back wartime leaders, Gotabaya and Mahinda Rakajapksa, as president and prime minister of Sri Lanka. The brothers are credited with the  defeat of the Tamil Tiger rebels after a decades-long civil war.

In their post-war government, the Rajapaksa brothers have been accused of aiding and abetting enforced disappearances and several war crimes by human rights organisations, although the brothers have called these accusations “baseless”.

Since their election, several policies have been imposed to expand the president’s powers and to restrict civil space through intimidation of rights activists and restrictions on NGOs.

The UN expert highlighted the close relationship between the communities and the civil society: “It is in the interest of any government to listen to civil society. This is sometimes the barometer with which you can measure crises.”

He calls for the Sri Lankan government to see the economic crisis as an opportunity to reverse the shrinking civil society and to work closely with them to address the concerns of the people.

Peaceful protests in crisis situations

With the death of one protester, several injured and over 50 arrested, as reported by Amnesty International, the current crisis in Sri Lanka reflects challenges that many countries are facing.

Special rapporteur Voule’s upcoming report to the UN Human Rights Council, to be presented at its next session in June, will focus on the protection of the right to peaceful protest in crisis situations.

“The governments need to understand that in a crisis, people will go on the street to express their views and grievances. Their response should not be repression, it should be negotiation and deescalation,” Voule said.

He views the preservation of the right to protest in three prongs: negotiation and dialogue between the government and the protestors, strategy towards de-escalating the situation, and preparing the law enforcement to understand protesting is a basic right which cannot be violated.

“Peaceful protest is exactly where people can come out collectively and express their views, and participate in the solution and management of the crisis. Repressing the fundamental right to protest, especially through police violence, will create instability and deepen the crisis.”