Over the past few months, governments around the world have been responding to an unprecedented health crisis with unprecedented measures. In even the most open and free societies, tight restrictions on movement, extensive social surveillance, and sweeping police powers have rapidly become the norm.
The grave threat to human life posed by the coronavirus means that many of these steps – insofar as they are necessary and proportionate, and coupled with adequate safeguards – may be entirely legitimate. However, in many countries around the globe, a crisis of public health risks being rapidly followed by a crisis of human rights, as regimes with authoritarian inclinations everywhere seize the current moment to massively expand their powers, suspend democratic oversight, and trample over the rule of law. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka – which at time of writing has seen over 140 registered coronavirus cases, and two tragic deaths – is increasingly following that trend.
Massacre convict released
Among the most troubling indications of this was President Gotabaya’s appalling decision last week to pardon and release from jail, Staff Sergeant Sunil Ratnayake, a senior military official convicted in 2015 for the brutal massacre of eight Tamil civilians. The victims in the case had been senselessly murdered by a group of soldiers while returning to their village in Mirusuvil, Jaffna, during a brief ceasefire in 2000. Their bodies were found dumped near a toilet pit, blindfolded, their throats slit with a knife. Two of those killed were children, one aged just five years old.
In a country where state officials, especially the armed forces, have enjoyed wholesale impunity for gross human rights violations against Tamils over many decades, the conviction of Ratnayake – unanimously upheld by Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court less than a year ago – represented a rare exception to the norm. With his latest decision, Gotabaya has reversed that precious victory of justice, and sent a chilling message to minority Tamils that their lives do not matter. A hard-won fight for justice could be undone with a stroke of the President’s pen in order to cement support among his hard-line Sinhalese nationalist base.
Given recent strenuous denials by the government regarding Ratnayake’s possible release, there are few doubts about the cynical timing of the move, which comes at a moment when the attention of the media and international community is largely diverted by the pandemic. Gotabaya may even have intended to conflate the pardon with recent calls by civil society groups to release remand prisoners and low-level, non-violent offenders from Sri Lanka’s overcrowded prisons in order to prevent the spread of disease. Yet, to date, only Ratnayake, a convicted murderer, has been released.
Despite these tactics, and the increasing climate of fear in Sri Lanka, local and international condemnation has been relatively robust. The UN Human Rights Chief described the pardon as an “affront to victims,” while a joint statement by Sri Lankan civil society groups referred to it as a “lethal blow to the rule of law.” One Jaffna-based think-tank said the decision further highlighted the need for international forms of accountability, urging members of the international community to “set in motion the process for international criminal justice.”
The ‘war’ against the virus
While providing a convenient smokescreen for letting human rights abusers off the hook, there is also evidence that the current crisis is being used as pretext for a series of disturbing power grabs by the President and his closest allies.
Of particular concern has been the heavily militarised nature of the government’s response, which has seen multiple alleged war criminals – including Major General Gunaratne and the Lieutenant General Shavendra Silva – assume key positions within Sri Lanka’s recently formed (and legally questionable) ‘Coronavirus Task Force.’ It is Silva, not a public health professional, who also heads the National Operation Centre for the Prevention of COVID-19 Outbreak. That these individuals, who possess no relevant public health expertise, should be tasked with shaping the response is nonsensical and deeply concerning. While countries across the world are making use of the labour of their armed forces to support civilian agencies in the current crisis, it is public health officials with the appropriate knowledge and experience to deal with the pandemic who should be leading the response.
But even more worrying, particularly for Sri Lanka’s Tamil community, is the demonstrable disregard that these men have shown for human life in the recent past. Just over a decade ago, a military campaign which they presided over saw tens of thousands of Tamil civilians slaughtered. Vast numbers died as a result of the shelling of hospitals and the calculated denial of medical aid to civilians. For many Tamils, these men inspire not trust, but intense fear and suspicion.
Compounding fears about military and executive overreach is the fact that Sri Lanka’s health crisis has arrived at a time when its democratic institutions are in a state of suspense. Despite mounting evidence that the pandemic would cause significant disruption to daily life, President Rajapaksa refused to call off elections which had been scheduled for April. This left the Election Commission with little choice but to postpone the elections. But the Commission does not have the power to recall Parliament; only the President can do this by revoking the dissolution or declaring a state of emergency. There are now growing concerns that the current state of affairs could drag on indefinitely. Parliament must be recalled, both in order for the government to legally allocate public spending to deal with the crisis, and to enable its response to be properly scrutinised by legislators. In a time when extraordinary measures restricting public freedoms are necessary, parliamentary oversight is essential to ensure that government action is effective and proportionate, and that the rights of citizens are properly respected. Similarly, it is essential that the mandates of other key independent institutions – including the Human Rights Commission and the Right to Information Commission – are not unnecessarily impeded.
Protecting the most vulnerable
While evidence from epicentres of the global pandemic have shown that no demographic is safe from the virus, what is abundantly clear is that the worst effects of the outbreak will be borne disproportionately by the poor, marginalised, and vulnerable. In Sri Lanka, as elsewhere, it is therefore essential that the response to the crisis is attuned to the socio-economic context, and that policies are designed to reach and protect those most in need of support – including prisoners, low income and daily wage workers, the homeless, refugees, and the internally displaced to name but a few. Many of these groups face extra challenges in adhering to social distancing and hygiene precautions due to their living and working conditions.
Equally, it is vital that Sri Lanka’s leaders not just resist, but also actively combat, the discrimination and racism which have been creeping into public narratives about the health crisis. Already there are disturbing reports that both the media and state officials are drawing links between the spread of the virus and the identity and behaviour of the Muslim and Christian communities in Sri Lanka. In a country which has seen multiple recent episodes of mob violence against Muslims – in some cases, specifically in relation to fabricated public health concerns – the risk posed by this kind of scapegoating cannot and must not be underestimated.
Elsewhere, critics have noted that a large number of “quarantine centres” constructed in the early stages of the crisis were built in the Tamil-majority North and East of the island – a reflection of the disproportionate number of military camps located in those areas. While the medical value of such centres is itself questionable, Sri Lanka’s decision-makers need to urgently recognise that the risk posed by the current crisis is not one which can simply be shunted on to Sri Lanka’s minority communities.
The importance of human rights in a time of crisis
At this moment, scores of doctors, civil servants, and public health experts from all communities in Sri Lanka are working around the clock to stem the outbreak and save lives. It is these health professionals, and not human rights organisations, who should lead the response to this crisis. That said, it is abundantly clear that many of those in power around the world, including in Sri Lanka, are intent on ‘not letting a good crisis go to waste’; exploiting the current emergency to extend their authority, eliminate scrutiny, and ride roughshod over the rule of law. In order to prevent the current health crisis from heralding a crisis of human rights, it is therefore essential that civil society organisations continue to speak up, and play a prominent and active role in probing, questioning, and challenging the actions of their governments.#
[Correction, 6 April 2020: a previous version of this article stated that the bodies of the victims were “found dumped in a toilet pit.” We have edited this to reflect the Supreme Court’s finding that the bodies were found in a shallow grave near a toilet pit.]