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Sri Lanka: Rights under attack during economic crisis in the country

As the people in Sri Lanka are facing a catastrophic economic crisis, the government must protect the human rights of everyone and ensure an enabling environment for peacefully expressing dissent, Amnesty International said in a report released today.

In the report, ‘From Bad to Worse: Rights Under Attack During Sri Lanka’s Economic Crisis’, the organization also called for the international community to support Sri Lanka in its recovery in line with obligations around international cooperation and assistance, with a particular focus on marginalized groups who are at grave risk.

“The crisis in Sri Lanka is a prime example of the interdependence and interrelatedness of economic and social rights and civil political rights. As such, human rights must be at the heart of discussions on Sri Lanka’s economic future,” said Yamini Mishra, South Asia Regional Director for Amnesty International.

“We urge the international community to step in where possible to support Sri Lanka with necessary financial and technical assistance, such as debt relief and aid, in line with a human rights based assessment of the situation to ensure the economic crisis does not deteriorate into a humanitarian crisis.”

Sri Lanka is facing a balance of payment crisis and a severe foreign exchange shortage compounded by Covid-19 lockdowns, pre-pandemic tax cuts and loss of access to international capital markets. As it stands, foreign exchange reserves are critically low, making the import of essential medicines, food items, cooking gas and fuel, immensely difficult. This is affecting all major sectors including education, health and livelihoods.

At least five individuals have died while standing in line for essentials and to date, a total of 75 individuals have reached Tamil Nadu in India seeking economic refuge. Thousands of people in Sri Lanka have taken to the street in a show of resistance using creative slogans, art, theatre, dance, music and technology. Their demands are for the resignation of the president and the prime minister, but also include calls for accountability for wide-ranging human rights violations, inter- ethnic, religious unity and harmony. According to the information collected by Amnesty International, the protests have been largely peaceful; however, in several instances, the Sri Lankan authorities have unlawfully restricted their right to freedom of peaceful assembly including the use of force, tear gas and arbitrary detentions.

The authorities must uphold human rights to freedom of movement, liberty and security of person. Also, Sri Lanka has ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and has an obligation both individually and through international assistance and cooperation, to guarantee economic and social rights. These rights include the rights to health, education, social security, adequate food, and an adequate standard of living.

In February this year, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) recommended that “social safety nets should be strengthened, by increasing spending, widening coverage, and improving targeting, to mitigate the adverse impacts of macroeconomic adjustment on vulnerable groups,” however to date, the only proposals approved by the Sri Lankan cabinet have been to provide ad-hoc handouts for a period of three months for low-income families. The government must urgently fund and expand social security systems and ensure that all people, including marginalised groups, are protected from the impacts of the crisis.

Amnesty International has observed that austerity measures introduced previously in several other countries in the context of economic crises have seriously impacted economic and social rights protections. In Greece and Spain, for example, austerity measures made healthcare less accessible and affordable, which had a disproportionate impact on those with lower incomes, and particularly on the elderly, those needing mental health care and treatment, those with disabilities, and with chronic health conditions.

“Lessons must be learnt from similar experiences from across the world to avoid serious repercussions,” said Yamini Mishra. “Any austerity measures introduced in Sri Lanka must be based on a human rights assessment, should be open for public scrutiny and feedback in an inclusive and participatory process, and all alternatives must be explored before they are introduced. Austerity measures must not disproportionately impact the marginalized groups and must be strictly temporary.”

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