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Sri Lanka’s failure to decriminalise same-sex conduct despite lawmakers’ promises leaves Queer Community frustrated

By: Editor (LGBTIQ)

May 16, Colombo (LNW): Sri Lanka, the wonder of Asia, continues to maintain silence against the recent progress towards the rights of people of diverse sexual orientations, gender identities, gender expressions and sex characteristics (SOGIESC).

Despite repeated promises from lawmakers, Sri Lanka continues to uphold laws that criminalise same-sex sexual conduct, perpetuating discrimination and violating the human rights of its queer community.

The failure to decriminalise same-sex conduct highlights a persistent gap between political assurances and legislative action in the island nation.

Sri Lanka’s Penal Code, a relic of British colonial rule, contains provisions that criminalise “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” and “gross indecency,” effectively used by by law enforcement officers targetting same-sex activity, despite the book having no specific definition for such terms.

Sections 365 and 365A of the Penal Code, enacted in 1883, prescribe penalties that include imprisonment for up to ten years. These laws have remained unchanged for over a century, despite growing calls for reform from local and international human rights advocates.

In recent years, there has been a series of pledges from Sri Lankan politicians to decriminalise same-sex relations. During the 2015 presidential campaign, then-President Maithripala Sirisena and his coalition government vowed to address human rights issues, including LGBTQIA+ rights, only to have them wiped out later in a shameful public statement made by the former Head of State during the 2018 October Political Coup, referencing queers to ‘butterflies‘.

Similar commitments were echoed by various lawmakers and political parties over subsequent years, particularly in the context of Sri Lanka’s obligations under international human rights treaties.

Sri Lanka faces significant pressure from the international community to amend its discriminatory laws. The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and various human rights organisations have repeatedly urged the Sri Lankan government to repeal sections 365 and 365A.

During its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) sessions, Sri Lanka has received multiple recommendations to decriminalise same-sex conduct, reflecting a global consensus on the need for legislative reform.

The Attorney General’s Department assured, precisely on four occasions, in 2014, 2017, 2019 and 2022, that Article 12 of the Constitution protects the rights of queer individuals, and that any law authorising discrimination against such individuals would be unconstitutional.

In a groundbreaking verdict in 2022, the United Nations supported a legal challenge on Sri Lanka’s prohibition on same-sex intimacy among women, deeming it a violation of human rights.

This pivotal case propelled LGBTQIA+ rights to the forefront of Sri Lankan political discourse.

The Supreme Court of Sri Lanka in 2023 delivered a landmark determination, assuring that consensual same-sex conduct between adults do not violate the Constitution of Sri Lanka, and a bill to decriminalise such acts, therefore, can be made into law with a simple-majority in Parliament, in correspondence with a private member’s bill proposing decriminalisation tabled by SLPP MP Premnath Dolawatte being legally challenged by a group of political stalwarts, ironically of the same party in which Dolawatte serves.

Despite these pressures and promises, little progress has been made. Activists argue that deep-rooted societal prejudices, coupled with political reluctance, continue to hinder legislative change.

The bill will be subject to Parliament scrutiny in the first week of June this year, a prominent activist told LNW. Consequently, June is recognised worldwide as the PRIDE month, remembering the 55th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, the most momentous event in documented history advocating for LGBTQIA+ rights.

The National Peoples Power (NPP) remains the sole political party which recognises LGBTQIA+ rights in its written policies, whilst the main Opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) categorically recognises LGBTQIA+ rights, despite having no confirmed report of possessing such policy in its manifestos.

The recent resurgence of conservative and nationalist sentiments in Sri Lankan politics further complicates efforts to advance queer rights.

The continued criminalisation of same-sex conduct has profound and damaging effects on the lives of LGBTQIA+ individuals in Sri Lanka.

It fosters a climate of fear and secrecy, leading to social exclusion, discrimination in employment and education, and limited access to healthcare.

Reports of police harassment and blackmail are not uncommon, further exacerbating the vulnerability of the queer community.

The path to decriminalisation and equality for LGBTQIA+ individuals in Sri Lanka requires a multifaceted approach.

A recent islandwide survey by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy asserted that about 72.5 per cent of the Sri Lankan population favour the idea of same-sex conduct being decriminalised.

Legislative reform is crucial, but it must be accompanied by broader societal changes to challenge and dismantle prejudices.

Current President Ranil Wickremesinghe commented that he poses no objection to the proposition that consensual same-sex activities between adults be decriminalised.

Advocacy groups continue to play a vital role in raising awareness, providing support to affected individuals, and lobbying for legal changes.

International solidarity and pressure remain essential in holding the Sri Lankan government accountable to its human rights commitments.

Sri Lanka’s failure to decriminalise same-sex conduct, despite repeated promises from lawmakers, highlights a significant human rights issue that needs urgent attention.

While the road to equality is fraught with challenges, continued advocacy, both domestically and internationally, is essential to achieving legislative reform and ensuring the protection and dignity of all individuals, regardless of their identity.

The government’s inaction not only contravenes its international obligations but also perpetuates a cycle of discrimination and injustice that affects countless lives.

It is imperative for Sri Lanka to move beyond empty promises and take concrete steps towards decriminalising same-sex conduct, fostering a more inclusive and equitable society.

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