Interview with a Sri Lankan Human Rights Advocate – Part 2

Part 2: Circular 2008

CSW spoke to a human rights advocate in Sri Lanka whose identity for security reasons has been withheld. This post has been edited for clarity.

Q: Would you be able to share with us what groups like yours – and other civil society organisations based in Sri Lanka – are doing at the moment to address freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) violations?

A: There are various strategies. One of the core things that we do is to document incidents. We do a lot of advocacy at a local level by meeting government officials and ministers. We also lobby with some of our international partners as well. We file cases on behalf of victims who are religious minorities, and we take up different legal interventions. For example, when there is an attack, we will not file a case immediately but we try first to send out legal letters; working with the national police commission, working with the relevant ministries, and so on. If that does not work out, then of course we will file a case against the authorities in the Supreme Court.

In most instances, we support cases that have been filed against Christians. We also do a lot of other projects where we work on broader human rights issues and we form local networks with community leaders, with pastors. We have consultation processes with them, we train them, we have advocacy seminars – making them aware of their legal rights and teaching them good practices. We also work with the media and journalists, bringing together journalists and the media on good reporting for religious violence.

Q: What can international organisations do to echo the concerns you’ve identified?

A: When it comes to advocacy, I think international organisations could take up some very relevant advocacy points and lobby on those with their own parliaments and with their stakeholders – by creating awareness on the situation, and also lobbying very specifically [about] issues like the Circular 2008. I’ll briefly explain about this Circular.

The Circular 2008 was actually issued by the Ministry of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs. It was issued in 2008, and states that “any place of religious worship, any new construction, must obtain approval from the Ministry of Buddha Sasana”. Now having said that, there are a few things we need to know about this Circular. Usually, when Circulars are issued, they need to be based on parliamentary legislation. They need to be based on a particular law that gives that particular ministry the right to issue such circulars. However, this Circular was not based on any parliamentary legislation. From a legal perspective, it can be said that this Circular has no legal basis.

Also, very importantly, in Sri Lanka, Article 15.(7) of the Constitution says: In order to restrict freedom of religious belief activities – which is provided in Article 14.(1) ( e ), that is the freedom to observe, practice, preach your own faith – this can only be restricted on the basis of moral grounds, public health, and morality. That also can only be done by way of written law. Circular 2008 is not the written law – it is just a Circular.

This Circular is also used arbitrarily and is misapplied by local government officials. For example, even though it says “new constructions”, they continue to use it against prayer meetings and against places of worship that have existed for a very long time. They very routinely use it against Christians – local government officials send letters on their letterheads saying “your place of worship is deemed illegal, or unauthorised, because you have not registered or obtained proper approval according to this Circular.” And they have gone on to give ultimatums, like “if you don’t register or gain the appropriate approval, then your place of worship needs to be closed down in two to three weeks.” However, if you really look at the laws of Sri Lanka and the legislation, there is no procedure or process to register any place of worship. So it is used to discriminate religious minorities – they are harassed by this Circular – it is used in an arbitrary manner, and also it is misapplied.

Right now, the present government is a government that is open to communicating with the international community – and we appreciate that about the present government. With such issues, what the international community can really do is to deal with them, to talk to them [the government], and to see if this Circular can be cancelled, because this is not a law. It is a matter of that particular ministry just issuing a letter saying this Circular is cancelled. This is something very much within their authority, and which can be done. So if the international community can actually take up specific issues like this, to lobby with the government of Sri Lanka, lobby with other stakeholders, and create awareness and pressurise them in order for them to actually – or rather I would use the word influence them – for them to actually cancel this Circular. That would be very helpful.

Q: What do you think, specifically, the United Kingdom can do to help?

A: Even though the present Sri Lankan government seems more plural and democratic – and it is a government that has given more space for human rights defenders – we have also sadly documented over 130 incidents against Christians alone, since 2015 until now. What that really means is that even though attacks led by Buddhist extremist groups have reduced, and the kind of approval that they did receive from the former government – the tacit approval that they received – has reduced, incidents of discrimination and intimidation, incidents of legal restrictions, and also incidents led by local level religious leaders and Buddhist monks continue.

We need to create awareness that the situation at the ground level. The work for the UK parliament, stakeholders, advocacy partners, is to influence the present government – work with them, because they are more open – and to talk to them about these issues. Such as to ask what the government is planning to do about religious freedom violations, and what specific steps can be taken, like cancelling the Circular, or even making public statements on the freedom of religious belief – that would be very helpful.

Q: Sri Lanka has come out of a 30 year civil war. The international community is very focused on transitional justice, truth and reconciliation and war crimes. Where do you see Freedom of Religion or Belief in all these?

A: The international community right now is very much focused on the transitional justice process, truth and reconciliation, war crime allegations, and so on, which I think is very important for Sri Lanka. These are areas that need a lot of attention. However, I think that the issue of religious freedom should not be forgotten, because it is also a human rights violation. It is something that has been consistently taking place in Sri Lanka for the past several years. In this whole process that we take forward, while we give so much attention to other human rights violations, and whereas it is very much justifiable to do so, I would ask the international community not to forget the issue of religious freedom violations as well, because the rights of religious minorities also matter.

Thank you.