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Sri Lankan police enforce all-island travel restrictions amid Covid 19 pandemic in Sri Lanka, May 14, 2021. ©2021 AP Photo/ Akila Jayawardana/NurPhoto

(New York) – The Sri Lankan government in 2021 suppressed minority communities, harassed activists, and undermined democratic institutions, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2022. The government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa failed to carry out legal reforms promised to its international partners and blocked accountability for grave violations, including past war crimes.

“President Gotabaya Rajapaksa seems determined to reverse past rights improvements and protect those implicated in serious abuses,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “While promising reforms and justice to deflate international criticism, his administration has stepped up suppression of minority communities.”

In the 752-page World Report 2022, its 32nd edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in nearly 100 countries. Executive Director Kenneth Roth challenges the conventional wisdom that autocracy is ascendent. In country after country, large numbers of people have recently taken to the streets, even at the risk of being arrested or shot, showing that the appeal of democracy remains strong. Meanwhile, autocrats are finding it more difficult to manipulate elections in their favor. Still, he says, democratic leaders must do a better job of meeting national and global challenges and of making sure that democracy delivers on its promised dividends.

The Rajapaksa government has disregarded its own pledges of reform and continued to target minority Tamils and Muslims. The government uses the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the country’s long-abused counterterrorism law, and policies that threaten religious freedom and minority land rights.

In March 2021 the United Nations Human Rights Council mandated the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to collect and prepare evidence of grave crimes committed in Sri Lanka for use in future prosecutions. But a resolution before the Sri Lankan parliament would drop human rights investigations begun under the previous administration. Additionally, the Rajapaksa government’s appointment of people with poor rights records to independent bodies, including the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka and the Office of Missing Persons, have undermined their credibility and independence.

Throughout the year, Sri Lankan security forces harassed and threatened human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers, and the families of victims of past abuses, and suppressed peaceful protests. Security agencies, including the police Terrorism Investigation Division, intrusively monitored and intimidated civil society groups and interfered in their funding sources on the pretext of combatting “terrorist financing.”

In June the European Parliament passed a resolution deploring the Sri Lankan government’s intensifying repression. The European Commission engaged in human rights talks with the government in which it renewed pledges to reform the Prevention of Terrorism Act. An assessment of Sri Lanka’s human rights record and its eligibility for continued trading privileges that are contingent upon respect for human rights, is expected from the commission in early 2022.

The government struggled to protect people from Covid-19 as cases surged several times throughout the year, which contributed to widespread economic distress, but a military-controlled response to the pandemic led to further serious rights violations. The police killed at least three people while purportedly enforcing Covid-19 lockdown regulations. 

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