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Police use tear gas as protesters storm the compound of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe 's office, calling for his resignation after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country, Colombo, Sri Lanka, July 13, 2022.  © AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena

Sri Lankan security forces and other authorities should respect the rights of protesters following the declaration of a state of emergency on July 13, 2022, Human Rights Watch said today. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, as acting president, declared the emergency as well as a curfew in the Western Province, which includes the capital, Colombo, after the departing president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, fled the country following months of an unprecedented political and economic crisis.

Protests against the government’s failure to address the crisis have continued with the president’s departure. Wickremesinghe called the protesters a “fascist threat” and said he had imposed a state of emergency and curfew to retake control of public buildings and “bring the situation back to normal.” The emergency regulations, which provide the security forces and other authorities special powers, have not been published. While international law permits the suspension of certain rights during an emergency, protections against torture, excessive use of force, and other fundamental rights can never be violated, Human Rights Watch said.

“Emergency regulations cannot be used to ban all protests or to allow the security forces to use excessive force against protesters,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Past emergencies in Sri Lanka raise grave concerns that the military and police will use the new declaration to abuse activists and others protesting against the government.”

Wickremesinghe announced that a committee consisting of the chief of defense staff, army, navy, and air force commanders, and the inspector general of police had been appointed to “restore order,” and given broad authority to act independently.

The military should act only under civilian control and all security forces need to uphold basic principles on the use of force and in accordance with fundamental human rights, Human Rights Watch said.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa departed the country on a military aircraft to the Maldives, from where he is expected to continue to another destination. He has been implicated in grave international crimes during the civil war that ended in 2009, and since. By stepping down from the presidency, he will lose his domestic immunity from prosecution. He may also be prosecuted for alleged international crimes in other countries.

Armed military personnel and helicopters were deployed at several locations in Colombo on July 13, as protesters overran some offices, including the government broadcast station and the prime minister’s office, and there were clashes outside parliament. Police used teargas in some places to contain the protests. There were numerous injuries and at least one protester was killed. In recent weeks security personnel have used excessive force against protesters, as well as against people in line to buy fuel.

While international law allows governments to impose certain emergency measures in response to significant threats to the life of the nation, derogations – suspensions – of basic rights must be strictly necessary and proportionate to the emergency and be for the shortest duration possible. International human rights law forbids authorities from limiting some specific human rights, including the right to life and the right to be free from torture, including during national emergencies.

Emergency powers have previously been invoked in Sri Lanka to curtail fundamental rights. Under Sri Lankan law, a state of emergency allows the president to override any law except the constitution, restricting fundamental rights including ordinary procedures for arrests and judicial sanction for detention and rights to freedom of expression, assembly, association and movement. During a state of emergency imposed between April 1 and April 6, 2022, over 600 people were arrested for defying a curfew.

On May 6, another emergency was imposed, removing requirements for detainees to be produced before a magistrate and increasing the criminal penalty for same-sex acts, among other provisions. The May emergency was in effect for 14 days.

Since the beginning of the year, Sri Lanka has experienced an escalating economic crisis and the government has defaulted on its foreign loans. Sri Lankans are experiencing extreme shortages of essentials including fuel and other essential goods, such as medicine. Food price inflation is currently estimated at 80 percent. The United Nations has warned that 5.7 million people “require immediate humanitarian assistance.”

Sri Lanka’s international partners should urgently call upon the Sri Lankan authorities to respect human rights in resolving the political and economic crisis. They should also press the Sri Lankan authorities to investigate and prosecute official corruption, which has contributed to the crisis, and should freeze assets held abroad if they are suspected to have been obtained from corruption in Sri Lanka.

The United Nations leadership should urgently communicate to the Sri Lankan government and military that abuses against protesters are unacceptable and will lead to a suspension of Sri Lanka’s UN peacekeeping role. The International Monetary Fund should affirm to Wickremesinghe that a stable government with public legitimacy is essential to carry out a program that addresses the urgent needs of Sri Lankans as well as the root causes of the economic crisis.

“Sri Lanka’s political leaders should use the transfer of power to address the acute economic, political, and human rights problems that have been the focus of months of peaceful protest,” Ganguly said. “Sri Lanka’s international partners should insist that the new government tackle entrenched problems of corruption, inequity, and lack of accountability for past abuses by strengthening independent democratic institutions.”

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