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Sri Lanka at Brink of Humanitarian Crisis

Financial Partners Should Support Basic Needs, Promote Respect for Rights

A man counts money at a marketplace in Colombo, Sri Lanka, October 21, 2022. © 2022 AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena

The dramatic fuel shortages that accompanied mass protests in Sri Lanka earlier this year may have eased, but for millions of Sri Lankans the economic crisis is worse than ever.

This month, the United Nations renewed a humanitarian appeal, stating that 28 percent of the population faces food insecurity and that the poverty rate this year has doubled.

Food price inflation was over 85 percent in October, and acute shortages of foreign currency mean that many imports, including essential medicines, are scarce or unobtainable. Meanwhile, authorities have cracked down on peaceful protest. President Ranil Wickremasinghe has suppressed demonstrations and has used the notorious Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) to detain student activists. Wickremasinghe has even warned that he will again declare a state of emergency and deploy security forces in the event of major protests.

Without respect for human rights, including the right to peacefully protest, Sri Lankans cannot hold politicians accountable, whether for mismanagement or corruption. It is essential that Sri Lanka’s international partners, including the United States and European Union, press the government to fulfill its human rights obligations as an essential step towards addressing the crisis.

Sri Lankan economists fear the economic situation could deteriorate rapidly without action by foreign creditors, placing the basic needs of millions of people in further jeopardy. To stabilize the economy, international creditors should agree to restructure Sri Lanka’s debt so the country can secure final approval for an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan and financing from other global agencies.

In April, Sri Lanka defaulted on over US$50 billion in debts to international creditors, and in September it reached a staff-level agreement with the IMF for a four-year, $2.9 billion bailout. The first tranche of that bailout would ease the crippling shortage of foreign exchange and unlock access to other funding, including from the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, which cannot provide new funding until the IMF agreement is completed.

Sri Lanka’s major foreign creditors, including China, Japan, and India, should urgently mitigate the adverse human rights impacts of the economic crisis. The IMF should use its procedures to make needed funds available as soon as possible, putting into place safeguards to protect people’s economic and social rights.

And the Wickremesinghe administration should respect fundamental rights, including to peaceful protest.

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