Government backs down on restrictive NGO law amendments

A report by Amnesty International in February 2018 highlighted the level of impunity for alleged crimes committed during the 26-year-long armed conflict that ended in May 2009. In addition, throughout 2017, ethnic Tamil human rights defenders and community activists, including relatives of the disappeared, continued to report incidents of surveillance and harassment from law enforcement officials. Women human rights defenders in the north and east reported that interactions with police were often degrading and sexualised.

Expression

Withdrawal of amendments to NGO law 

In late March 2018, the Minister of National Coexistence, Dialogue and Official Languages agreed to withdraw proposed amendments to the Voluntary Social Service Organisations (Registration and Supervision) Act, No. 31 of 1980, after civil society petitioned against the amendments.

Civil society had been extremely concerned about the proposed amendments that they believe would have restricted freedom of association. Their concerns included provisions to “regulate, supervise & inspect” NGOs through a legalised “National Secretariat for NGOs” with extraordinary and excessive powers in the context of reporting and approvals. In addition, the draft Act tries to capture a broad range of collectives or groups in its definition of an NGO and compels them to register and obtain approval from the Secretariat for its existence, or become illegal. Under this draft Act, registration is dependent on the Director General of the Secretariat and Ministries or Authorities which are “responsible for activities planned to be undertaken by the organization”. Other concerns were as follows:

  • Registration can be suspended or canceled for a range of reasons, including if the Director General feels the organisation is a threat or prejudicial to national security or public interest or if the organisation is operating contrary to the national interests;
  • The draft Act implies civic groups must agree to “common development needs” of the country as defined by or agreeable to the government. This is likely to marginalise groups that are challenging the government’s model of development; and
  • The draft Act confers powers to the Secretariat to breach confidentiality of banking information, without reference to any criminal conduct.

The National Peace Council welcomed the decision to withdraw the proposed amendments, stating that:

“The targeting of the entirety of civil society with a special law is both overbroad and discriminatory and is democratically unacceptable. In a democracy the people are free to organize themselves for any purpose as long as it is not in pursuit of illegal activities…we also affirm that compulsory registration is not acceptable in a free and democratic society which enjoys the freedom of association as a constitutional right and the decision whether or not to register with a particular government agency should be left to their members”.

The Prime Minister has requested that civil society nominate seven members who could meet with the government and develop a sustainable solution that would protect national interests as well as the independence of civil society.

Social media blocked

In the wake of Buddhist-led attacks on the minority Muslim population in central Sri Lanka in early March 2018 and the state of emergency, the government blocked social media services in an attempt to quell the violence.

On 7th March the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka ordered all telecommunication operators to restrict access to Facebook, Viber and Whatsapp across the country for three days. This was to prevent the spread of anti-Muslim posts the government claimed were helping to fuel the violence. Internet access was completely blocked in the city of Kandy.

The Free Media Movement Sri Lanka, while acknowledging that social media were used to spread statements of hate, expressed concerns over the blocking of social media and said that "actions taken to prevent the use of social media to trigger hate and violence, should not hinder democracy by contravening a citizen’s right to freedom of expression".

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) declared that:

“The IFJ is seriously concerned over the blocking of internet and social media in Sri Lanka following declaration of emergency after the communal violence. Ban on internet or any service of the internet hinders the people’s freedom of expression and rights to information as well as could lead to serious social and financial implications”.

Government commits to protection of human rights defenders

In March 2018, the review of Sri Lanka’s human rights record was adopted at the Human Rights Council. The government supported recommendations made by Norway, Finland and Ireland related to human rights defenders.These include ensuring a safe and enabling environment for civil society and human rights defenders (Norway) and ensuring the protection of women human rights defenders so that they can fully participate in society without fear of harassment or violence (Finland). Furthermore, there was a recommendation to protect human rights defenders as well as ensure proper investigation into alleged attacks against them and to prosecute those found responsible (Ireland).