March 4, 2021 | Meenakshi Ganguly | HRW
The Sri Lankan government’s announcement that it would finally end its medically baseless policy of “forced cremation” of people who die with Covid-19 was welcomed by Muslim families, who for religious reasons bury their dead. But the government then added a gratuitous requirement that burials take place on the small northwestern island of Iranaitivu, which is principally inhabited by Catholic Tamils who have struggled to reoccupy their land for decades after the Sri Lankan navy seized it in 1992.
Following months of condemnation from Sri Lankan religious leaders of all faiths, as well as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), health specialists, and United Nations rights experts, the government announced the climb-down when faced with a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council. The government seemingly sought to dissuade OIC member countries from supporting the resolution, which aims to advance accountability for past rights violations and prevent future abuses.
By decreeing that burials now take place on Iranaitivu, instead of in regular cemeteries around the country, the government has replaced one measure targeting grieving Muslim families with another. It has also needlessly linked this issue to a separate matter involving another vulnerable group – the people of the island who have struggled for decades to return to their homes.
President Gotabaya Rajapasaka’s Sinhala nationalist government has since taking office in November 2019 adopted discriminatory policies and practices against the country’s Muslim and Tamil minorities. The authorities have subjected Tamils to bans on memorial events, the destruction of war memorials, and increasing encroachment on Hindu temples.
The Rajapaksa administration has built on earlier harassment and attacks against Muslims. When nationalist mobs attacked Muslims in 2018, hate speech on social and mainstream media spread false rumors that Muslims were conspiring to sterilize Buddhist women, leading to the arrest of a Muslim doctor, and boycotts of Muslim restaurants. Following the ISIS-inspired Easter Sunday bombings in 2019, women wearing Islamic dress were denied access to public buildings. In 2020, during the Covid-19 pandemic, pro-government media accused Muslims of deliberately spreading the virus.
The ratcheting-up of abuses against Sri Lanka’s minorities make it vital that the UN Human Rights Council adopt a strong resolution at its current session. The Sri Lankan government’s cruel, gratuitous, and arbitrary policies won’t end until the rest of the world speaks out.