By Sheain Fernandopulle
While stating that people affected by Easter attacks still seem traumatised, the visiting UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Ahmed Shaheed said he had received complaints from affected parties that they had not yet received proper compensation.
Addressing a news briefing at the UN office in Thunmulla, Mr. Shaheed said he got the opportunity to visit several victims of Easter Sunday bombings and that he noticed many had not been able to rebuild in the aftermath of the dastardly attacks.
“Under the State of Emergency implemented by the government in response to Easter Sunday attacks, some communities have been affected in their practice and manifestation of religion or belief, while suspicion and distrust among religious communities also increased over time and led to hate speech and violence against the Muslims. Many complained that they faced increasing harassment and victimisation based on their belief. The State does not appear to impede the freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief. The country has a long tradition of embracing religious pluralism. The choice of an individual to have, to adopt or to change one’s religion or belief is guaranteed in law in Sri Lanka and broadly conforms to international standards,” he said.
However, even where the State does not impose specific restrictions on the manifestation of religion or belief, there were frequent reports of acts of intolerance from one religious community to another, along with failure of the State to protect individuals and communities targeted by such hostility. Often, the Muslim communities and new Christian churches in particular faced a range of harassment and assaults.
Meanwhile, the role of social media in fear-mongering through fake news and incitement to violence was noted by many with serious concern.
He said some blamed politicians for influencing law enforcement, citing examples where politicians were allegedly involved in pressuring the police to release persons arrested following violent attacks.
- Says the State should develop mechanisms to monitor and respond to hate speech
“Others blamed a more deep-seated culture of impunity which undermined the rule of law and human rights. Following the Easter attacks, the media have pointed to the fact that Sri Lanka was a victim of the global trend of Islamist extremism. Even within the government, there is little recognition that religious extremism of all sorts might have been an underlying problem in the country. Instead, they referred to ‘sporadic small incidents,’ Many interlocutors with whom I spoke indicated that many were already highly concerned by the influence of extremist views of different religious figures, including the Buddhists, from earlier on. Besides, concern was expressed that some politicians intentionally instrumentalise religions, possibly for political gain, especially during elections,” he said.
Moreover, he recommended that the government prosecute those responsible for violence and incitement to violence, make efforts to dismantle the networks of hate and facilitate access to justice to victims of hate crime.
He said the State should develop systems and mechanisms to monitor and respond to hate speech in conformity with international human rights standards.
“Urgent reforms to the education system must be initiated to foster inclusive identities. International obligations require Sri Lanka to fulfil the right to education in ways that prepare children for responsible life in a free society, in the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality of sexes, and friendship among all people, ethnic and religious groups and persons of indigenous origin,” he said.
He said the State should utilise the Beirut Declaration and its 18 Commitments on Faith for Rights in its activities designed to promote inter-religious dialogue.
“Such discourse must be inclusive with voluntary participation of all communities, bringing together not just religious leaders but religious actors that work to advance peace-building and human rights, including women and members of religious minorities and the non-religious. The social media platforms should invest more in the ability to monitor and respond to incitement to violence while protecting freedom of expression and access to information,” he said.
At the same time, he said some progress had been made in post-conflict issues pertaining to transitional justice, significant gaps exist, particularly with regard to upholding accountability as well as strengthening guarantees of non-recurrence.
- Says the State does not appear to impede the freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief