UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Ahmed Shaheed has called on the government of Sri Lanka to take action against hate propaganda targeting Muslim communities, spread through unregulated media and is instigating ethno-religious tension for political gain.

The UN official, who was in Sri Lanka on a 12 day mission from 15 August 2019, held a press conference in Colombo yesterday (26) to brief the media on his findings.

The Special Rapporteur is to present a report containing his conclusions and recommendations to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in March 2020.

“Failure by the State to take action to address incitement to hatred and violence will allow extremism to escalate and pose serious challenges to peace-building. The ethno-religious tension must not be treated as mere sporadic incidents; the underlying unease and hostility existed long before the Easter attacks and subsequent violence,” Shaheed said.

“I call on the Government and all others to create an enabling environment for the exercise of fundamental freedoms, in the lead-up to elections and not to use ethno-religious tensions for electoral gain,” Shaheed noted.

He continued, “There is a serious deficit of trust among ethno-religious communities in Sri Lanka following the deadly Easter Sunday bomb blasts and subsequent mob violence this year, and these tensions must not be ignored.”

“While the Government promptly brought the situation more or less under control after the bomb blasts, many religious communities remain very concerned about their security because of incitement to hatred and violence by some religious extremists.”

Shaheed observed that the long-standing traditions of religious harmony and co-existence in Sri Lanka, as well as tolerance and sustainable peace were at risk from religious and political violence, lack of accountability, distrust of institutions and resentment against perceived majoritarian privilege.

“It is time for Sri Lanka to vigorously adopt measures to protect the rights of all people and to hold perpetrators accountable, regardless of their ethno-religious background,” he said.

“Women’s experiences of ethno-religious hostility including violence, displacement and stereotyping must also be effectively addressed.”

“There is a need for sustainable inter-communal and inter-religious dialogue for trust and peace building as well as reconciliation. Space must be provided for moderate voices, for concerns to be flagged and for grievances to be addressed,” the UN official noted.

“I have seen encouraging initiatives by different State institutions, civil society organisations and religious leaders on the issues of reconciliation and promotion of peaceful coexistence.” he said.

“However, freedom of religion or belief is not about religious tolerance alone, it is about the right of each individual to be treated equally in their choice to believe or not to believe, and whether to manifest it in private or in public.”

The UN expert said resilience against religious extremism could be built by a range of measures including strengthening the rule of law, addressing root causes, improving education for all and protecting religious diversity.

During his mission, Shaheed met government officials and local authorities. He visited the north, east, central and northwest parts of the country and also held meetings with representatives of ethnic and religious or belief communities, civil society organisations, and the UN.