Sri Lankan law enforcement officials engaged in the violent repression of protests must be held accountable for committing widespread human rights violations, said Amnesty International in a new investigative report released on 10 April.

The report, ‘Ready to Suppress Any Protest’: Sri Lanka – Unlawful Use of Weapons During Protests, analyses the use of force during policing of 30 protests that took place in Sri Lanka between March 2022 and June 2023. Amnesty International’s research shows a pattern in the unlawful use of tear gas and water cannon and the misuse of batons by Sri Lankan law enforcement officials with video evidence revealing that in at least 17 protests – more than half of those analyzed—the conduct of law enforcement officials fell well short of international law and standards on the use of force.

“From the outset, the Sri Lankan police approached the 2022-23 protests assuming that they would be unlawful and violent and that they would need to use force to repress them. The police failed to recognize that people have the right to peacefully protest, and that the authorities have a duty to facilitate and protect protests. Instead, they targeted, chased, and beat largely peaceful protesters,” said Smriti Singh, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for South Asia.

During 2022 and 2023, Sri Lankans called for accountability for the prolonged economic crisis, corruption and human rights violations, in large-scale protests and an occupy movement known as the Aragalaya in Colombo and other cities across Sri Lanka. Amnesty International has documented unlawful use of force against largely peaceful protests that continue to date, including in 2024.

Meanwhile, in the Northern and Eastern provinces of the country, security forces and intelligence agencies regularly carry out surveillance, intimidation, harassment, and obstruction of largely peaceful protests that have continued to take place since 2017 by the relatives of people forcibly disappeared during the internal armed conflict in Sri Lanka.

During its investigation, Amnesty International conducted 39 qualitative interviews and an open-source investigation into 95 verified videos gathered on social media of 30 protests, predominantly from Colombo, Battaramulla, Kelaniya, Jaffna and Galle. In March 2024, Amnesty International wrote to the Sri Lanka Police outlining the allegations in this report and requesting an official response but had not received a reply at the time of publication.

Unlawful use of tear gas, water cannons and batons

The police followed a pattern of using large quantities of tear gas against peaceful or largely peaceful protesters repeatedly in the same area without giving them an adequate opportunity to disperse, and without making any reasonable effort to limit risk of injury. Videos verified by Amnesty International also show the combined use of water cannon and tear gas by police against largely peaceful protestors in 2023 without giving them sufficient time and opportunity to disperse, in breach of international law and standards as well as best practices. This was documented in various protests and most prominently on the peaceful protest of 3 February 2023 in Colombo.

Thilina, a journalist and protester, told Amnesty International that police also used batons against them. He said: “After they used water cannon and tear gas on us, they pursued us and beat us as we were dispersing. I was hit with a baton on my back.”

Police fired tear gas grenades from behind the protesters while the protesters were trying to disperse, in breach of international human rights standards. They also repeatedly failed to take adequate precautionary measures when using tear gas, and fired into areas that had no clear exit such as near schools and on the street. This unnecessarily exposed children and bystanders to the effects of chemical irritants. Amnesty International analysed at least three videos which showed children rubbing their eyes, coughing, and experiencing discomfort.

Upeksha*, a protester, told Amnesty International: “Police used tear gas until people could not breathe. We went into a temple and used the utensils and water to wash the children’s eyes.”

The police used water cannon at close range against peaceful or largely peaceful protesters and in situations where protesters posed no threat to police officers and were attempting to disperse. Police also fired water cannon directly at a media correspondent reporting live from a protest in Colombo in June 2023, despite clear and visible signs of cameras and other media equipment. In the north of the country, police used water cannon against a largely peaceful protest by family members of the disappeared.

Devika*, whose husband was forcibly disappeared 15 years ago after the end of the internal armed conflict, told Amnesty International: “The jet was directed at my face, and I was hit badly in the eye. My eye swelled and I blacked out.”

Lack of investigation and accountability

Despite widespread human rights violations by law enforcement agencies and security forces, not a single police officer or member of the army has been prosecuted or convicted for the unlawful use of force during protests in 2022 and 2023. This lack of accountability exists within the context of a wider culture of impunity, where police and military personnel have rarely been held accountable for human rights violations; it also emboldens law enforcement officials to continue violently suppressing protests.

The Sri Lankan state is responsible under international law to investigate effectively, impartially, and in a timely manner, any allegation or reasonable suspicion of human rights violations by law enforcement officials. If the investigations find sufficient credible evidence, those suspected of criminal responsibility must be brought to justice in fair trials before ordinary civilian courts. This applies to those with responsibility at all levels, including senior officers.

“The brute force approach to policing of protests does not comply with international law and standards and restricts the right to freedom of peaceful assembly in Sri Lanka which is guaranteed under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Sri Lanka is a state party. The authorities must therefore urgently investigate all credible allegations of unlawful use of force by police during the 2022-23 protests as a failure to do so would in itself be a violation of human rights,” said Smriti Singh.

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