The United Nations has urged the Sri Lankan government to halt its policy of forced cremations of coronavirus victims, a practice it said went against the beliefs of the country’s Muslims and other minority populations.
Ignoring the World Health Organization’s guidelines – which permit burials and cremations – Sri Lanka made cremation mandatory in March last year for people who die, or are suspected to have died, from the coronavirus.
The UN’s human rights experts said on Monday the policy could “foment existing prejudices, intolerance and violence”.
“The imposition of cremation as the only option for handling the bodies confirmed or suspected of COVID-19 amounts to a human rights violation,” the experts said in a statement.
“There has been no established medical or scientific evidence in Sri Lanka or other countries that burial of dead bodies leads to increased risk of spreading communicable diseases such as COVID-19.”
The UN experts noted that while the government tasked health authorities to explore burial options amid the pandemic, the advice of a panel of experts to include both burial and cremations as options was allegedly ignored.
“We are concerned to learn that the recommendation to include both cremation and burial options for the disposal of bodies of COVID-19 victims by a panel of experts appointed by the State Minister for Primary Health Services, Pandemics and COVID Prevention was reportedly disregarded by the Government,” the experts noted.
“We hope that the report of local burial options by the main committee referred to by the Health Minister will be available soon and that the authorities will stop pursuing a burial solution in a foreign country.”
Amnesty International also called on authorities to “respect the right of religious minorities to carry out the final rites” according to their own traditions.
Fear of discrimination
Moreover, the UN said pursuing the policy of forced cremations would only deter people from seeking healthcare over “fears of discrimination”.
“We are equally concerned that such a policy deters the poor and the most vulnerable from accessing public healthcare over fears of discrimination,” the experts warned.
Several protests were reported across northeastern Sri Lanka last month against the forced cremations, with many tying white ribbons to the gates of a crematorium as a sign of anger.
Many others protested online, claiming that Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was using the pandemic to marginalise Sri Lanka’s minorities, especially Muslims.
Muslims, who account for 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s 21 million population, have had a strained relationship with the majority Sinhala Buddhists, deteriorating in the years after the end of civil war in 2009 during which hardline Buddhist groups were blamed for several attacks against Muslims’ businesses and places of worship.
Following the deadly Easter attacks in April 2019 that killed more than 250 people, Muslims have faced increased hostility from the Sinhala majority.
A little-known Muslim organisation was blamed for the island nation’s worst attack since the civil war fought between the government forces and the Tamil separatist fighters.