Minority community leaders in Sri Lanka have urged the members of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to consider the discrimination faced by minorities on the island nation ahead of a key vote on its human rights record.
The warning comes as the UN’s top rights body prepares to vote on Tuesday on a draft resolution expressing “serious concern” over the “deteriorating” human rights situation in the country.
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Sri Lanka’s government has faced a slew of criticism from rights groups and regional governments over alleged discrimination against its minority Muslim population.
Of the 47 states set to take part in the vote in Geneva, several have Muslim-majority populations, including Pakistan and Bangladesh.
In particular, Sri Lanka’s decision last year to mandate the cremation of all victims of COVID-19 sparked a backlash as international human rights groups and UN rights experts condemned the move.
Muslim groups protested against the decision, which they say prevented them from following the burial traditions of their Islamic faith. Muslims make up about 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s population.
In February, the government ruled that the bodies of those who died from COVID-19 could be buried.
The U-turn was welcomed by the heads of some Muslim nations including Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, who visited Sri Lanka last month.
Jaffna University lecturer Mahendran Thiruvarangan said the Sri Lankan government’s decision to allow burials of the bodies of COVID-19 victims, after nearly a year, showed its “hypocrisy”.
“Muslim member countries of the UNHRC should not fall for this trap,” he said, adding that discrimination against minority groups, and polarisation of the minority community from the country’s majority- Sinhala Buddhists- have intensified since the new regime came into power.
Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa recently engaged in a two-day official tour in Bangladesh (19-20 March) where he met his Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina.
On Sunday, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in a statement said its Secretary-General Dr Yousef A. Al-Othaimeen received a phone call from Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and discussed the ‘situation of the Muslim community and the relations between the OIC and Sri Lanka.
“Al-Othaimeen praised the Sri Lankan President’s phone call and his willingness to open up and reach out to international organizations and welcomed the decision of the Government of Sri Lanka on the right of Muslims to bury their dead in accordance with the Islamic rites,” it further stated.
Hilmy Ahamed, vice president of Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, said that the Sri Lankan government’s attempts to lobby to get support from the Muslim nations ahead of the UNHRC voting tomorrow could be successful.
“After all traditionally Islamic nations themselves are the biggest violators of human rights in the world,” he said.
Burqa ban a ‘proposal’
The government has also faced criticism from regional allies and Muslim groups after Public Security Minister Rear Admiral Dr. Sarath Weerasekara said earlier this month he signed a cabinet paper approving the banning of the burqa. He also said the government would “definitely” ban the item of clothing, which covers the body and the face and is worn by some Muslim women.
Shortly afterwards the country’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying the call to ban the burqa was a “proposal”, that was based on the “precautionary measures” to ensure “national security”, after investigations of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) on Easter Sunday attacks, and that the government would take time to consider the proposal.
Minister Weerasekara told Al Jazeera that he put forward the proposal for “national security” and that the proposal was to ban all facial coverings.
“If people say that the minority groups are discriminated that is all false. Everyone- the Sinhalese Tamils and the Muslims- are living like brothers and sisters. About 52 per cent of the Tamils are living amongst the Sinhalese. Where is the discrimination here?”
“A Muslim or a Tamil can buy land anywhere and start a business but on the other hand a Sinhalese can’t go to Jaffna and settle there. So there is a sense of discrimination against the majority,” he said adding that most of the allegations of discrimination levelled against the government were “made up stories”.
The passage of a UN resolution could open the door for prosecutions of military and government figures over their roles in ending a 37-year separatist war that ended in 2009.
In January, UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet called for the International Criminal Court to investigate the conflict and urged sanctions against top generals and others accused of war crimes.
Bachelet accused Sri Lanka of reneging on promises to ensure justice for thousands of civilians killed in the final stages of the war.