Civil Liberties at Risk in Sri Lanka

Two years after the people of Sri Lanka protested for democratic reforms, the Sri Lankan government has yet to bestow it to them. With the newly proposed laws that curtail fundamental rights and the rule of law, it appears that Sri Lanka is far from adhering to its international obligations.

Civil Liberties at Risk in Sri Lanka
Supermarket in Sri Lanka. © Eddy Billard, January 24, 2019, via Unsplash


Dara Masita

Human Rights Researcher 

Global Human Rights Defence

In 2022, a sea of Sri Lankans surged forward in solidarity, rallying for the Aragalaya movement. The Aragalaya, which means “struggle” in Sinhala, was aimed at forcing the Rajapaksa family out of office, demanding democratic reforms, and holding them accountable for the economic mismanagement of the nation. The diverse pool of Sri Lankan citizens was finally united to protest against the government after power cuts and rising prices, the decrease in fuel, food, and medicine.

Fast-forward to today, the government is led by Ranil Wickremesinghe, and they are still far away from the expected reforms. Instead, the new government has been adopting or proposing laws that undermine fundamental rights and the rule of law. For example, the Anti-Terrorism Act being proposed has faced criticism from the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights. This Act defines terrorism very broadly, allowing authorities to target a broad range of actors, thus increasing the possibility of arbitrary arrests and detentions. The inclusion of speech-related offences are also included which repress the freedom of expression.

Another bill that is meant to suppress the freedom of expression is the Online Safety Bill where authorities can monitor social media activities to spot “false statements” and criminalise the authors. Other bills that restrict fundamental rights include the Electronic Media Broadcasting Bill and the Non-Governmental Organizations Supervision and Registration Bill.

These proposed laws showcase how Sri Lanka falls short of its international human rights obligations. As a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Sri Lanka is in breach of Article 19 (freedom of expression), Article 21 (Freedom of Assembly), and Article 22 (Freedom of Association). The international community represented by the “core group” in the UN Human Rights Council are concerned with “legislative developments regarding human rights, reconciliation and civic space.”

In addition to the controversial bills, the government fails to improve the standard of living for Sri Lankans as 17% of its population suffers from food insecurity. While education and healthcare become more inaccessible. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights encourages international financial institutions to give Sri Lanka fiscal space in order to protect economic and social rights. 

The situation in Sri Lanka is bleak. With a history of corruption, financial incompetence, and undercutting of the rule of law, Sri Lanka will not change overnight. The international community should continue to pressure Sri Lanka to satisfy the international obligations they signed up for.

Sources and further readings:

  1. Human Rights Watch, ‘Sri Lanka Events of 2023’ (HRW, 2023) <,of%20public%20access%20to%20social> accessed 11 March 2024.
  2. Lucy McKernan, ‘Sri Lankan Laws Threaten Democracy, Warns UN Rights Chief’ (HRW, 2024) accessed 11 March 2024.
  3. Naila Rafique, ‘Beyond the Protests: Sri Lanka’s Aragalaya Movement and the Uncertain Future’ (Freedom House, 2023) <> accessed 11 March 2024.
  4. Amnesty International, ‘Sri Lanka 2022’ (Amnesty International, 2024) <> accessed 11 March 2024.