What is happening in Sri Lanka?

Chanu Peiris reflects on the unfolding political and economic crisis in Sri Lanka and its impact on human rights.

Explainer Video Published 15 July 2022 Updated 18 July 2022 2 minute watch

What is happening in Sri Lanka

Chanu Peiris

Assistant Director, International Law Programme

What is happening in Sri Lanka?

Sri Lanka has been a leader in South Asia on many human development indicators including health and education. Until recently, it was considered an upper middle-income country. Its GDP, when adjusted for purchasing power, was on par with South Africa’s.  

But the country is now experiencing economic collapse. The crisis has its roots in economic mismanagement by multiple governments. This was made worse by global market disruptions and by internal security emergencies including the 2019 Easter bombings.  

What rights are being impacted?   

The current situation is impacting the full range of human rights for people in Sri Lanka. According to the World Food Programme, over a third of people are now facing moderate to severe hunger.

Shortages of other essentials including cooking gas, fuel and lifesaving medicines are disrupting the normal functioning of society and causing loss of life, enormous hardship, mental distress and social unrest.

There are serious concerns about the long-term impacts to the more vulnerable members of Sri Lanka society – including children, whose development due to lack of proper nutrition and disruptions to schools will be affected.  

The global human rights community has called attention to rights violations by the government, which has been seen to be slow to take the necessary steps to rectify the economic situation. It has also used lethal force and social media blackouts in response to protests. 

What are the broader human rights implications? 

The country is seeing the most widespread and diverse mass demonstrations in its history. So far they have led to the resignation of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and the cabinet. They have also resulted in President Gotabaya Rajapaksa leaving the country. 

The scale of the protests signals an important shift in the social contract. The crisis has united people who were previously divided and there are demands for the abolition of the executive presidency.   

It is also significant that people are calling for more than the economic issues to be addressed. They are focusing on the need for systemic changes, including accountability and transparency within a government which has long resisted both.

In other words, what we are seeing is a clear assertion from the streets of the indivisibility of human rights – that access to food, water, and electricity rely on the safeguarding of civil and political rights and proper accountability.

They are making a powerful argument in favour of human rights-sensitive governance – something that has been in short supply around the world.