The International Human Rights Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
Sri Lanka is a State Party to the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 21 governs the right of peaceful assembly, providing that:
The right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
Sri Lanka is also a party to the First Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, which allows individuals to petition the Human Rights Committee if they believe the State has violated their human rights as protected under the Covenant.
There is not yet a regional human rights treaty to which South-East Asian nations can adhere, although a non-binding human rights declaration was issued by the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2013. Paragraph 24 of the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration provides that: "Every person has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly." Sri Lanka is seeking closer links to ASEAN.
The Domestic Legal Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
Under Article 14(1)(b) of the 1978 Constitution of Sri Lanka (as amended through 2015), every citizen is entitled to the freedom of peaceful assembly.
Under Section 138 of the 1883 Penal Code, an assembly of five or more persons is an unlawful assembly if it has a common object to contravene domestic law. Participation in such an assembly is punishable by imprisonment as is obstructing a police officer seeking to disperse such an assembly.
The Legal Framework on Use of Force During Assemblies
The Use of Force
International Legal Rules
Under international law, the duty on the State and its law enforcement agencies is to facilitate the enjoyment of the right of peaceful assembly. According to the 1990 United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials:
In the dispersal of assemblies that are unlawful but non-violent, law enforcement officials shall avoid the use of force or, where that is not practicable, shall restrict such force to the minimum extent necessary.
All force used by police and other law enforcement agencies must be necessary for a legitimate law enforcement purpose and proportionate to that purpose.
There is no comprehensive national legislation that governs use of force by law enforcement agencies and officers, and that which does exist is woefully out of date.
The Use of Firearms
International Legal Rules
According to the 1990 United Nations Basic Principles, in the dispersal of violent assemblies, a law enforcement official may only use a firearm against a specific individual where this is necessary to confront an imminent threat of death or serious injury or a grave and proximate threat to life.
There is no national legislation regulating police use of firearms during assemblies.
State Compliance with its Legal Obligations
Views and Concluding Observations of United Nations Treaty Bodies
In its 2014 Concluding Observations on Sri Lanka, the Human Rights Committee expressed its concern
at the disproportional and discriminatory restrictions on freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association against the Tamil minority, particularly in the north of the State party, including restrictions of religious and/or civil ceremonies commemorating the loss of loved ones during the armed conflict....
The Committee called on the authorities to
take measures to ensure the protection of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association of all individual and groups, including the Tamil minority, in accordance with articles 21 and 22 of the Covenant.
In its 2020 List of Issues for the authorities in relation to the ICCPR, the Human Rights Committee asked for a response to
reports of interference with the exercise of freedom of peaceful assembly, including intimidation of families and activists against organizing and participating in memorial ceremonies for persons who have disappeared, the allegedly biased and routine use of court injunctions to prevent assemblies, and disproportionate force against protesters, including the use of water cannon and tear gas.
Views of Civil Society
According to Freedom House's 2019 report on Sri Lanka:
Although demonstrations occur regularly, authorities sometimes restrict freedom of assembly. Police occasionally use tear gas and water cannons to disperse protesters. The army has continued to impose some restrictions on assembly in the north and east, particularly for planned memorial events concerning the final battles of the long-running civil war, in which thousands of civilians were killed alongside Tamil rebels and their leaders.