Sri Lanka is a constitutional, multiparty democratic republic with a freely elected government. Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected president on November 16. Accredited domestic and international observers described the election as peaceful and technically well managed but noted that unregulated campaign spending, abuse of state resources, and media bias affected the level playing field. Following the results of the presidential election, the prime minister and cabinet peacefully resigned, and a new cabinet was sworn in on November 22. The timeline for parliamentary elections in 2020 was pending at year’s end.
The Sri Lanka Police are responsible for maintaining internal security and are under the Ministry of Defense. The military, also under the Ministry of Defense, may be called upon to handle specifically delineated domestic security responsibilities, but generally without arrest authority. The nearly 11,000-member paramilitary Special Task Force, a police entity that reports to the Inspector General of Police, coordinates internal security operations with the military. Civilian authorities generally maintained control over the security forces.
On April 21, suicide bombs killed 258 individuals. The attacks were the responsibility of the National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ), members of which had sworn allegiance to the Islamic State. The following day the government declared an emergency under the Public Security Ordinance, deployed the armed forces domestically, and gave them arrest authority. During the emergency the government banned three Islamist organizations: the NTJ, Jamathe Millathe Ibrahim, and Vilayath As Seylani. The three Islamist groups remained banned after the emergency expired on August 22. President Maithripala Sirisena subsequently ordered the military to remain deployed across the country after the expiration of the emergency, although no longer with arrest authority. President Rajapaksa in turn extended the order on November 22.
Significant human rights issues included: unlawful killings by the government; torture by government agents; sexual abuse; arbitrary detention by government entities; restrictions on freedom of expression, including unjustified arrests of journalists and authors, and limited social media blocking; widespread corruption; violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons, and the criminalization of same-sex sexual conduct.
Often police reportedly harassed civilians, often with impunity, although the government took steps to investigate and prosecute some officials who committed human rights abuses. The government did not implement a mechanism to hold accountable military and security personnel accused of atrocities during the 1983 to 2009 civil war as called for in 2015 by UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) Resolution 30/1.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression, including for the press. According to UN and civil society reports, intelligence operatives conducted domestic surveillance operations and harassed or intimidated members of civil society. During the emergency, following the April 21 attacks, the government banned face coverings such as the burqa, niqab, and full-face helmets, citing national security and public safety concerns. The ban on face coverings was briefly lifted when the emergency regulation lapsed; however, in late August, the cabinet passed legislation permanently banning the burqa, the niqab, and similar face coverings, after consultation with the Muslim community.
Freedom of Expression: Authorities restricted hate speech, including insult to religion or religious beliefs through the police ordinance and penal code. The government requested media stations and outlets to refrain from featuring hate speech in their news items and segments.
In April Kurunegala police arrested Shakthika Sathkumara, a 33-year-old novelist, under the ICCPR law. His short story, “Ardha,” which reportedly dealt with homosexuality and child sexual abuse in a Buddhist monastery, angered members of the country’s Buddhist clergy. He was released on bail in August after being remanded for four months. On July 29, Amnesty International declared Sathkumara a prisoner of conscience. At his criminal hearing on December 10, the court granted the government’s request for a continuance in the case until May 2020. His fundamental rights petition challenging the constitutionality of his arrest was continued until June 2020.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. Journalists in the Tamil-majority North and East, however, reported harassment, intimidation, and interference from the security sector when reporting on sensitive issues related to the civil war or its aftermath. They reported the military contacted them to request copies of photographs, lists of attendees at events, and names of sources from articles. They also reported the military directly requested that journalists refrain from reporting on sensitive events, such as Tamil war memorials or land occupation protests, and that they feared repercussions if they did not cooperate.
In May, after communal violence following the Easter Sunday attacks of April 21, the HRCSL issued guidelines that called for all electronic media institutions to exercise sensitivity when broadcasting news due to concerns over the Muslim community being unreasonably subject to unsubstantiated suspicion and disrespect.
On September 9, then president Sirisena brought the state television Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation under the purview of the Ministry of Defense. The Working Journalists Association of Sri Lanka and the Free Media Movement strongly condemned the decision. Two fundamental rights petitions, one filed by a civil society activist and one filed by a member of parliament, were pending before the Supreme Court.
Violence and Harassment: There were reports of harassment and intimidation of journalists when covering sensitive issues.
On April 20, police arrested and released on bail Shanmugam Thavaseelan, a correspondent of the English-language online newspaper the Tamil Guardian, following a complaint filed by the navy stating the journalist, who was covering a disappearances protest, assaulted and caused injury to a navy officer attached to the ‘Gotabaya’ Camp in Mullaitivu. Charges reportedly were that he had threatened and photographed protesters at an earlier disappearances rally.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF), in a June statement, expressed alarm over a resurgence in police attacks on Tamil journalists and urged authorities to ensure that police cease the harassment of reporters. On May 27, Tamil daily Virakesari journalist Kanapathipillai Kumanan, who was covering a dispute between Hindu and Buddhist temples, was physically assaulted and verbally abused by the officer in charge of the Kokkilai police station. According to RSF, the May 27 violence against the reporter was the third reported attack on a journalist of Tamil origin during the year.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: On several occasions print and electronic media journalists noted they self-censored stories that criticized the president or his family. These journalists said they had received direct calls from supporters of the government asking them to refrain from reporting anything that reflected negatively on the ruling party or opposition politicians.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association. The government restricted these rights in a limited number of cases.
At the conclusion of his visit to the country in July, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Freedom of Association and Peaceful Assembly Clement Nyaletsossi Voule observed that authorities applied laws in discriminatory ways, with Tamil protests and gatherings in the North and East disproportionately facing crackdowns. Although he noted that the country had a comprehensive legal framework governing the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, it was “scattered in different sets of laws and regulations which seem to be interchangeably enforced.”
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons (IDPs), refugees, returning refugees, stateless persons, or other persons of concern.
f. Protection of Refugees
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to IDPs, refugees, returning refugees, and asylum seekers.
After the April 21 attacks, more than 1,600 Muslim and Christian refugees were forced to leave their homes in the wake of retaliatory attacks and seek protection in three welfare centers in Negombo and Pasyala. Local community members threatened to destroy the houses of Pakistani, Afghan, and Iranian refugees. The government, police, and security forces assisted UNHCR to ensure the protection of refugees. In the months following the April 21 attacks, most refugees who were not resettled outside of the country had returned to their rented residences.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status. A 2005 Memorandum of Understanding allows UNHCR to operate in the country to conduct refugee registration and status determinations. UNHCR also facilitates durable solutions for refugees, in the form of resettlement to third countries. The government relied on UNHCR to provide food, housing, and education for refugees in the country and to pursue third-country resettlement for them. Asylum seekers, on the other hand, had to rely on the support of NGOs for basic needs.
Access to Basic Services: The law does not permit refugees and asylum seekers to work or enroll in the government school system, but many worked informally. Refugees and asylum seekers registered with UNHCR have access to free health care in state hospitals.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The constitution provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively, and officials often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. There were numerous reports of government corruption during the year.
Corruption: Corruption remained a significant and continuing problem. International companies frequently reported requests for bribes on issues ranging from customs clearances to government procurement. As of November the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption arrested 42 individuals on suspicion of providing and accepting bribes during the course of the year.
Financial Disclosure: The law requires all candidates for parliamentary, local government, provincial, and presidential elections to declare their assets and liabilities to the speaker of parliament. Some but not all candidates in parliamentary elections submitted their financial reports to the speaker, but authorities did not enforce compliance. By law members of the public may access records relating to the assets and liabilities of elected officials by paying a fee.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
A number of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials somewhat were cooperative and responsive to their views.
The United Nations and Other International Bodies: UNHRC continued to have a country-specific resolution related to addressing justice, accountability, and reconciliation in the country. In March UNHRC adopted a resolution granting two additional years to the country to fulfil its commitments to reconciliation and transitional justice.
At the 42nd session of UNHRC in September, the core group expressed concern that the country had made “slow” progress on accountability, calling on UNHRC and the international community “to give the necessary attention and support to Sri Lanka.” Despite the country’s cosponsorship of the 2015, 2017, and 2019 resolutions, senior government officials continued to make public statements attacking the UN process and asserting they would not take any steps to hold “war heroes” accountable, despite their commitment to initiate a criminal justice process, with international participation, to address war-time abuses.
On September 25, the UN Department of Peace Operations banned deployment of nonessential Sri Lankan army troops in UN peacekeeping missions in response to the appointment of Shavendra Silva as army commander. The United Nations also decided to repatriate Sri Lankan Army units and individual officers serving with peacekeeping missions beginning in October. It suspended future Sri Lankan army deployments except where suspension would expose UN operations to serious operational risk. Nonetheless, on November 13, a new contingent of 243 army personnel of the Combat Convoy Company were deployed to Mali to serve in the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The HRCSL has jurisdiction to investigate human rights violations. The HRCSL consists of five commissioners and has divisions for investigations, education, monitoring and review, and administration and finance. There are 10 regional offices across the country. The HRCSL accepts complaints from the public and may also self-initiate investigations. After an allegation is proven to the satisfaction of the commission, the HRCSL may recommend financial compensation for victims, refer the case for administrative disciplinary action or to the attorney general for prosecution, or both. If the government does not follow an HRCSL request for evidence, the HRCSL may summon witnesses from the government to explain its action. If the HRCSL finds the government has not complied with its request, the HRCSL may refer the case to the High Court for prosecution for contempt by the Attorney General’s Department, an offense punishable by imprisonment or fine. By statute the HRCSL has wide powers and resources and may not be called as a witness in any court of law or be sued for matters relating to its official duties. The HRCSL generally operated independent of and with lack of interference from the government.
The HRCSL was also responsible for vetting of the country’s peacekeepers. The memorandum of understanding between the United Nations, HRCSL, Ministry of Defense, and Ministry of Law and Order for the vetting of military and police participants in peacekeeping operations was finalized in December 2018. As of August 2019, the vetting process was carried out by the HRCSL.
In April the government appointed five commissioners to the Office for Reparations, an independent authority created by the Office for Reparations Act passed in October 2018. The office is mandated to identify aggrieved victims qualified for reparations and provide appropriate compensation individually or collectively.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law provides for the right of workers to form and join unions of their choice. Exceptions include members of the armed forces, police officers, judicial officers, and prison officers. Workers in nonessential services industries, except for workers in public-service unions, have the legal right to bargain collectively. The law does not explicitly recognize the right to strike, but courts have recognized an implied right to strike based on the Trade Unions Ordinance and the Industrial Disputes Act. Nonunion worker councils tended to represent labor in export processing zone (EPZ) enterprises, although several unions operated in the zones. According to the Board of Investment, which operates the EPZs, if both a recognized trade union with bargaining power and a nonunion worker council exist in an enterprise, the trade union would have the power to represent the employees in collective bargaining.
Under Emergency Regulations of the Public Security Ordinance, the president has broad discretion to declare sectors “essential” to national security, the life of the community, or the preservation of public order and to revoke those workers’ rights to conduct legal strikes. In addition to the Public Security Ordinance, the Essential Public Services Act of 1979 allows the president to declare services provided by government agencies as “essential” public services. In 2018 and also during the year, the government used the essential public-services act to declare the Sri Lankan Railway and petroleum sector as essential sectors in attempts to force striking union members back to work.
The law prohibits retribution against striking workers in nonessential sectors. Seven workers may form a union, adopt a charter, elect leaders, and publicize their views, but a union must represent 40 percent of workers at a given enterprise before the law obligates the employer to bargain with the union. The law does not permit public-sector unions to form federations or represent workers from more than one branch or department of government. The Labor Ministry may cancel a union’s registration if it fails to submit an annual report for three years.
The law prohibits antiunion discrimination. Labor laws do not cover domestic workers employed in the homes of others or informal-sector workers.
The law allows unions to conduct their activities without interference, but the government enforced the law unevenly. Violations for antiunion discrimination may result in a fine of 100,000 Rs ($578). The law requires an employer found guilty of antiunion discrimination to reinstate workers fired for union activities, but it may transfer them to different locations. In general these penalties were insufficient to deter violations. Only the Labor Ministry has legal standing to pursue an unfair labor practice case, including for antiunion discrimination.
Since 1999 the Labor Ministry has filed 14 cases against companies for unfair labor practices under the Industrial Disputes Act. The ministry did not file any new unfair labor practices cases during the year. The courts issued rulings on four cases and continued to try the other five; three cases have not been filed due to inadequate evidence. Citing routine government inaction on alleged violations of labor rights, some unions pressed for standing to sue, while some smaller unions did not want that ability because of the cost of filing cases. Workers brought some labor violations to court under the Termination of Employment and Workmen Act and the Payment of Gratuity Act. Lengthy delays hindered judicial procedures. The Industrial Dispute Act does not apply to the public sector, and public-sector unions had no formal dispute resolution mechanism.
The government generally respected the freedom of association and the right to bargain collectively. Public-sector unions staged numerous work stoppages on a number of issues, ranging from government moves to privatize state-owned enterprises to wage issues.
While some unions in the public sector were politically independent, most large unions affiliated with political parties and played a prominent role in the political process.
Unions alleged that employers often indefinitely delayed recognition of unions to avoid collective bargaining, decrease support for unionization, or identify, terminate, and sometimes assault or threaten union activists. The Ministry of Labor requires labor commissioners to hold union certification elections within 30 working days of an application for registration if there was no objection or within 45 working days if there was an objection. The commissioner general of labor held five union certification elections in 2017. No union certification elections were held in 2018 and from January to September 2019.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits all forms of forced and compulsory labor, but penalties were insufficient to deter violations. The government did not effectively enforce the laws due to inadequate resources, inspections, and remediation efforts, as well as a lack of identification of forced labor cases. Labor Ministry inspections did not extend to domestic workers. The government sporadically prosecuted labor agents who fraudulently recruited migrant workers yet appeared to sustain its monthly meetings to improve interministerial coordination.
Children between the ages of 14 and 18 and women working as live-in domestic workers in some homes were vulnerable to forced labor (see section 7.c.).
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The minimum age for employment is 14, although the law permits the employment of younger children by their parents or guardians in limited family agricultural work or technical training. The government increased the compulsory age of education from 14 years to 16 years in 2016. The law prohibits hazardous work for persons younger than 18. The law limits the working hours of children ages 14 and 15 to nine hours per day and of ages 16 and 17 to 10 hours per day. The government estimated less than 1 percent of children–approximately 40,000–were working, although employment was often in hazardous occupations. The government currently classifies 51 activities as hazardous.
The government did not effectively enforce all laws, and existing penalties were not sufficient to deter violations.
The Labor Ministry made some progress in implementing its plan to eliminate the worst forms of child labor. The government appointed district coordinators with responsibility of reducing child labor in all 25 districts and provided new guidelines for district officials. The Department of Labor continued its efforts to monitor workplaces on the list of hazardous work for children.
According to the Child Activity Survey of 2016 published in February, children worked in the construction, manufacturing, mining, and fishing industries and as cleaners and helpers, domestic workers, and street vendors. Children also worked in agriculture during harvest periods. Children displaced by the war were especially vulnerable to employment in hazardous labor.
The list of hazardous work prohibited for children younger than 18 does not include domestic labor. This left children employed as child domestic workers vulnerable to physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Family enterprises, such as family farms, crafts, small trade establishments, restaurants, and repair shops, commonly employed children. Criminals reportedly exploited children, especially boys, for prostitution in coastal areas catering to sex tourists (see section 6, Children).
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
The constitution prohibits discrimination, including with respect to employment and occupation, on the basis of race, religion, language, caste, sex, political opinion, or place of birth. The law does not prohibit employment or occupational discrimination on the basis of color, sexual orientation or gender identity, age, HIV-positive status, or status with regard to other communicable diseases. The government has proposed reforms to existing labor legislation that would more explicitly prohibit discrimination based on gender and other categories. Women have a wide range of workforce restrictions, including caps on overtime work and limits on nighttime shifts.
The government did not always effectively enforce these laws, and discrimination based on the above categories occurred with respect to employment and occupation. For example, some employers specified particular positions as requiring male or female applicants, and women often earned less than men for equal work.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The parliament passed its first-ever national minimum wage law in 2015 and the government issued a Gazette notice on October 18, increasing the minimum monthly wage for private-sector workers by 25 percent. The changes increase the minimum wage increase from Rs 10,000 ($54.90 per month or $1.83 per day) to Rs 12,500 ($68.30 per month or $2.27 per day). The Department of Labor’s 44 wage boards continued to set minimum wages and working conditions by sector and industry in consultation with unions and employers. On September 24, the Cabinet of Ministers approved salary increases for all government employees effective January 1, 2020. The minimum private-sector and public-sector wages are well above the government’s official poverty line, which was Rs 4,166 ($22.98) in 2016.
The law prohibits most full-time workers from regularly working more than 45 hours per week (a five-and-a-half-day workweek). In addition, the law stipulates a rest period of one hour per day. Regulations limit the maximum overtime hours to 15 per week. Overtime pay is 1.5 times the basic wage and is paid for work beyond 45 hours per week and work on Sundays or holidays. The provision limiting basic work hours is not applicable to managers and executives in public institutions. The law provides for paid annual holidays.
The government sets occupational health and safety standards. Workers have the right to remove themselves from dangerous situations, but many workers had no knowledge of such rights or feared that they would lose their jobs if they did so.
Authorities did not effectively enforce minimum wage, hours of work, and occupational safety and health standards in all sectors. The Labor Ministry’s resources, inspections, and remediation efforts were insufficient. The number of labor inspectors was insufficient for the size of the country’s workforce. Occupational health and safety standards in the rapidly growing construction sector, including on infrastructure development projects, such as port, airport, and road construction, as well as high-rise buildings, were insufficient. Employers, particularly those in the construction industry, increasingly used contract employment for work of a regular nature, and contract workers had fewer safeguards.
Labor Ministry inspectors verified whether employers fully paid employees and contributed to pension funds as required by law. Unions questioned, however, whether the ministry’s inspections were effective. The Labor Department used a computerized Labor Information System Application designed to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of inspections, but officials and trade unions noted concerns that the system was not well maintained.
Enforcement of labor laws and basic work conditions was also insufficient. Under the Shop and Office Act, the penalties for violating hours of work laws are a fine of 500 Rs ($2.89), six months’ imprisonment, or both. The law charges a fine of 50 Rs ($0.29) per day if the offense continues after conviction. These penalties were insufficient to deter violations. Labor inspectors did not monitor wages or working conditions or provide programs or social protections for informal sector workers. In September amendments to the factories ordinance and the wages board ordinance increased fines for nonpayment of salaries to workers under the purview of the wages board between Rs.5,000 ($27) to Rs.10,000 ($55), along with an imprisonment not exceeding one year.