Sri Lanka

Last updated: 5 May 2024

Update

On January 10, 2024, Sri Lanka’s parliament presented the Anti-Terrorism Bill (ATB) as a replacement for the existing Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). However, critics argue that the new ATB is more repressive than the PTA it aims to replace. In response to criticism, several petitions challenging the constitutionality of the ATB were filed before the Supreme Court. After review, on February 20, 2024, the Supreme Court ruled that certain clauses of the ATB were inconsistent with the Sri Lankan Constitution and that the ATB can be enacted into law only if amendments to those clauses are made. It remains uncertain to what extent the Sri Lankan Parliament will amend the ATB in accordance with the Supreme Court determination.

In addition, significant controversy has continued to surround the Online Safety Act (OSA). Despite initial opposition and concerns raised by rights groups regarding its potential infringement on freedom of expression, the OSA was enacted by Sri Lanka’s Parliament in January 2024. However, the rushed manner of its enactment and doubts about its constitutionality prompted several legal challenges. The Supreme Court highlighted the need for amendments to ensure the OSA complies with constitutional standards. The Court’s recommendations for necessary changes were not fully integrated into the enacted version of the OSA, however, resulting in further concerns about the OSA’s constitutional legitimacy.

For additional details on the ATB and OSA, please see the Pending NGO Legislatives/Regulatory Initiatives section below in this report.

Introduction

Civil society plays an active role in Sri Lanka and is firmly rooted in the cultural traditions of Sri Lankan society. Historically, the country has a rich tradition of community-based organizations, religious groups, and social movements that have advocated for social justice and equality. The earliest civil society organizations (CSOs) were community-based, self-funded, organized around community priority issues, and spread across the island. Key civil society priorities included the promotion of education and culture, poverty alleviation, and assistance to the elderly and disabled, among others. Over time, the nature and scope of these organizations have evolved to address various challenges, such as the youth insurrections, the civil war, and the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, among others.

Sri Lanka’s legal system is rooted in English common law and Roman-Dutch civil law. The government has been generally distrustful of civil society, especially those organizations working on issues considered a threat to the state – issues including but not limited to human rights, governance, gender justice, land rights, peace and reconciliation, and media freedom.

Sri Lankan civil society has been operating in a restrictive environment for several decades. Successive governments have used a combination of legislative, judicial, and extra-legal methods to varying degrees to constrain civil society. Moreover, the government has often threatened to introduce new legislation to restrict CSOs. For example, the Anti-Terrorism Bill, issued in March 2023 and gazetted half a year later, would, if enacted, introduce restrictions that violate international law.

Despite these challenges, civil society in Sri Lanka remains committed to promoting democracy, human rights, and social justice and has played a significant role in advocating for political reforms, supporting victims of human rights abuses, and promoting social and economic development.

This Civic Freedom Monitor (CFM) country note was made possible through the research conducted by Sabra Zahid, Attorney-at-Law in Sri Lanka.

Organizational Forms
Companies
Societies
Trusts
Registration Body
Companies Act Societies Ordinance Trust Ordinance
Approximate Number
Over 37,000 registered NGOs operating across the country. Same Same
Barriers to Entry
No Significant barriers. Section 5 of the Societies Ordinance stipulates that at least seven people sign a Memorandum of Association to register a society and that they have a prescribed capital of 10,000 Sri Lankan Rupees (32 USD). No Significant barriers.
Barriers to Operations/Activities
The Voluntary Social Services Organization (VSSO) Act allows for direct state intervention in the affairs of organizations registered under the Act. The Act is also loosely drafted, and the state has taken advantage of gaps in the law to impose constraints on CSOs through regulations and circulars that go beyond the scope of the law.

CSOs from war-affected parts of Sri Lanka as well as organizations working on human rights, peace and reconciliation, and media freedom constantly face harassment and intimidation.

Same Same
Barriers to Speech and/or Advocacy
The state generally does welcome criticism and has used legal and other measures against critics. Non-legal measures include harassment, intimidation, and violence against individuals and organizations that are critical of the state.

In addition, the government has used various laws and regulations, such as the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the ICCPR Act, the Police Ordinance, the Computer Crimes Act, and provisions of the Penal Code, against critics.

Journalists critical of the government are frequently harassed, threatened, and interrogated by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and have been arrested under various laws.

The government has blocked access to social media platforms and messaging apps.

Same Same
Barriers to International Contact
Civil society actors have faced harassment and intimidation for engaging with international human rights mechanisms. Same Same
Barriers to Resources
Under the Foreign Exchange Act, organizations that receive foreign funding must deposit the funds in a designated bank account and report the transactions to the Central Bank of Sri Lanka. Same Same
Barriers to Assembly
The language used in laws and regulations concerning assembly can be complex and technical, which may make it difficult for the average citizen to understand the scope and implications of these regulations, and they contain vague provisions that allow for excessive government discretion.

The Police Security Ordinance (Section 77) requires providing written notice to the area police six hours prior to the commencement of a protest in any public place. The failure to notify results in penalties, with procession organizers and participants fined up to 1000 Rupees or imprisoned for three years. This notification requirement has, however, been misconstrued as a process for permission, and authorities have disrupted protests on the grounds that protests have not received the necessary authorization.

Under Section 78 of the Police Security Ordinance, the police are empowered to regulate and direct the conduct of all assemblies and processions in any public place and can prescribe the routes and times at which processions can pass and can disperse crowds of 12 or more persons when they anticipate a breach of peace.

Section 16 of the Public Security Ordinance has been used to declare curfews and prevent public gatherings without prior approval.

The state has a history of using unnecessary and disproportionate force to break up assemblies.

Same Same
Population
23,326,272 (2023 est.)
Capital
Colombo
Type of Government
Presidential republic
Life Expectancy at Birth
Total population: 78.24 years; male 74.83 years; female 81.78 years (2023 est.)
Literacy Rate
Total population: 92.3% male; 93% female: 91.6% (2019)
Religious Groups
Buddhist (official) 70.2%, Hindu 12.6%, Muslim 9.7%, Roman Catholic 6.1%, other Christian 1.3%, other 0.05% (2012 est.)
Ethnic Groups
Sinhalese 74.9%, Sri Lankan Tamil 11.2%, Sri Lankan Moors 9.2%, Indian Tamil 4.2%, other 0.5% (2012 est.)
GDP per capita
$13,400 (2021 est.)

Source: CIA World Factbook

Ranking Body
Rank
Ranking Scale
(best – worst)
UN Human Development Index
72 (2022) 1 – 189
World Justice Project Rule of Law Index
77 (2023) 1 – 140
Foreign Policy: Fragile States Index
30 (2023) 179 – 0
Transparency International
115 (2023) 1 – 180
Freedom House: Freedom in the World
Status: Partly Free
Political Rights: 23
Civil Liberties: 31 (2023)
Free/Partly Free/Not Free
1 – 40
1 – 60

International and Regional Human Rights Agreements

Key International Agreements
Ratification*
Year
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)
Yes 1980
Optional Protocol to ICCPR (ICCPR-OP1)
No
International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)
Yes 1980
Optional Protocol to ICESCR (OP-ICESCR)
No
International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD)
Yes 1982
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)
Yes 1981
Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women
Yes 2002
Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)
Yes 1991
International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families (ICRMW)
Yes 1996
Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)
Yes 2016
Regional Treaties
SAARC Preferential Trading Arrangement (SAPTA)
Yes 1993

* Category includes ratification, accession, or succession to the treaty

Constitutional Framework

The Sri Lankan Constitution, adopted in 1978, guarantees the freedom of association, expression, and assembly, among other fundamental rights. However, these are not absolute rights and may be restricted in the interest of national security, public order, morality, racial and religious harmony, and in the due recognition and respect for the rights and freedom of others.

Article 14: Freedom of speech, assembly, association, movement, etc.

  1. (1) Every citizen is entitled to –

(a) the freedom of speech and expression including publication;

(b) the freedom of peaceful assembly;

(c) the freedom of association;

(d) the freedom to form and join a trade union,

Restrictions on these rights are provided in Article 15:

Article 15(2) The exercise and operation of the fundamental right declared and recognized by Article 14(1)(a) shall be subject to such restrictions as may be prescribed by law in the interests of racial and religious harmony or in relation to parliamentary privilege, contempt of court, defamation, or incitement to an offence.

Article 15(3) The exercise and operation of the fundamental right declared and recognized by Article 14(1)(b) shall be subject to such restrictions as may be prescribed by law in the interests of racial and religious harmony.

Article 15(4) The exercise and operation of the fundamental right declared and recognized by Article 14(1)(c) shall be subject to such restrictions as may be prescribed by law in the interests of racial and religious harmony or national economy.

Article 15(7) The exercise and operation of all the fundamental rights declared and recognized by Articles 12, 13(1), 13(2) and 14 shall be subject to such restrictions as may be prescribed by law in the interests of national security, public order and the protection of public health or morality, or for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others, or of meeting the just requirements of the general welfare of a democratic society. For the purposes of this paragraph ” law ” includes regulations made under the law for the time being relating to public security.

Article 15(8) The exercise and operation of the fundamental rights declared and recognized by Articles 12(1), 13 and 14 shall, in their application to the members of the Armed Forces, Police Force and other Forces charged with the maintenance of public order, be subject to such restrictions as may be prescribed by law in the interests of the proper discharge of their duties and the maintenance of discipline among them.

National Laws

Pending NGO Legislative / Regulatory Initiatives

Online Safety Act (OSA)

Significant controversy has continued to surround the the OSA since its implementation. The rushed manner of its enactment and doubts about its constitutionality prompted several legal challenges. The Supreme Court has highlighted the need for amendments to ensure the OSA complies with constitutional standards. Notably, the Court’s recommendations for necessary changes were not fully integrated into the enacted version of the OSA, which has led to further concerns about the OSA’s legitimacy under constitutional provisions. During the OSA’s third reading in Parliament, the Speaker even declared that the OSA was passed despite not receiving the required two-thirds majority support necessary to ensure its constitutionality, particularly in light of the Supreme Court’s proposed amendments.

In response to widespread criticisms and concerns, the Public Security Ministry has presented a series of proposed amendments to the OSA before the Cabinet. These amendments were developed in collaboration with an expert group and aim to address contentious aspects of the OSA and alleviate fears regarding its potential misuse or infringement on fundamental rights. Key among the proposed amendments is the deletion of Section 19 of the OSA, which has been widely criticized for its overly broad language and potential for abuse. This section pertains to the criminalization of communicating false statements with the intent to cause mutiny or public alarm.

Additionally, efforts are underway to clarify and refine the language used in Section 18 of the OSA, which addresses online cheating by personation. The proposed amendments aim to prevent ambiguity and ensure that individuals, including journalists and whistleblowers, are protected.

Anti-Terrorism Bill (ATB)

The government had published a revised ATB in the gazette in September 2023. While this revised version included some minor changes to the previous version, it still retained significant elements that are deemed problematic by civil society. The ATB was published originally on March 22, 2023 to replace the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). Although it introduced some due process rights, the ATB was regarded early on as perpetuating the government overreach of the PTA and not bring in line with international human rights standards.

The PTA was primarily used against minorities, while the ATB appears to be a response to the recent aragalaya (people’s struggle). As a result, it provides broad leeway to the President and law enforcement authorities to crack down on civil society, social movements, trade unions, human rights defenders, journalists, opposition, and any critic of the government. Further, it provides the authorities sweeping powers to detain individuals without the presentation of substantive evidence, to designate vaguely defined forms of speech as criminal offenses, and to arbitrarily proscribe assemblies and organizations without adequate judicial oversight. The ATB was introduced a year after the aragalaya that brought thousands of people to the streets amidst an economic crisis forcing the then President to resign. The successor President who took over lost no time in cracking down on the protests, arresting protestors, and labelling protestors fascists and terrorists.

Specifically, Section 3(2) of the ATB provides a long list of acts defined as terrorism, which includes being a member of an unlawful assembly for the commission of any act or illegal omission set out in paragraphs (a) to (k). The list of offences could encompass a wide range of activities as terrorism, including protests and acts of civil disobedience, citizens protesting state excesses, and trade union strikes. In effect, the proposed law could criminalize and punish activities that are legitimate forms of expression and peaceful assembly, creating a chilling effect on the freedom of expression and the right to protest, which are fundamental human rights protected by international law and the Sri Lankan constitution.

The ATB further gives power to the President to make Proscription Orders (Section 82) where the President has reasonable grounds to believe an organisation is engaged in any act amounting to an offence under the law or as acting in an unlawful manner prejudicial to the national security of Sri Lanka. These orders can, inter alia, prohibit persons from being a member of such organisation, from recruiting members to such organisation, from conducting meetings, activities, and programmes, and from raising funds and receiving grants.

Section 85 of the proposed ATB also gives power to the President to stipulate any public place or any other location to be a prohibited place, thus designating protest sites as prohibited places, thereby further constraining the freedom of assembly. This provision grants significant power to the police to restrict individuals’ movements without the need for judicial oversight.

Originally scheduled to be tabled (i.e. discussed and voted on) on April 4, 2023, the ATA was postponed first to April 25, 2023 and later indefinitely, without any new date being given. The delay appeared to be a response to widespread concerns and outcry from civil society, lawyers, and trade unions, including protests and a hartal in the north of the country calling on the government to withdraw the bill. The government temporarily withdrew the bill when Minister of Justice Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe decided to provide more time for proposals for reform to be submitted. However, it was subsequently published in the gazette in September 2023.

Two months later, in November 2023, the Supreme Court dismissed petitions challenging the constitutionality of the ATB. The Deputy Speaker announced that the Court could not examine the it because it had not yet been included in the order book. Despite expectations that the ATB would replace the PTA, it falls significantly short of an improvement upon the PTA because it still features vague definitions, authorizes prolonged detention of suspects, grants excessive powers to the President, and expands police powers.

The ATB was presented in parliament in January 2024. Critics, including various rights groups, maintained that the legislation was significantly more repressive than the PTA that it aims to supersede. In response, several petitions were filed by opposition parties and rights organizations before the Supreme Court to challenge the constitutionality and provisions of the ATB. After review, on February 20, 2024, the Supreme Court ruled that certain clauses of the ATB were inconsistent with the Sri Lankan Constitution and that the ATB could be enacted into law with a simple majority only if amendments to those clauses were made. Specifically, Clause 3, Clause 42, Clause 53, and Clause 70 were found to be inconsistent with Article 12(1) of the Constitution and require a special majority for passage. Additionally, Clause 4, Clause 72(1), Clause 72(2), Clause 75(3), and Clause 83(7) were also deemed unconstitutional and in need of amendments. The Supreme Court provided recommendations for amendments to these clauses to address the constitutional inconsistencies. It remains uncertain to what extent the Sri Lankan Parliament will amend the ATB in accordance with the Supreme Court determination.

Amendment to the Voluntary Social Services Organisation Act (VSSO Act)

The VSSO Act, enacted in 1980 and amended in 1998, is intended to serve as the overarching legislation for CSOs in Sri Lanka. However, in the aftermath of the war, successive governments have threatened to introduce amendments to the VSSO Act to enhance control over CSOs.

Proposed amendments in 2018:  

In 2018, a cabinet resolution was passed to endorse an amendment to the VSSO Act. The proposed amendment as it stands would have serious implications for civil society and fundamental freedoms. The amendment would broaden the type of organisations that would fall under the purview of the Act to include informal and membership-based entities and think tanks engaged in policy reform (Clause 21(b)). NGOs are categorized based on funding sources as National Level Local Non-Governmental Organisations, Foreign Funded Non-Governmental Organisations, and International Non-Governmental Organisations, which could potentially lead to discriminatory treatment of foreign funded NGOs and reinforce negative stereotypes that these organisations are ‘foreign agents’ pursuing interests of foreign states (Clause 7).

The amendment would establish the NGO Secretariat as a statutory body (clause 4) and would empower the NGO Secretariat to investigate criminal activities including money laundering and terrorist funding, which are already addressed by other laws. The amendment would provide the NGO Secretariat with wide discretion to investigate complaints and would allow outsiders with vested interests to intervene in the activities of NGOs (Subsection 2A (c). It would also give the Director-General wide powers to suspend and cancel the registration of NGOs based on vague terms such as ‘national security’ and ‘public interest’.

ICNL prepared a legal analysis of the draft amendment, and a coalition of CSOs met with the NGO Secretariat to convey concerns. The draft amendment was withdrawn from consideration.

Proposed amendments in 2022:

In 2022, a draft bill proposing amendments to the VSSO Act, while never officially released or endorsed by the government, circulated among CSOs. While the 2018 draft can be found on the NGO Secretariat website, there is no mention of the 2022 draft.

ICNL prepared a legal analysis of the draft amendment and liaised with the CSO coalition regarding these concerns.

Please help keep us informed; if you are aware of other pending initiatives, write to ICNL at ngomonitor@icnl.org.

Organizational Forms

CSOs can be formed as companies, societies, trusts, or associations. Therefore, CSOs can opt to register under the Companies Act, Societies Ordinance, Trust Ordinance, or an Act of Parliament, as applicable.

The Voluntary Social Services Organization Act (VSSO Act) was introduced in 1980 to govern limited categories of voluntary organizations – specifically, those engaged in relief for the poor, sick and the needy and those affected by natural disasters. Organizations could seek first-time registration under the VSSO Act to attain legal entity status. In addition, organizations already registered as companies, societies, trusts, or associations through applicable laws could seek additional registration under the VSSO Act. Subsequently, a 1999 regulation created confusion as it attempted to bring within the scope of the VSSO Act a range of other organizations including those promoting human rights, women and development, gender equity, protection of child rights, and the environment. In practice, some CSOs – particularly those interacting frequently with the government – have opted to register under the VSSO Act, while many other organizations have not.

In practice, NGOs are sometimes required to register with multiple entities including relevant line ministries to obtain relevant approvals and for ease of operations. However, there is no legal requirement to do so.

Approximate Numbers

There is no recorded data on the number of organisations within each category. In an email interview in 2021, the Director General of the NGO Secretariat noted that Sri Lanka has over 37,000 registered NGOs operating across the country. However, the exact numbers are unknown, since not all CSOs register with the NGO Secretariat and there are many unregistered groups operating in Sri Lanka.

Public Benefit Status

NGOs are subject to taxation under the Inland Revenue Act. As per the Inland Revenue (Amendment) Act, No. 45 of 2022, the applicable tax rate for NGOs as of April 2023 is 30% of their taxable income. However, NGOs may be eligible for tax exemptions under certain circumstances, including where they engage in rehabilitation, provide infrastructure facilities and livelihood support to displaced persons, or carry out other humanitarian activities approved by the Minister. In such cases, the Commissioner-General may reduce or waive the tax payable if it is deemed just and equitable to do so.

Public Participation

Civic participation is generally not protected or institutionalized by national laws. Furthermore, there are no laws that specifically protect and enhance the participation of marginalized groups. At times and on an ad hoc basis, public input is sought prior to enacting or amending laws. For example, drafts maybe shared in newspapers or on websites of relevant ministries and institutions, calling for input from civil society and the public. However, it is unclear how much of that input is taken into consideration.

The National Environmental (Amendment) Act No 56 of 1988 and Amendment Act of 2000 makes environmental impact assessments (EIAs) mandatory for projects that have significant environmental impacts. The law requires that EIAs be made available to the public for their comments and that project proponents respond to these comments.

Barriers to Entry

The law in Sri Lanka does not prohibit the operation of unregistered groups. There are informal and unregistered groups that convene on priority areas. However, there are practical challenges, such as when opening bank accounts and receiving funds.

The legal requirements for registration depend upon the regulatory regime. The varying requirements are outlined here below:

Under the Companies Act: The Companies Act No. 7 of 2007 is the primary legislation that regulates all types of companies in Sri Lanka, including overseas companies that have established a place of business in the country, as well as offshore companies and associations and their subsidiaries. The Act outlines the procedures for incorporating companies and associations, including those that are limited by guarantee. It also prescribes the rules for their administration, reporting, and other related matters.

Registration under the Companies Act is straightforward and therefore many organizations opt for this regime. CSOs registering under this Act typically register as a private company or a company limited by guarantee. Any person or legal entity can serve as a founder of a CSO; there are no restrictions on who can serve as a founder. At least two persons are required to incorporate a company in Sri Lanka. There is no minimum amount of assets required to establish a CSO under the Companies Act.

Under the Societies Ordinance: There are two types of societies that can be formed as outlined in the Ordinance (Section 3). The first type, called “mutual provident societies,” are created to encourage saving, provide support during times of illness or hardship, help members with financial troubles, and provide for the needs of their widows and children. The second type, known as “specially authorised societies,” are societies approved by the Minister through a notification in the Gazette. They are allowed to use the powers and resources provided by the Ordinance for any purpose that the Minister authorizes.

Any individual or legal entity can be a founder under the Societies Ordinance. There is no minimum number of founders required to establish a society in Sri Lanka. However, Section 5 of the Societies Ordinance stipulates that at least seven persons sign the Memorandum of Association to register the society and must have a prescribed capital of 10,000 Sri Lankan Rupees. Additionally, the society must have a clear purpose, objectives, and rules and regulations that conform to the requirements of the Societies Ordinance. When registering a society, its name must be unique and different from other similar associations. Changing the name of a society requires approval from the Registrar or must be done as prescribed by law. Additionally, every society seeking registration must end their name with the words “Society Limited.” If the Registrar denies registration to a society, an appeal can be made to the Court of Appeal.

Under the Trusts Ordinance: The Trusts Ordinance outlines the process for creating trusts in Sri Lanka. Section 4(1) states that a trust can be established for any lawful purpose, as long as the purpose does not fall under any of the following categories: (a) Prohibited by law, (b) Has the potential to defeat provisions of any law, (c) Is fraudulent, (d) Involves harm to another person or their property, (e) Is immoral or against public policy.

The Ordinance provides comprehensive guidance on express trusts, implied trusts, charitable trusts, the responsibilities and powers of trustees, the rights and obligations of beneficiaries, and trust administration. Although the Trusts Ordinance does not require trusts to be registered, CSOs generally register their trust deeds with the relevant ministry to provide reassurance to banks before opening accounts.

As an Act of Parliament: Typically used for CSOs established for religious, educational, social, and cultural purposes and presented by a member of Parliament, this approach of forming associations through Acts of Parliament is less common. Once enacted, associations are granted the right to open organizational bank accounts for receiving local and foreign funds. CSOs working in areas such as human rights, governance, and policy advocacy usually do not opt for this method.

Barriers to Operational Activity

The Voluntary Social Services Organisation (VSSO) Act of 1980 was enacted to govern limited categories of voluntary organizations – specifically, those engaged in relief for the poor, sick and the needy and those affected by natural disasters. The National Secretariat for Non-Governmental Organisations was established in 1996 under the Ministry of Social Services to implement the VSSO Act. Over time, the NGO Secretariat has been placed under various authorities, including the Office of the Prime Minister and the Ministry of Defence. Currently, the NGO Secretariat falls under the purview of the Ministry of Public Security.

The VSSO Act allows for direct state intervention in the affairs of organizations registered under the Act. Under Section 9 of the Act, the Registrar or any other authorized personnel can, among other powers, enter and inspect the premises of the organization to ascertain whether satisfactory standards of services are maintained, notify the Minister of any allegation of fraud or misappropriation, and attend any meeting of the organization upon the request of the Minister, etc. Moreover, where an allegation of fraud or misappropriation is made against an organization by any person, the government may appoint a Board of inquiry to investigate the allegation(s).

At the same time, the VSSO Act is loosely drafted, and the state has taken advantage of the gaps in the law to impose constraints on CSOs through regulations and circulars that go beyond the scope of the law. Two legal measures are notable. First, the government issued a circular in 1999 requiring all international and national-level foreign-funded NGOs to re-register with the NGO Secretariat. As part of the re-registration process, organizations were required to submit action plans in a specific format provided by the Director General of the NGO Secretariat. These action plans had to include details about the type of activities proposed, the operational area, the beneficiaries, the number of local and foreign employees, the sources of funding, annual expenditure, annual funds received, an annual report and an annual audited statement of accounts. The rationale provided in the circular was that “these organizations are registered at different institutions under various laws and as a result it has become difficult to obtain information on their activities.” This 1999 circular remains in force, but there are no penalties for non-compliance.

Second, and in the same year, regulations were issued under the VSSO Act that expanded the scope of the Act to encompass organizations working on the environment, human rights, child rights, and gender equity. These 1999 regulations also required every registered VSSO to maintain 13 specific documents related to financial, administrative, and internal governance matters. These documents include cash books, ledgers, receipt books, and assets register, as well as minutes of meetings, a register of members, and details of staff including their letters of appointment. Additionally, organizations must maintain files with relevant acts and regulations. Despite being registered with the NGO Secretariat, many organizations fail to submit required reports or fail to submit them regularly. There are no formal penalties or sanctions in place for non-compliance with these reporting requirements.

Civil society in Sri Lanka, particularly those from the war affected northern and eastern parts of Sri Lanka as well as those organizations working on human rights, peace and reconciliation, and media freedom etc., are constantly subject to harassment and intimidation. These actions are often carried without a legal basis and go beyond the provisions outlined in the VSSO Act. Harassment may include monitoring of activities, restrictions placed on the types of activities CSOs can focus on, and/or restrictions on geographic locations of operation. Furthermore, military, and other intelligence officials have visited CSO offices, subjecting heads of organizations and other employees to questioning and requests for work plans, financial documents, reports, and other documents. Successive governments over the years have failed to provide adequate protection to CSO representatives in the face of threats and violence.

Barriers to Speech and Advocacy

The Sri Lankan Constitution protects freedom of expression under Article 14(1)(a), which states: “Every citizen is entitled to the freedom of speech and expression including publication.”

In addition to the Constitution, there are several laws and regulations that affect the freedom of expression in Sri Lanka.

These include:

In January 2024, the Sri Lankan Parliament passed the controversial Online Safety Bill with a 108-62 majority vote, despite opposition and criticism from rights groups. The legislation establishes an Online Safety Commission endowed with broad powers, which enables it to instruct individuals and internet service providers to remove vaguely defined “prohibited statements” from online platforms. The bill also prohibits the communication of false statements deemed threats to national security, public health, public order, or promoting hostility among different groups. Further, the Online Safety Commission wields arbitrary authority to determine what constitutes ‘false’ or ‘harmful’ online speech. This grants the Commission the ability to remove content, restrict and prohibit internet access, and prosecute individuals and organizations. Offenses carry significant penalties, including hefty fines and imprisonment for up to five years.

The government is generally not amenable to criticism and has used legal and other measures against critics. Non-legal measures include harassment, intimidation, and violence against individuals and organizations that are critical of the state. In addition, the government has used various laws and regulations such as the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the ICCPR Act, the Police Ordinance, the Computer Crimes Act, and provisions of the Penal Code against critics. Journalists critical of the government are frequently harassed, threatened, interrogated by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), and arrested under various laws.

In April 2020, Ramzy Razeek, a social media commentator, was detained under Section 3(1) of the ICCPR Act, Section 6 of the Computer Crimes Act, and Section 120 of the Penal code when he criticized the government’s forced cremation policy in the wake of COVID-19 deaths, which violated the rights of the Muslim and Christian communities in Sri Lanka.

In August 2020, Dr. Jayaruwan Bandara, former spokesperson of the Health Ministry, was summoned to the CID after he raised concerns about the prices of COVID-19 vaccines and the general handling of the pandemic by the government in a televised interview.

In 2020 and 2021, police authorities informed the public of plans to apprehend those who spread false or derogatory statements about officials engaged in combating the pandemic under the Computer Crimes Act, Police Ordinance, and the Penal Code, and several such arrests were made.

In May 2023, Sri Lankan stand-up comedian and youth activist Nathasha Edirisooriya was arrested at Katunayake International Airport on accusations of defaming Buddhism during a comedy performance in April. She faced charges under various sections of the Penal Code, the Computer Crimes Act, and the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act. The controversy arose from two jokes made during her comedy performance, which were edited and circulated on social media, resulting in online harassment and threats of violence and rape. Despite her apology and the retraction of the video, she was denied bail multiple times. Journalists, lawyers, and activists who spoke against Edirisooriya’s arrest were also targeted, and a special police unit was established to investigate and act against those disrupting religious harmony. On June 5, 2023, the Colombo High Court granted bail to Edirisooriya.

In December 2023, poet and educator, Ahnaf Jazeem, who had been held in detention for more than 18 months under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), was acquitted of the charges by the Puttalam High Court due to lack of evidence. Jazeem had been arrested in May 2020 on accusations of extremism related to his book ‘Navarasam.’ Under the PTA, he faced allegations of promoting extremism and violence among children, as well as abetting Muslim extremism through his literary work. In November 2020, Jazeem was formally charged in the Puttalam High Court for allegedly delivering extremist speeches to students at the School of Excellence where he taught.

Finally, the government has blocked access to social media platforms and messaging apps. For example, in April 2022, the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission at the request of the Ministry of Defence requested service providers to block all social media to quell island-wide protests. Previous governments have also been known to engage in censorship and restrict freedom of expression by targeting media organizations and blocking websites that are critical of the government, thereby hindering the ability of citizens to access diverse and accurate information.

Barriers to International Contact

There are no legal restrictions on the ability of CSOs to contact and cooperate with colleagues in civil society, business, and government sectors within or outside the country. However, the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry in February 2022 denounced testimony given by a prominent human rights lawyer to the Human Rights Sub-Committee of the European Parliament. Other civil society actors and victim groups have also faced harassment and intimidation for engaging with international human rights mechanisms.

Barriers to Resources

There are no specific legal restrictions that prevent domestic CSOs from receiving foreign funding in Sri Lanka. However, under the Foreign Exchange Act, organizations that receive foreign funding must deposit the funds in a designated bank account and report the transactions to the Central Bank of Sri Lanka.

The Central Bank’s Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU) has instructed all licensed banks to exercise due diligence with respect to NGOs and to monitor and report on organizations that receive direct foreign funds into their accounts, referring to Rule 51 of the Financial Institutions (Customer Due Diligence) Rules, No. 1 of 2016. The directive states that “every financial institution shall conduct enhanced COD measures when entering into a relationship with an NGO, Not-for-Profit Organization, or Charity to ensure that their accounts are used for legitimate purposes and the transactions are commensurate with the declared objectives and purposes.” Through the same circular, banks are also informed to monitor and report any NGO not registered with the NGO Secretariat or any other institution.

Registered CSOs may engage in income-generating activities, but the income generated from such activities must be used for the CSO’s mission objectives and cannot be distributed to its members. In other words, any profits generated must be reinvested in the organization’s operations or social service programs. Additionally, CSOs must comply with the country’s tax laws and regulations, including registering for and paying taxes on income generated from their commercial activities.

Barriers to Assembly

According to Sri Lanka’s constitution, “every citizen is entitled to the freedom of peaceful assembly (Article 14 (b) and the freedom of association (article 14 (C).” These rights are not absolute, however, and can be restricted in the interest of national security, public order, morality, racial and religious harmony and in the due recognition and respect for the rights and freedom of others (refer to article 15 of the Constitution).

The following laws regulate assemblies in Sri Lanka:

The laws and regulations governing public assembly in Sri Lanka are accessible to the general public, and electronic versions are available on the official websites of the Parliament and the Ministry of Justice. However, the language used in the laws and regulations can be complex and technical, which may make it difficult for the average citizen to understand the scope and implications of these regulations.

The laws and regulations on public assembly in Sri Lanka contain vague provisions that allow for excessive government discretion. For example, the Public Security Ordinance (PSO) grants the President broad powers to maintain public security and order, including the power to prohibit public gatherings and processions. The use of terms such as “public security” and “public order” are vague and subjective and has led to abuse of power and violations of freedom of assembly. Additionally, the requirement to notify the police prior to holding public gatherings or processions can also be used to restrict the right to assembly in an arbitrary and discriminatory manner.

Advance Notification

The Police Ordinance (Section 77) requires providing written notice to the area police six hours prior to the commencement of a protest in any public place. Failure to notify is subject to penalties and procession organisers and participants can be fined up to Rs 1000 or imprisoned for three years. This notification requirement has, however, been misconstrued as a process for permission, and authorities have disrupted protests on the grounds that protests have not received the necessary authorization. Everyone participating at processions and gatherings is required to ensure that no breach of the peace occurs (Section 78 and 79).

Time, Place, and Manner Restrictions

Under Section 78 of the Police Ordinance, the police are empowered to regulate and direct the conduct of all assemblies and processions in any public place. They can prescribe the routes and times at which processions can pass and can disperse crowds of 12 or more persons when they anticipate a breach of peace. According to Section 77(3), the police can prohibit a procession or impose conditions on the organizers or participants of a procession, if it is deemed necessary for the preservation of public order. The conditions may include prohibitions or restrictions on the display of flags, banners, or emblems.

Under Section 35 of the Public Security Ordinance, the President of Sri Lanka can declare a State of Emergency and issue broad and sweeping emergency regulations to impose restrictions on the right to freedom of assembly. These have included blanket bans on assemblies and processions and penalties against those participating. Furthermore, they authorize the President to prohibit public processions and assemblies in any place for any period of time.

Section 16 of the Public Security Ordinance has been used to declare curfews and prevent public gatherings without prior approval.

Provisions of the Official Secrets Act have been used to declare as High Security Zones areas such as the Parliament, Presidential Secretariat, Prime Minister’s Office, residences of the Prime Minister and President among other areas and thereby prohibit public gatherings in these areas without prior permission from the Inspector General of Police (IGP).

Loudspeakers and other amplification devices may be used, provided a permit for such has been obtained under Section 80 of the Police Ordinance.

Sri Lankan law does not specifically prohibit people from exchanging information, planning, or communicating about protests. However, the government has been known to monitor social media and other online platforms to prevent the spread of messages that it considers to be inflammatory or threatening to national security.

The law does not prohibit any specific category of persons or groups from organizing or participating in assemblies. However, in practice, certain groups, such as trade unions and student groups, may face greater scrutiny and restrictions.

Policing / Enforcement:

The State has a history of using unnecessary and disproportionate force to break up assemblies. Even when assemblies have been peaceful, tear gas, water cannons and physical force have been used to disperse assemblies. Protest organizers and participants have been frequently arrested by the police, even when the protests have been non-violent. Moreover, the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) has also been used to detain protestors for extended periods of time.

It was reported that between March 31 and July 20, 2022, the Sri Lankan police had used over Rs. 26 million worth of tear gas, hand grenades, and cartridges on 84 different occasions. The findings of the report highlight that during this period, the police had used 6,722 tear gas canisters, hand grenades and cartridges, often disregarding safety instructions for their use. The report indicates that the police had used expired tear gas canisters and had attempted to cover up their use when asked for information.

Other noteworthy episodes of the use of the excessive use of force in 2023 include the following:

  • National Peoples Power (NPP) protest. The Police responded on February 26, 2023 to the NPP’s (opposition political party) peaceful protest in Colombo regarding the postponement of local government elections with excessive force in the form of water cannons and tear gas, which resulted in the death of one person and over two dozen hospitalized due to injuries sustained. The police cited a court order to justify the breaking up of the protest.
  • Crackdown on student protests. On March 7, 2023, hundreds of police officers from the anti-riot unit and the special task force, along with army personnel equipped with guns, tear gas, water cannons, and some officers wielding iron clubs and wooden rods, were deployed against protesting students in Colombo. As the marchers approached the University of Colombo, the police responded with force, using water cannons and tear gas. The police and the army attacked protesters fleeing into the university’s law faculty for safety. The use of tear gas affected students attending lectures, with some requiring hospitalization. On March 8, 2023, two protests were held by students from Colombo and Kelaniya condemning police brutality unleashed against students on March 7. The Police attacked both protests. The police crackdown was carried out in such a manner that it adversely affected other students, teachers, and bystanders including schoolchildren. Separately, six Tamil students were arrested for participating in a demonstration against the government’s seizure of land and the settlement of Sinhalese farmers, but were released on bail after being charged with an “illegal gathering”. Furthermore, medical students staged a protest against government actions that jeopardized free education and healthcare; police responded with force and used water cannons and tear gas to disperse the protesters.
  • Crackdown on Aragalaya protest organizers and participants. During and in the aftermath of the Aragalaya (people’s struggle), the police arrested protest organisers. In most cases, these groups were arrested due to their mere presence at protest sites without any evidence of criminal conduct. A report by the International Federation for Human Rights highlights that between May-September 2022, around 4000 arrests were made by the police. In addition to ordinary criminal laws, the draconian PTA was used to arrest student leaders for their role in organizing protests. On 18 August, Wasantha Mudalige, the Inter-University Students’ Federation (IUSF) convener, Inter University Bhikkhus’ Federation Convenor Venerable Galwewa Siridhamma Thero, and Hashan Jeewantha, member of the IUSF, were arrested and detained under the PTA. They were detained for a long period: Hashan Jeewantha for 50 days, Siridhamma Thero for 90 days and Mudalige for 120 days. The charges under the PTA were ultimately dropped against all three.
  • In late 2023, a protest organized by National Peoples Party (NPP)’s women wing was attacked just as it was ending. The peaceful demonstration was opposing a proposed 51% budget cut for the Ministry of Women and Child Affairs. The government’s response included deploying anti-riot squads to use water cannons against the protesters. Another demonstration near the U.S Embassy in Colombo in support of Palestine resulted in three arrests, when protestors reportedly attempted to burn a photograph of the U.S President.

Other police crackdowns on assemblies continued throughout 2024, including:

  • On January 4, during a protest against President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s visit to Jaffna, Sri Lankan police arrested three individuals as riot police and Special Task Force officers were deployed and roadblocks were erected. Despite these measures, protestors continued their demonstration outside the Jaffna District Secretariat and expressed discontent with the government’s actions. Before the protest, the police filed a case to block it and named eight individuals in the filing, including Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF) leader Gajendrakumar Ponnamablam, TNPF Secretary Selvarajah Kajendren, and civil society leader Velan Swamigal. However, the Jaffna Magistrate Court dismissed the case and affirmed the constitutional right to democratic protest.
  • January 17, the Inter-University Students’ Federation (IUSF) organized a protest near the University of Sri Jayawardenapura to highlight challenges within the state university system. However, police responded by dispersing the protestors with tear gas and water cannons as they approached from the university’s front.
  • On January 31, protesters from the United People’s Power party gathered in Colombo to voice grievances against the government’s economic policies. The demonstration was met with tear gas and water cannons from the police.
  • On February 4, five students from the University of Jaffna were arrested in the Kilinochchi area for blocking the main road during a protest march. The demonstration addressed concerns about unresolved issues in the North and East regions as well as threats to freedom of expression and the media posed by new laws.
  • On February 21, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) held a protest in Colombo to demand the holding of local government elections as scheduled. Despite heavy rain, the police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse the protestors, who continued despite the police intervention.
  • On February 27, the police again resorted to tear gas and water cannons to disperse protesting students near the University of Sri Jayewardenepura. The demonstration, which was organized by the students’ union of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, addressed issues related to hostels, cafeterias and delays in scholarship payments.
  • On April 3, police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse protesting university students near the University of Sri Jayewardenepura. The demonstration was organized by students in response to a Cabinet decision regarding private medical universities. Additionally, tear gas and water cannons were deployed to disperse another group of protesting university students near Moratuwa University, who were marching for similar demands.

While we aim to maintain information that is as current as possible, we realize that situations can rapidly change.  If you are aware of any additional information or inaccuracies on this page, please keep us informed; write to ICNL at ngomonitor@icnl.org.

Events

The 4th Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Sri Lanka was carried out at the 42nd session of the UN UPR Working Group in January and February 2023. The so-called “pre-sessions” were organized by the UPR-info as a preparation for the 42nd session. Several civil society representatives from Sri Lanka participated and presented issues, such as disabilities, gender based violence, the situation in the North and East and LGBTQI rights.

General News

Protesting Students Tear-gassed Near J’pura Uni (April 2024)
Police have used tear gas and water cannons to disperse protesting university students near the University of Sri Jayewardenepura. The demonstration had been organized by the students in protest over a Cabinet decision pertaining to private medical universities. Meanwhile, tear gas and water cannons have also been used to disperse a group of protesting university students near Moratuwa University. Students of Moratuwa University had reportedly staged the protest march over the same demands.

Authorities Continue to Stifle Protests (March 2024)
The CIVICUS Monitor downgraded Sri Lanka’s civic space rating to ‘repressed,’ with authorities clamping down on protesters, stifling journalists and targeting activists amid mounting public frustration with poor governance and a lack of accountability. In January 2024, Human Rights Watch said that President Ranil Wickremesinghe had sought to suppress dissent over the year and continued to target civil society groups and activists, including human rights defenders and victims of past human rights violations.

Sri Lanka cabinet nod for draft amendment bill for Online Safety Act (January 2024)
Sri Lanka’s cabinet of ministers has approved a proposal to formulate a draft amendment bill to incorporate revisions to the controversial Online Safety Act. A statement from the Government Information Department said that the proposed draft bill will based on “revisions recognised through further discussions with eminencies in the field who had forwarded with proposals for relevant amendments” (sic).

Sri Lanka must withdraw the Online Safety Bill (January 2024)
Sri Lankan authorities must not undermine the rights of people in Sri Lanka in its race to control online platforms. Through an open letter, Access Now and Hashtag Generation, along with more than 50 organizations, are demanding the Sri Lankan government withdraw the rights-violating Online Safety Bill.

Sri Lanka Unveils Revised Anti-Terror Bill After Backlash (January 2024)
Sri Lanka’s Minister of Justice, Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, presented to parliament the controversial draft of a new anti-terrorism bill. The legislation has drawn sharp criticism over the alleged attempts to restrict the people’s rights to information and expression under the guise of a crackdown on terrorism. Defending the draft of a new anti-terrorism bill, Dr. Rajapakshe told the house that multiple areas that drew criticism have been amended.

Sri Lanka’s main opposition files petition against anti-terrorism bill (January 2024)
Sri Lanka’s main opposition party, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), has filed a petition against a proposed Anti-Terrorism bill, which the party claims is being introduced in an election year to repress opposition parties. The petition was filed by SJB general secretary Ranjith Madduma Bandara at the Supreme Court. Speaking to reporters, the MP said the proposed bill is a threat to Sri Lanka’s opposition parties and to democracy itself.

Sri Lanka Passes New Law to Regulate Online Content (January 2024)
Sri Lankan lawmakers passed a bill to regulate online content, the speaker of the parliament announced, but opposition politicians and activists allege will muzzle free speech. The Online Safety Bill proposes jail terms for content that a five-member commission considers illegal and makes social media platforms liable for such content on their platforms.

Competing Narratives of the Online Safety Bill (December 2023)
In Sri Lanka, after prolonged discussions to introduce a regulatory framework addressing online hate speech and fake news, particularly in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday Attacks in 2019, the Online Safety Bill was tabled in Parliament on the October 3, 2023. On a positive note, the bill adeptly identified and addressed various concerns within the internet space, effectively bridging the gaps left by the previous Computer Crimes Act. However, the definitions provided in the bill for certain terminologies are vague, and they pose a risk of subjective interpretation, especially within the context of stifling online discussions.

‘Online Safety Bill’ Can be Passed with Simple Majority Subject to 31 Amendments (December 2023)
Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court has determined that a controversial ‘Online Safety Bill’ is not inconsistent with the constitution and can be passed in parliament by a simple majority subject to amendments made to 31 of its provisions. Chief Opposition Whip Lakshman Kiriella speaking after the reading of the ruling chastised the government for presenting the Bill in a hurry.

Poet Ahnaf Jazeem Arrested Under PTA and then Acquitted (December 2023)
Ahnaf Jazeem, a poet and teacher from Silavathurai, Mannar, who was arrested and detained by the Terrorism Investigations Division (TID) in May 2020 under the controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), was acquitted by the Puttalam High Court due to a lack of evidence. The TID had accused 27-year-old Jazeem of including extremist messaging in his book of Tamil poetry “Navarasam,” a claim refuted by Tamil scholars and academics alike. Additionally, he was accused of imparting extremist ideologies to his students.

Police Fire Water on Protest Led by MP Harini Amarasuriya (December 2023)
The Police fired water on a protest led by National Peoples Power (NPP) MP Dr. Harini Amarasuriya near Parliament. A number of women took part in the protest on women’s rights when it was attacked. MP Dr. Harini Amarasuriya later told Parliament that the protesters were attacked just when the protest was about to end. She accused Acting Inspector General of Police (IGP) Deshabandu Tennakoon of ordering the attack to show what he can do over the next three months of his term in office.

Sri Lanka Detains Tamils for Honouring War Dead (December 2023)
Sri Lankan authorities have detained nine ethnic Tamils under the country’s abusive counterterrorism law for commemorating those who died in the 1983-2009 civil war, Human Rights Watch said. The Sri Lankan government has repeatedly assured international allies, trading partners, and the United Nations that it would replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), which has long been used to arbitrarily detain and torture minority community members and civil society activists.

Supreme Court dismisses petitions challenging Anti-Terrorism Bill (November 2023)
The Supreme Court has dismissed the petitions filed against the Anti-Terrorism Bill. Deputy Speaker Ajith Rajapaksa announced in Parliament that the Supreme Court has informed that it cannot examine the Bill because it has not yet been included in the order book.

Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka Letter to Hon. Tiran Alles (October 2023)
The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) sent a letter on 2 October 2023 to Hon. Tiran Alles, Minister of Public Security, containing the preliminary observations and recommendations of the HRCSL on the Online Safety Bill published in the Official Gazette on 18 September 2023. The HRCSL acknowledges that making online spaces in Sri Lanka safer for its citizens is a valuable legislative objective. However, the HRCSL is of the opinion that strengthening the institutional capacity of law enforcement authorities to interpret and apply the existing criminal law in good faith should precede any proposals to introduce new legislation with criminal offences pertaining to online activity. See also Sri Lanka’s CPA Urges Government to Withdraw Controversial ‘Online Safety’ Bill“, “BASL calls upon the government to immediately withdraw the Anti-Terrorism Bill and the Online Safety Bill,” and “Another petition filed challenging Online Safety Bill.”

Lawyers and Civil Society Support Judge who Fled Sri Lanka (October 2023)
Lawyers have decided to boycott court proceedings as protesters took to the streets in support of a judge who fled Sri Lanka after an order on a disputed religious site. Rallies have been taking place in Northern and Eastern provinces almost all days this week, demanding independence of the judiciary after district judge T Saravanarajah quit and fled the nation. He was handling the case of a disputed archaeological site, claimed by both Buddhists and minority Tamil Hindus as their place of worship with historical importance.

Anti-Terrorism Bill Version 2.0: Still Worse Than the PTA (September 2023)
On September 15, the government published an Anti-Terrorism Bill, referred to as the ATA. The Bill is presented as a revision of an earlier version that was gazetted in March 2023, when it received widespread public criticism, including from local and international human rights groups. An analysis of the revised Bill reveals that although minor changes have been made, the ATA continues to be an unprecedented expansion of executive power, both in form and in its potential for the repression of citizens. It also constitutes a usurping of the judiciary’s authority to safeguard citizens’ fundamental rights.

Sinhala Mob Attack Memorial Dedicated to Lt Col Thileepan (September 2023)
A Sinhala mob attacked and destroyed a memorial float dedicated to Lt Col Thileepan as it travelled through Trincomalee today. To mark 37 years since Thileepan’s fast unto death, the Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF) organised a memorial rally with a commemorative vehicle dedicated to Lt Col Thileepan, a political wing leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

US Envoy Meets Civil Society to Discuss Core Anti-corruption Issues (September 2023)
The U.S ambassador posted on X that governance and economic reforms must go hand-in-hand in Sri Lanka. Julie Chung met with a coalition of civil society members, including representatives of Transparency International, Sri Lanka and the Centre for Policy Alternatives. The Ambassador said they discussed the results of their research on the core anti-corruption issues that must be prioritized and tackled.

High-Level APG Delegation’s Insights to Bolster Sri Lanka’s AML/CFT Framework Ahead of 2025 Mutual Evaluation (September 2023)
In response to an invitation from Sri Lanka’s Financial Intelligence Unit, a high-level delegation from the Asia Pacific Group on Money Laundering (APG) visited Sri Lanka. The aim was to provide crucial insights ahead of the upcoming mutual evaluation of Sri Lanka’s Anti-Money Laundering and Countering the Financing of Terrorism (AML/CFT) Framework. Sri Lanka has faced the “Grey List” designation twice by Financial Action Task Force (FATF), in 2011 and 2017, with the European Union also blacklisting the nation in 2017 due to non-compliance. Sri Lanka’s 3rd Mutual Evaluation is set for March 2025.

First ever Civil Society Governance Diagnostic Report on Sri Lanka debuts (September 2023)
The Civil Society Governance Diagnostic Report on the Anti-Corruption Landscape of Sri Lanka was launched at a high level forum. The report introduces a comprehensive set of governance reform recommendations designed to address the root causes to the current corruption crisis in Sri Lanka. The collaborative effort was led by Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL) in partnership with a core group consisting of Verité Research, the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), Sarvodaya, People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL), and the National Peace Council (NPC).

Arrested Sri Lanka Comedian Natasha Edirisooriya Granted Bail (July 2023)
Sri Lankan standup comic Natasha Edirisooriya was released on 100,000-rupee ($US320) bail in Colombo, following the intervention of a high court judge. She was arrested on May 28 at Katunayaka International Airport and spent more than one month in remand prison after being accused of having “defamed Buddhism” during her performance on the “Modabhimanaya” (Fool’s Pride) comedy program in April. (See also the CPA Statement).

Sinhala Extremists Disrupt Black July Commemoration in Colombo (July 2023)
The Sinhala extremist group, Sinhala Ravaya, disrupted a Black July commemoration event in Colombo. Video footage from the commemoration shows a member of Sinhala Ravaya calling those participating in the commemoration ‘kottiya’ – a Sinhala term used to describe the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Sri Lankan riot police then violently pushed the crowd to the floor in an attempt to disperse the protest. Sinhala Ravaya is known to be an extreme Sinhala Buddhist nationalist group that strongly aligns itself with the Bodu Bala Sena, founded and headed by the extremist Galagoda Aththe Gnasara Thera.

Inquiry over those who spoke against Nathasha’s arrest (June 2023)
Five individuals who had commented on the arrest of Sri Lankan stand-up comedian Nathasha Edirisooriya during a press conference have been accused of contempt of court. The allegations were made when the case against Edirisooriya, who made derogatory statements on Buddhism, was taken up for hearing before the Fort Magistrate’s Court.

Black July’s 40th anniversary functions disrupted (June 2023)
Police and a certain group disrupted functions in Colombo to mark the 40th anniversary of the Black July of 1983. A function by North-South Brotherhood near Borella cemetery was interrupted by unknown persons, who accused the organizers of receiving funds from NGOs to level genocide charges against the military. At the same time, the Socialist Youths Union faced a water cannon attack by the police on their protest march near Town Hall, while being accused of trying to hold a procession against the law.

Sri Lankan Minister calls for NGOs to be monitored closely (June 2023)
Sri Lanka’s Public Security Minister, Tiran Alles, has called for the mandatory registration of non-governmental organisations, “so that we can monitor them closely”. The Minister’s call for closer monitoring follows a speech in which Milan Jayathilake MP decried NGOs as a “threat to national security”. The Sri Lankan government has frequently lashed out at NGO human rights organisations and placed proscriptions on several Tamil and Muslim diaspora organisations, under the pretext of national security.

Sri Lankan military obstructs Mullivaikkal memorial float as commemorations continue (May 2023)
The solemn remembrance of the final stages of the armed conflict in Mullivaikkal remains at the forefront of collective memory in the North-East. Numerous organizations and groups have organized various initiatives, including traveling floats and the distribution of Mullivaikkal kanji, to honour the lives lost and ensure the transmission of the massacre’s history to future generations. However, an unidentified soldier intimidated Tamil activists by Chavakachcheri bus stand as a float travelled through Jaffna and headed towards Kilinochchi.

Authorities continue to crack down on protests and detain online critics (February 2023)
The state of civic space in Sri Lanka is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. In 2022, civil society documented a range of issues related to fundamental freedoms in Sri Lanka, especially around the crackdown on mass anti-government protests linked to the worst economic crisis in decades. They include the targeting of civil society groups, human rights defenders and the families of victims of past violations. There were also restrictions and excessive use of force around the protests, arrests of protesters and the use of the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act. Journalists have also been targeted.