UN Special Rapporteur For Minorities:
Amend Sri Lanka’s Constitution To Better Protect Other Religions
The reconciliation process is going well in Sri Lanka but there is plenty that needs to be done, Rita Izsák-Ndiaye, the UN’s the Special Rapporteur on minority issues, says.
Language, displacement and religious freedom – these were the issues that most came up during Rita Izsák-Ndiaye’s visit to Sri Lanka. Izsák-Ndiaye is the Special Rapporteur on minority issues at the office of the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner. Her task is to promote minority rights and to look at how to overcome problems minorities face around the world; in this role, she met with everyone from government ministries to representatives of the island nation’s minority groups. At the end of her trip to Sri Lanka journalists from The Catamaran met her to ask her what she had discovered.
The Catamaran: Do you believe there’s been much progress made when it comes to reconciliation in Sri Lanka, especially since the election of the new government?
Izsák-Ndiaye: A good plan was necessary in Sri Lanka after a long and devastating civil war. But I believe this would never have been possible overnight.
There are some excellent mechanisms in place and this has given the people new hope. I also wish to commend the government for passing special laws to protect human and minority rights.
The Catamaran: What do you believe to be the biggest challenges when it comes to the topic of reconciliation?
Izsák-Ndiaye: There needs to be confidence in government institutions and among various ethnic groups. Many of the people representing minority groups in Sri Lanka emphasised the needs of their group to take part in decision making. They should be represented in both central and provincial government.
Clearly building Buddhist shrines in areas where Buddhists have not traditionally lived is going to cause conflict.
Additionally language remains a major issue. It was pointed out that the Sinhalese language continues to dominate government institutions. This needs to change.
The Catamaran: In regard to the issues with language what have you noticed?
Izsák-Ndiaye: Sri Lanka’s Constitution names Sinhala and Tamil as the nation’s languages, with English for coordination. And it is true that past and present governments have taken important steps to support multi-lingual policies.
For example, it is compulsory to learn a second language at school. But there are a lot of challenges. Tamil-speakers I met in the north and east of the country told me about the problems they have when dealing with government organisations, and in particular, the police and hospitals. Sinhalese is the spoken and written language in these places. That gap brings dissatisfaction in the Tamil community.
Law enforcement staff and military personnel are often not fluent in Tamil. That lack creates more day-to-day issues and widens the gap between majority and minority populations.
There is also a fear among Sri Lanka’s minorities that their language will become extinct – groups like the Malays and Sri Lankan Africans want their language to be taught at school too.
The Catamaran: The same arguments appear to apply to religion too.
Izsák-Ndiaye: In Sri Lanka, just over 70 percent of the people are Buddhists so it is correct that the government should protect Buddhism. But the freedom of other religions should also be guaranteed. And I know that some people fear that if Buddhism is given precedence that it will pave the way to injustice and the repression of minority beliefs.
In many places, there is peaceful co-existence between different religions, where Hindu temples, Buddhist shrines and Muslim mosques are constructed without any problems. But there are still plenty of challenges. I was told that Christians and Muslims often have problems in building their places of worship and cemeteries for their dead. And clearly building Buddhist shrines in areas where Buddhists have not traditionally lived is going to cause conflict.
There have also been attacks on minorities’ places of worship and business between 2011 and 2014 as well as propaganda directed against them. Extremist groups like [Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist organisation] Bodu Bala Sena were also brought to my attention.
In a country that is trying to bring about peace and reconciliation, acts like this should not be tolerated.
It seems that sometimes Article 9 of the Constitution is used and other times it is not. [Article 9 says that while Buddhism is the first religion of the country, other religions should also be protected and every citizen has the right to freedom of religion.] Perhaps it is worth discussing amendments to this part of the Constitution. It could offer better protection to minority religions.
The Catamaran: You met several representatives from the Muslim community in Sri Lanka. What were some of the issues they brought to your attention?
Izsák-Ndiaye: We discussed many problems faced by the Muslim community. Issues with land, displacement and resettlement were some of the major topics.
Many of the community members I met expressed concern that the government had failed to include Muslims in many of its initiatives. Their community was also badly affected by the war.
There also needs to be more attention paid to the relationships between Muslims and Tamils on one hand and Muslims and Sinhalese on the other.
Many local Muslims believe that Sri Lankan school students do not learn about Islam in a satisfactory way. They believe that misconceptions about Islam is damaging to their community.
Religious freedom is important and the Sri Lankan government should be paying special attention to the problems of this community by establishing appropriate mechanisms to support them.