Then they came for the trade unionists | Daily FT

Prominent trade union activist Joseph Stalin was arrested this week, continuing the crackdown on activists and protestors by the Government. The Sri Lanka Teachers’ Union Secretary, was arrested for participating in a large protest march on 28 May, apparently against a court order. 

On that day, tens of thousands of students, teachers, trade unionists, and activists walked to what is called GotaGoGama, in support of the ongoing protests against then-President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. 

Many prominent trade unionists, including those who support the United National Party, participated in these protests. Yet there is a clear selectivity in the arrests made by the police and glaring political bias. The selective arrest of Stalin is arbitrary and done with malicious intent to instil fear amongst the general public against expressing their rights.

The Government has been using emergency regulations to harass and arbitrarily detain activists seeking accountability for the country’s current economic predicament. Protests and rallies are an important means of this free expression and cannot and should not be curtailed by weaponising the law. The greater right of the citizenry to peaceful protests and express their will outweighs any inconvenience caused to the public as cited by the Police for the arrests.

Human Rights Watch noted that the Police and military have sought to curtail protests through the intimidation, surveillance, and arbitrary arrests of demonstrators, civil society activists, lawyers, and journalists.

In a statement, the rights group noted that: “The Sri Lankan Government’s crackdown on peaceful dissent appears to be a misguided and unlawful attempt to divert attention from the need to address the country’s urgent economic crisis,” adding: “Sri Lanka’s international partners should be clear that they need to be working with a rights-respecting administration to address Sri Lanka’s deeply rooted economic problems.”

Ironically, a little over a year ago, then a Member of Parliament, Ranil Wickremesinghe made an astute observation that if the Government was to arbitrarily arrest trade union leaders like Joseph Stalin, Sri Lanka would lose the GSP plus concessions granted by the European Union. 

This was when the Gotabaya Rajapaksa Government detained the trade union leader for violating COVID-related regulations. However, since assuming office, President Wickremesinghe’s administration has arrested over 40 persons involved in protests on rather flimsy charges.

Sri Lanka’s international partners must take note of this rapidly deteriorating human rights situation. President Wickremesinghe has cared very little for national public opinion in the past and this time around has even less of a reason to do so since he was not elected on a popular mandate. He does, however, care about international perceptions and opinions. 

It is therefore imperative that Sri Lanka’s international partners, especially those representing the democratic countries, speak in unison against the alarming militarisation and brutality of the current regime. These are early signs that should not be ignored in order to prevent a catastrophic State failure as witnessed in the 1980’s under President J.R. Jayewardene.

The decision on the extension of the GSP plus trade concessions by the EU and the impending new resolution at the UN Human Rights Council in October will have an overall impact on the whole country. 

While a Government and its leaders must be held accountable for the consequences of their actions that may cause severe hardships to the general public, it is imperative that Sri Lanka’s international partners hold those who are actively violating the rights of the people individually accountable for their actions. 

Sri Lanka’s bilateral and multilateral international partners, including the International Monetary Fund with which the Government seeks to enter into financial assistance programs, must demand the adherence to human rights law and commitments and ensure the basic rights of the people of Sri Lanka are protected. 

A starting point to this would be the immediate release of the protesters, activists and civil society leaders and the ending of the campaign of intimidation against protestors.