SRI LANKA: Demands for economic and social rights outlawed in the country — Asian Human Rights Commission

The Sri Lankan government today issued emergency regulations to be operative from midnight tonight (November 16, 2009) which makes the services relating to oil, electricity, harbor and water resources essential services. This gazette notification means that any action taken by the trade unions for the improvement of wages and working conditions within these essential service industries will be illegal and subjected to sanctions. The sanctions may include dismissal of employees, the arrest of trade unionists and disallowing every kind of protests such as meetings, demonstrations, distribution of leaflets and pamphlets and the like. The military may also be employed to take the place of the employees for the running of these services.

These measures have been announced as a response to a trade union action, the work-to-rule in order to improve wages, which according to the trade unions, have remained stagnant for four years despite of skyrocketing food prices and those of other essential commodities such as oil, electricity, water and almost everything that is necessary for normal life. Besides this, the prices for education and health services have also increased to incredible levels.

The essential problem around which the present protest has arisen is the price of food. The price of rice and bread has increased repeatedly within the last few years despite of the government¡¦s promises to lower the prices. Many workers and housewives constantly complain of the inability to make ends meet despite of the many adjustments they have made by cutting down on various food items. As one worker, a family man with one teenage child explained, ¡§My wife and I are both working. When the prices went up first we tried to cut down on vegetables. However, gradually we had to cut down on many things. We try not to make the life of our child uncomfortable and it is I and my wife who have to undergo cuts in many things just to keep the family budget going.¡¨

The imposition of the emergency rule on the workers of these essential services comes at a time when there was expectation that the Prevention of Terrorism Act and Emergency Laws would be lifted following the declared end of the conflict between the government and the LTTE. In the triumphant mood, workers together with others held street celebrations expecting that a long period of tension created by the conflict would come to an end and that there would be greater freedom for everyone throughout the country.

However, the imposition of emergency rule over the workers of these industries only demonstrates the warning made by many human rights organisations, including the Asian Human Rights Commission, that the conditions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act and Emergency Laws, which have prevailed over the people of the north and east for many decades, will shortly also be enforced in the South.

These new regulations imposed by invoking national security laws will virtually make the executive president solely responsible for the situation in the country and virtually displace the power of the parliament and of the courts. Arrest and detention can now take place which will not be subjected to the normal laws of the country. The fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution and the procedural rights inbuilt into the criminal procedure of Sri Lanka will be suspended as long as the emergency rule remains in operation. The Ministry of Defense can now operate with full powers beyond the control of the courts also in the South. The country today is under the arbitrary control of the executive. The executive throughout the past decades has demonstrated how ruthlessly it can use its power and how powerless the population can become when the Emergency Laws are in operation.

These regulations are also imposed in a situation of the extreme political instability of the country. The resignation of the Chief of Defense Staff, General Sarath Fonseka, after making a public declaration of dissatisfaction with the government, has created intense political speculation. There is a new visible resurgence of the opposition which has declared its intention that the retired general may be the presidential candidate for the opposition if there is an announcement of a presidential election. Fears have been expressed that the government may utilise the declaration of emergency regulations in order to suppress the opposition.

Sri Lanka is a signatory to the international Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The government has also from time to time declared that it will defend the economic, social and cultural rights even if it sometimes underplays the importance of civil and political rights.

The right to food is a basic right arising out of the right to life. The right to food is the most basic of all rights. The unfettered increase in prices unaccompanied by the improvement of wages can be a basic threat to the right to food. The worker¡¦s claims and those of the trade unions is that the reason for their present actions is a result of the unbearable prices of food and other essential elements for basic living.

The right to strike which implies also the right to take legitimate actions, such as work-to-rule actions, are part of the basic rights of the workers. For many decades now the right to strike and the associated rights to take legitimate action for the improvement of living conditions have been seriously attacked by several regimes.

Among those who are most effected by serious restrictions of the right to food are women, children and disabled persons. The application of Emergency Laws will affect not only the workers but also all categories of these most vulnerable groups.

It was the government¡¦s duty to negotiate and to give into legitimate demands of the people. Instead, if repression is used as the method of dealing with people who are demanding rice and the lowering of prices, the government action will be arbitrary and in no way legitimate. Emergency regulations cannot give legitimacy to basic attacks on the rights of people.

We call upon the government to desist from the use of emergency regulations and anti terrorism laws to deal with the workers who are making legitimate demands on their behalf and those of others. We call upon the government to negotiate with the workers and their trade unionists for a reasonable solution to their problems instead of the arbitrary use of executive power.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-225-2009
Countries : Sri Lanka,