Stopped From Protesting in Sri Lanka
About this Violation
What is Freedom of Assembly?
According to Article 14 of the Constitution of Sri Lanka, you can express your disapproval for a state action or inaction by assembling peacefully with other people, provided that you respect the relevant provisions of the law.
The right to assemble manifests itself in the working place, by the right to strike. By organising a strike, workers and trade unions express their objections to decisions of employers. A strike is defined as the denial of work organised by a body of employees as a form of protest, typically in an attempt to gain a concession or concessions from their employer.
The right to strike is legally based on the right to form a union or association by virtue of Article 14 of the Constitution. The courts have recognised an implied right to strike based on the Trade Unions Ordinance and the Industrial Disputes Act. Therefore, you can legally carry out a strike, insofar as:
- the strike is being called by a registered trade union; and
- it does not refer to an issue already settled by a collective agreement, arbitration or an award of the industrial court.
During a legal strike, the employer is obliged to continue paying wages and cannot take any retaliatory action against you, like dismissing or suspending you. According to the Trade Unions Ordinance, your employer cannot file a civil lawsuit or a tort lawsuit against you, because you participated in a legal strike called by your trade union.
- If a strike is illegal, then those who participate in it, bear responsibility.
- If a strike is legal, you cannot get arrested merely because you participated in it.
Note that in essential services, a strike is lawful if you gave notice to the employer 21 days before the strike. ‘Essential services’ are decided by the state and are fundamental to national security, the life of the community, or the preservation of public order.
File a Complaint with the Police
Warning: Before taking any of the steps listed below, you can strategically assess the risks involved with taking certain actions and make sure that you prioritise your physical and psychological safety and security.
File a Complaint with the Police
An unknown person might commit illegal acts, in order to disperse your lawful strike. He/she might commit the offence of public nuisance (Article 260 of the Penal Code) or use violence against you (for more information see the section on Torture & Violence). In any case, you should consider reporting his/her illegal actions to the authorities.
File a criminal complaint against the person
This can be done by:
- Informing, orally or in writing, a police officer or inquirer by going to the nearest police station. You should be given a receipt that the complaint is recorded, including the date, name, and Complaints Reference Book number.
- Directly filing a criminal complaint to the Magistrate. The Magistrate, after relevant inquiry, should order the police station to initiate an investigation.
Who is responsible for the offence against you?
The responsibility for the offence against you lies with the person who perpetrated it. Beyond the specific person that threatened, intimidated or harassed you, the company director might also be liable, if he/she knew what was happening and did not take measures to avoid it.
What can you expect?
The police will investigate your case and arrest the suspect, once they identify them. The case will then go on the trial stage. The court will hear the prosecution’s case, examine the accused and allow him to present their case. Then, it will make its judgment, either convicting the accused, if the case was proven beyond reasonable doubt or acquitting him/her for lack of evidence. The burden of proving the case lies with the prosecutor.
What if you are not satisfied with the outcome?
If you are not satisfied with the outcome of the trial, you can resort to a higher court for the purpose of obtaining a review and reversal of the lower court’s judgement, by filing an appeal. The appeal should be filed to the Court of Appeals within fourteen days from the judgment of the first instance court.
How can you get compensation?
Under Article 17 of the Criminal Procedure Code, the Court may order the person convicted, to pay compensation to the person affected.
Moreover, if the court orders the perpetrator to pay a fine as a form of punishment, then part of that fine can be given as compensation to the victim.
At the time of awarding compensation in any subsequent civil suit relating to the same matter, the court shall take into account any sum paid or recovered as compensation in the criminal trial.
If you are a woman who has suffered an offence, note that the Sri Lankan Police have specifically dedicated bureaus for violations against women, in Colombo, Kelaniya, Mount Lavinia, Nugegoda and Seethawaka.
Ask the state to investigate
Warning: Before taking any of the steps listed below, you can strategically assess the risks involved with taking certain actions and make sure that you prioritise your physical and psychological safety and security.
Ask the State to Investigate
If your right to freedom of assembly has been violated, you can report the human rights violation to several state authorities, as set out below.
Informing the superior officers
If an unknown police or other public officer has unduly and unlawfully restricted your freedom of assembly, it might be a good idea to start by informing the authority/or officer that is superior to the one who wronged you (if you know this information). For police officials, you can inform the Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP), then the Superintendent of Police (SP). If they are unresponsive, you can move to the Deputy Inspector General of Police (DIG) and end up to the Police Headquarters.
By informing superior authorities, your complaint may be resolved without resorting to court proceedings. However, you must put your safety first, so before lodging a complaint, you should inquire whether there are safety guarantees in place. If you decide to inform the superior authority, try to file the information in a written format, so that you have a proof of it, in case you need it in the future.
National Police Commission
If an unknown police official has acted unlawfully while dispersing or non-authorising your assembly, you should consider approaching the National Police Commission. The Commission is responsible for monitoring, supervising and sanctioning cases where the acts of police officers amount to dereliction of duty or grave misconduct, including cases of:
- arrests, searches, detention, assault, intimidation, abuse or threats;
- Refusal, or postponement to record a statement required to be made to the police;
- making deliberate distortions in statements recorded;
- miscarriage of justice resulting from misconduct by a police officer;
- undue delay in making available certified copies of statements made to the police;
- discouraging complainants and witnesses from making statements;
- use of abusive words, threats or intimidation to complainants and witnesses; and
- inaction and partiality by the police in actioning complaints made.
After you submit your complaint, the Commission will investigate it. According to the law, the Commission is empowered to ‘provide redress,’ but it seems that it mostly imposes fines and disciplinary sanctions to officers, and in few instances, it forwards cases to the court.
The National Human Rights Commission
As a human rights defender, your freedom of assembly might be disproportionately restricted by an unknown person. In that case, you can consider approaching the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL), which is responsible for investigating human rights complaints and promoting human rights protection.
What can you report?
Primarily, you can report human rights violations by state officials and state agencies. However, the HRCSL interprets their mandate broadly and include business induced violations in their work.
Who can complain?
You and your lawyer. The law also allows ‘any interested party’ to file a complaint.
How can you complain?
You can lodge your complaint in person, sent by post, by email, by fax or by giving information through the HRCSL hotline. For more technical information, see here.
What should you expect?
The commission has the power to investigate and recommend compensation. However, it cannot enforce its recommendations. 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.
Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration (Ombudsman)
For violations of your freedom of assembly, you can also consider approaching the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration (Ombudsman).
The Ombudsman is responsible for investigating complaints by the public in relation to violations of fundamental rights caused by officers of Government Departments, Public Corporations, Provincial Councils or other state Institutions. They can also suggest recommendations on how to reverse erroneous administrative decisions.
How do you file the complaint?
You file it in written form. Complaints can be lodged by hand delivery, by registered/normal post or by way of an e-mail.
Essential information to be included in a complaint
- The complaint shall be clear and brief in Sinhala, Tamil or English;
- You should clearly refer to the decision you are challenging, the officer against whom the complaint is lodged and the position he holds along with his/her address;
- You should attach copies of documents proving the alleged injustice; and/or
- You should mention the kind of relief you are seeking.
What should you expect?
The Commissioner for Administration (Ombudsman) will conduct an inquiry and make recommendations on the situation.
If you belong to the Vedda indigenous population and your freedom of assembly has been unduly restricted, you can consider informing the Wannietto trust. The Trust was created by Presidential Cabinet order "to protect and nurture Veddha Wannietto culture". By informing them about your case, you will not receive a remedy, but they can potentially offer precious advice on how to achieve redress. Importantly, by informing the Trust, and having your case registered, you will have proofs of the attack, in case the situation escalates in the future.
If you are a woman human rights defender, and your freedom of assembly has been unduly restricted, you can consider approaching the National Commission on Women, under the administration of the Ministry of Women, Child Affairs and Social Empowerment. The Commission has the power to investigate complaints of violations of the rights of women and gender discrimination and refer them to governmental and non-governmental organisation for redress, legal aid and/or mediation services.
Note that there is a Women Help Line 1938. For more information you can check this website.
Achieving justice and remedy for the violations that you suffered as a human rights defender working on business-related human rights abuses, can be a lengthy and difficult process. It may require a combination of patience and strategy, and you may have to call on a number of different resources to achieve your goal. A comprehensive approach may include using legal remedies together with other kinds of complementary strategies such as strategic campaigning, shareholder accountability strategies, grassroots mobilisation, coalition building or gaining media attention.
It can be overwhelming to think about all of these considerations right after an abuse has taken place. Before thinking about the strategies, you want to use, try to make sure you are both physically and mentally safe and strong.
Remember that you are not alone in this situation and that there are a range of organisations that can help you and provide you with immediate support in case of emergency, financial, legal and psychological difficulties. See Resource Hub.
Building a Strategic Campaign
The first thing you may want to consider is building a strategic campaign. A strategic campaign aims to exert pressure on the different strategic relationships of a business or state actor. To develop a strategic campaign, you should carefully analyse your situation and decide which actions will have the most positive impact for your case.
For example, you will have to decide whether you want to deal with your case publicly or privately, loudly or quietly, in a manner that takes into account the political and other sensitivities that exist in your country. The purpose of the strategic campaign is for you to get a clear picture of the situation, the direction you want to take your case and the concrete actions you can attempt to take to achieve this result.
This whole process will be demanding on your resources and your mental and physical health so do not hesitate to reach out and ask for help from organisations that are used to dealing with similar cases! There is no shame in doing so and they can provide you with valuable expertise. See Resource Hub.
To build a strategic campaign you and your collaborators can follow these five steps:
1- Identify your objectives and overall goal: You can do this by asking yourself questions such as What do I want to happen? What do I hope to achieve?
Your overall goal will be the long term and general outcome that you want to achieve. To reach this goal you will need to identify smaller steps and specific milestones that need to take place, these will be your objectives.
! When deciding on your objectives, make sure that they are SMART:
- Specific - well detailed, well defined and action oriented;
- Measurable- meaning that you can quantify and have an indicator of progress;
- Achievable- meaning that they can be realistically accomplished in the proposed time-frame and with the resources you possess;
- Relevant- meaning that they are relevant to your overall goal and work;
- Time-Bound- meaning that you have set a clear deadline.
2- Take the time to do a policy analysis and identify your audience: You can identify the policies and regulations that need to change, the key actions and stakeholders who can influence decisions and understand the overall political context that will influence your overall goal. You will further need to identify the stakeholders that can help you achieve your objectives. For example, who are the decision makers involved in the issue? What are the power dynamics at play? You should understand why and how each audience you approach can play a role in reaching your goal or can hinder it. Do not forget, when considering actors that could hinder your goal, to be as specific as possible and write down all details you can find on them including their names and functions.
! Note that if some corporate actors can hinder your goal, other business representatives might help you achieve it! Businesses do not all have the same policies and attitudes when it comes to the respect of human rights and the environment. By interacting with business representatives and industry groups you might find valuable allies that can provide you with support in a variety of ways including testifying on your behalf, paying for bail and fines, or speaking up on your behalf.
3- Identify your strengths, weaknesses and your message: It will be helpful for you to reflect on your internal strengths - skills, knowledge, resources, past experience - and weaknesses - missing networks, capacity for lobbying, contacts in the media or funding. Once you have identified these, you can search for opportunities that exist around you and will enable you to tackle your weaknesses and achieve your objectives. You should further consider the threats that could prevent you from achieving your objectives by asking yourself who are your opponents? Is there a negative political climate around your objective? Identifying them early will enable you to minimise the damage and safety risks they can present.
Once you have reflected on your strengths and weaknesses, you will need to identify what your audience needs to hear and present your message in a persuasive and appealing way. At their core, your messages should be the same, however, depending on the audience you will target, you will need to adapt the way they are framed. Most of the time, advocacy messages have two major components: (1) a calling for what is right and (2) a calling for the audience’s self-interest. You can find different methods to develop advocacy messages by using the key words “advocacy message” and “effective” on google.
4- Identify your tactics and activities: Depending on your situation and objectives, you will have to use different strategies and tactics to reach your goal. To choose the appropriate tactics for you to use, you can develop a ‘results chain’. The chain will start with your overall goal and outline the small steps you will need to take to get there. In your chain you can describe the assumptions you are making about the impact of the activities you plan on doing. This will help you reflect on your logic and might show you missing activities. It will further help you understand the kind of resources, be it financial or volunteers, that you will need to put your campaign into action. There are various organisations that you can reach out to for financial support. See Resource Hub.
A few examples of activities include one-to-one meetings with high level representatives, the organisation of workshops and conferences, the drafting of a letter to international civil servants, a mass participation event engaging members of the community, social media posts or petitions.
5- Monitor and Evaluate: Finally, you want to make sure that you are keeping track of the efforts you are putting into your campaign to ensure that they are working. You will also want to organise meetings to monitor the campaign and make sure it is going in the direction you want.
Grassroots mobilisation is about bringing together individuals - in your district, region, or community - to influence a specific outcome. It is one of the key elements in successful campaign strategies. Grassroots mobilisation can be highly effective, as we have seen with the #SaveAru movement, because it uses collective action at a local level to influence outcomes at the national level. When every member of the community is participating in ways that they can, and are equally responsible and invested in the cause, the movement is truly powered by collective leadership. The costs of the movement are further distributed between all members of the community and thereby become more affordable.
To build grassroots mobilisation, you and your collaborators can follow five simple steps:
1- Identify the cause you want to address and make a plan of action;
2- Find supporters and volunteers to join your campaign;
3- Reach out and partner with local organisations and community leaders;
4- Implement your plan of action; and
5- Regularly evaluate your progress.
! Do not forget that, when it comes to mobilising members of a community, listening and understanding is more important than influencing and persuading. Having several short conversations will be more efficient than a one-off long speech to a general audience!
To get started, you should identify the cause you want to address
(1). The problem that you want to tackle most probably has a root cause. For example, it can be the lack of respect for human rights and the environment by a company which operates in proximity to your village and has threatened you; the absence of legislation by the government to protect people defending the environment; or the inefficiency of local government officials to implement a law, among other potential root causes. You need to identify the root cause you want to tackle so that you can clearly define the actions and steps you want to take to resolve the issue. Defining the outcome, you are looking to achieve will also be crucial to give your movement a clear direction.
Once you have identified the cause you want to address, you can start creating awareness about your campaign and get interest from individuals in the community
(2). Communication will play a key role here and you can use different approaches such as door-to-door canvassing, face-to-face conversations, emails, phone calls or social media to reach as many community members as possible. Having a campaign website or a Facebook page can be a useful tool to speed up this process and will make you gain important visibility online! It will further constitute a good opportunity to start building the next step by building a list of potential partner organisations.
Using your website and the networks of members from the community you can approach like-minded local organisations and community leaders. See Resource Hub.
(3). To reach out to them you could offer to give a short presentation about your campaign during their events or simply provide your help during their rallies to get to know like-minded people and talk about your campaign. Usually, civil society organisations have dealt with or assisted defenders in similar contexts in the past. They can share their valuable experience with you, guide you on what to do, explain the law and your rights, guide you on where to find support and identify pro bono lawyers that can help you plead your case or provide support in building an advocacy campaign.
! You should not ignore community leaders! Community leaders can be valuable allies that you can collaborate with to convey important messages of your campaign. If a community leader endorses the changes and propositions you raise, they will be more likely to be accepted and followed by the community and your movement will gain traction. Examples of community leaders that can help you are religious leaders, local political office holders or village figureheads.
Once you have built a solid basis of supporters you can start implementing your plan of action
(4). You can take a variety of actions as part of your plan including rallies, outdoor events, in-house groups, training sessions, organising for a group of volunteers to exchange with the local representative or staging a demonstration. No matter the activity that you choose to conduct, the key to success will be having successful communication. You can keep your supporters up to date on actions conducted through SMS, WhatsApp, and encrypted apps such as Telegram and/or post your announcements for events on your campaign website and Facebook page. Do not forget to communicate with your organisers and volunteer team to make sure everyone has the same information including the date, time, and place of the events.
During your campaign, you can organise regular meetings with your supporters to evaluate the success of your actions
(5). This will enable you to reflect on what went well and what did not and give you avenues for improving your upcoming events. At the end of the campaign, it will also enable you to see if you have reached your objectives.
Reaching out to other organisations and talking about your case will give you the opportunity to build coalitions. A coalition is a temporary alliance of individuals, groups or organisations that want to achieve a common goal. Forming a coalition with other organisations that have similar values, interests, and goals as your own will allow you to combine your resources and thereby have more impact than if you acted alone. It can be of great help to shift the balance of power and increase the impact of each of your organisation's efforts. Actions taken by the coalition can be focused towards bringing attention to your and other human rights defender cases in the media, requesting for a motion filed by lawyers to be considered or request the international community to act.
To successfully build a coalition you need to take a series of steps.
- Before anything else, you should define what your main goal is. Your main goal will be at the centre of the initiative and organisations that you are going to approach are going to ask about it regularly. Ideally, you want to be able to present your goal in a manner that is easy to understand and appears attainable. To do so, you can present it through bullet points illustrating the key ideas and goals and condense it to one sentence.
- Then you should identify your key stakeholders, leaders, and players. You should be strategic when choosing the organisations to enrol in your coalitions, recognising compatible interests between you, your organisation and other groups or organisations. Stakeholders may include local civil society organisations, international non-governmental organisations and national or international trade unions.
- Once you have identified who you want to be a part of your coalition, you can start approaching and trying to mobilise them. You may need to demonstrate to the organisations that your goals are similar and compatible. You can also show them how working together will have a positive impact on everyone’s ability to reach their objectives and that the benefits from building a coalition will outweigh the costs.
- While attempting to mobilise partner organisations, you must keep in mind that building a coalition can be a long process and that your short-term goals might transform into longer-term battles. Keep committed to your objectives, with a little flexibility, so you can take advantage of new and innovative opportunities to reach your goals. Also take into account that the level of commitment of your partner organisations will differ, and although it is perfectly normal, you should hold tight to the organisations that are in it for the long haul. To do so you can see them as a steering committee for your coalition and regularly require their inputs.
- Once you have gathered all members of your coalition, you can host an event to bring all of them together and connect with one another, collaboratively discuss your goals, and show them the actions you had in mind. Adding value to your event can help attract participants. For example, you could invite a guest speaker, provide training, or build the event around a known human rights celebration.
- As you will move forward with your coalition, keep in mind to follow up with your members. Regularly thanking them for their input and recognising their efforts will keep everyone motivated and encourage initiatives. You can achieve that by using email newsletters, posts on social media or SMS channels and face-to-face meetings.
Bring media attention to your case
Another complementary strategy for your case may be to gain visibility and attention by getting media coverage. Before deciding if you want to use this strategy, you should ask yourself whether you want your case to be publicly known and talked about or if you would rather go about, it quietly. Gaining media coverage can play a pivotal role in presenting your case, promoting it in public debate and positively shaping public opinion in your favour. However, this may expose you to further retaliation, as companies may use strategic lawsuits against public participation (see section on SLAPPs) to try to silence you. For example, the company could bring a defamation suit against you, the journalist who interviewed you and/or the organisation that published the article. Importantly, you must be careful that the journalist does not reveal your current location so as not to compromise your safety.
To attract media coverage, your story should be prepared in such a way as to catch the attention of readers. You can do this by highlighting why your organisation exists, how important your work is to society and by providing details about the abuse that you have suffered. If you can, try to link your story to an issue that is currently talked about in the public space as this will be more likely to interest the media. Finally, if you can show how your story affects other people and has an impact on wider society, this will increase the interest of newspapers.
Once your story is ready, you can use social media to promote it by publishing blog posts, Instagram stories, Facebook posts and/or tweets. This will enable you to gain public attention and establish your cause before getting traditional media interested in what you have to say.
If you want the attention of mainstream media, you can collaborate with other national and international organisations to contact reporters. You can reach journalists by email, through their social networks (such as LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter) or through partner organisations. You will have a better chance of getting your interview request accepted if you choose journalists who are used to covering the same kind of story as yours.
! Be aware that journalists can receive a lot of requests so keep your emails short and to the point!
If you don't get a response to your first contact request, you can follow up by tweeting the reporter or trying to contact them by phone. Don't get discouraged as getting media attention can be a long process during which you may end up sending your story to twenty journalists before one responds.
When a journalist becomes interested in your story, they will most likely want to talk to you in person. To make sure you are well prepared for the interview, keep in mind three key points you want to make and practice answering questions with a colleague.
Once the interview is over, do not forget to thank the journalist for his or her time. Following the publication of the article, you can forward it to regional or national newspapers thereby gaining exposure and/or circulate it among your partner organisations.
Bring attention to your case to other businesses and industry groups
Although business-related human rights abuses find corporate actors at the heart of the human rights abuses, you should not forget that businesses and industry groups do not all have the same policies, attitudes, and views when it comes to the respect for human rights and the environment.
You might want to look for allies in the private sector by reaching out to business representatives and industry groups and explain the issues you are facing. Private actors might become valuable allies who can provide you with support in a variety of ways including by testifying on your behalf, paying for bail and fines, or speaking up on your behalf.
Bring attention to your case at the international level
Equally important is to make your case known at international level.
National and international non-governmental organisations are allies in your strategic campaign and have a fundamental role to play in channelling information to relevant institutions abroad. One of their main tasks is to submit the so-called shadow reports to international bodies or during the Universal Periodic Review Process. Those reports analyse how and if the government is realising human rights at the national level and provide the necessary background information to international organisations. In turn, if the shadow reports reveal information on serious and systematic violations of the rights protected by the conventions in the country concerned, international institutions can initiate inquiries or visits to the territory of a State Party. By making your case known to NGOs and INGOs, it can be included in their shadow report. Although this will not give you a tangible remedy, you will have added your brick to the wall of human rights in your country.
You can also bring international attention to your case through the various organisations worldwide that work to protect human rights defenders - including Frontline Defenders, Protect Defenders and Peace Brigades International. You can register your case with one of them, and they will identify the best ways to support you internationally. Be aware that they may publish something on their website or link you with other victims or experts worldwide. If your case is widely known, the offenders might hesitate to retaliate against you in the future. There are also many organisations that work on business and human rights issues that can share legal resources with you, both domestically and internationally. Most importantly, both kinds of organisations can direct you on where to find funding and donors to continue your legal case and to propose other resources necessary for your work as a human rights defender.
Bring attention to your case in political spheres
You can also contact political figures to draw attention to your case. For example, you can ask a foreign diplomat - by contacting the foreign ministry of the country in question or the embassy - to listen to your story, to come to your trial or simply to have a photo taken with you. This will show your abuser that your case is being taken seriously at the international level and may make them think carefully about retaliatory actions in the future.
If you are uncomfortable with contacting diplomats of foreign countries, you can contact international civil servants instead. International civil servants are not linked to a specific country but rather to an organisation. To contact them, you can look up the offices of OHCHR, UNDP or the ILO in your country. These organisations often organise informal events such as consultations and webinars during which you can have the opportunity to raise your concerns and build a support network.