The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is seeking clarification from the government of Sri Lanka regarding the latter’s most recent Gazette notification which excludes burial for those who succumb to the Corona Virus.
Addressed to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the communique dated April 8, 2020, refers to the original guidelines of the Ministry of Health (MoH), where until March 27th, bodies of COVID- 19 victims could be either cremated or buried. It states that on March 31, amended guidelines issued by the Ministry allowed only for cremation of such victims. The communique further states that they understand that the ‘fourth amendment of the MoH Guideline came following the cremation of a COVID-19 victim of a Muslim community on 31 March 2020 in Negombo, without consultation with and against the wishes of his family.’ It further adds that the amendments are inconsistent with guidelines of the World Health Organisation (WHO), dealing with Infection Prevention and Control for the safe management of a dead body in the context of COVID-19.
While recognising the serious public health challenges posed by the spread of the virus and the precautions that must be taken to contain it, the communique also adds that they are concerned “of the lack of consideration provided and the lack of sensitivity in the MoH Guideline to different communities and their religious and cultural practices.” The communique notes that while it seems that the reasons for the amendment have not been communicated nor seem to have been decided in consultation with the ‘the relevant communities, we would like to stress that the legitimacy for such amendments should be based on the principles of legality, necessity, proportionality and non-discrimination. Indeed, when cultural or religious sensitivities are involved, an inclusive and participatory dialogue or consultation with relevant stakeholders, including the civil society and different ethnic or religious communities must be conducted before a decision is taken.’
While drawing the attention of the President to the WHO guidelines on the method of disposal of a dead body, handling of a dead body, viewing of body and sensitivity to local, customary and religious practices, the communique is seeking clarification on any additional information and comments on the allegations and concerns raised.
It is also asking for the rationale to allow only cremation of the bodies, and whether this decision was made in consultation with health experts, community members and civil society to ensure that the decision to disallow burials of COVID-19 victims ‘is non-discriminatory, necessary and proportionate to the objective pursued ‘
The communique also asks whether those personnel involved in the disposal of the bodies have been trained and informed of the need to allow close family members to view the body before it is sealed, and whether families are given advance notice that the body will be cremated.
As well, the communique asks what measures have been taken to ensure that religious and ethnic minorities are not discriminated against when acting on the MoH guidelines and that burial rites of these communities are respected and upheld in line with the right to freedom of religion or belief.
Lastly, the communique seeks clarification on the steps put in place to deal with any ‘potential rise in hate speech against Muslims and other ethnic or religious minorities in Sri Lanka, including by protecting the identity of the COVID-19 patients or deceased.’
The communique has been signed by the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Ahmed Shaheed, Special Rapporteur minority issues, Fernand de Varennes, Special Rapporteur promotion and protections of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, Fionnuala Ni Aolain and the Special Rapporteur on right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, Dainius Puras.
Read the full communique here.