Sri Lanka is experiencing the worst economic crisis since its independence in 1948, which has had serious implications on the human rights of its citizenry. The deepening crisis has resulted in a shortage of essentials, including food, fuel, cooking fuel, and medicine. The Indian Ocean nation has about $2 billion of foreign-currency reserves against total debt repayment worth $7 billion for 2022. The rupee continues to depreciate, and inflation has hit a 13-year high at 15.1 percent in February 2022.
Although the economic consequences of the country’s debt crisis are being discussed regularly, there is minimal focus on how this financial crisis is rapidly transforming into a human rights crisis. Drawing the attention of the nation’s government and the international community to the severe violations of human rights caused by the economic crisis is essential.
There is a shortage of medicine in the country. The lack of internal price controls and the forex crisis had made it harder for vendors to purchase drugs, leading to severe shortages of 5 percent medicines registered with the National Medicines Regulatory Authority of Sri Lanka, which include medications for diabetes, high blood pressure, and cholesterol. Clinics and hospitals turn away patients, many of whom are women and children, due to the inability to provide treatments. Every day without medication increases the risks of medical complications deteriorating citizens' right to life and violating their right to access medical care.
In Sri Lanka, all service sectors are profoundly affected by the economic crisis. Due to the effects of COVID-19, children's education in Sri Lanka has been negatively impacted. The exams of millions of school students in the Western Province in Sri Lanka were canceled this March 2022 as the country ran out of printing paper. There is also a shortage of textbooks. Children are paying the price for alleged economic mismanagement of the government and are disturbed in enjoying their right to education.
The right to adequate food is also no longer preserved as the sharp rise in food prices, and shortage of essential items such as milk powder have led to the formation of long queues around the island. The government’s attempts to hold on to foreign exchange reserves are criticized for forming basic goods shortages. The cash-strapped country battles to finance urgent imports to manage the acute shortage. The government has instituted electricity blackouts of long hours, resulting in numerous disruptions in day-to-day activities and livelihoods. Businesses are being closed down. Due to the cooking gas shortage, hundreds of bakeries were forced to close down.
The financial crisis is undoubtedly a prominent human rights crisis, and the most disadvantaged will be disproportionately affected. Citizens are at a risk of facing extreme poverty. They are facing tremendous hardships, mental distress, and social frustration. The general standard of living has drastically declined. Tragic deaths among senior citizens are escalating, who have been collapsing and dying while waiting in extreme heat for fuel. Cases of violence, including murders caused by disputes at fuel queues, are also on the rise.
Large-scale anti-government protests have flared nationwide, triggered by the economic hardships attributed to the long-standing corruption and political impotence. Though most of the demonstrations are conducted peacefully, unfortunate incidents have also occurred, such as the incident in Rambukkana where Sri Lankan police opened fire on demonstrators agitating about the recent increase in fuel prices, allegedly to control the situation and restore peace. The protests are gearing into the next phase as trade unions, political parties, students’ unions, and professional groups join the anti-government campaign calling for political and economic reforms.
The Government has evidently failed to protect its citizen’s human rights. The crisis has already endangered the full range of human rights, including economic and social rights, such as the right to an adequate standard of living and the right to health, food, and education. The country shows little capacity to fight the crisis. It is worth noting that the financial instability of small countries can nevertheless impact others, as exemplified by the Asian Financial Crisis. Thus, Sri Lanka’s crisis is indeed of international concern.
The government of Sri Lanka was reluctant to obtain the support of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). As the country continues to suffer Asia’s worst inflation rate, the government, however, decided to seek the assistance of the IMF. Sri Lanka needs international support to chart a path toward recovery and be guided to uphold economic and social rights amidst acute financial challenges. The country seeks international solid financial support for debt-service relief and debt restructuring. China and India have already offered support to Sri Lanka in the form of credit lines and currency swaps.
Considering the continuous protests and the unrest in Sri Lanka, global organizations such as the United Nations must consistently scrutinize any unreasonable use of force of authorities against protestors and any suppression of legitimate dissent. Hope remains that State parties will stand in solidarity with Sri Lanka to honor the collective and positive responsibility under the UN Charter and other human rights treaties, namely to assist other states in fulfilling economic, social, and cultural rights. It is also hoped that international actors will be able to encourage the government of Sri Lanka to seek an open and honest dialogue with the agitated citizens regarding political reforms and management of the economic crisis. Sri Lanka is in dire need of guidance and support to address the consequences of the crisis and revive hope for empowering affected people to demand respect for their human rights.
Dr. Yasoda Wijerathna