Raazi Muhammadh Jaabir, APMA 2020, Sri Lanka

“They burned my wife.”’

Shafeek Rinosa, tears streaming down his cheeks, mumbled these words. Hair dishevelled and barely able to talk, his face covered with a small white towel, Shafeek sat uncomfortably on an old broken easy chair.

Fathima, Shafeek’s wife, was admitted to the hospital on May 2 for difficulty in breathing. She was later diagnosed with Covid-19. Leaving his 25-year old son Sabry with his mother, Shafeek and the rest of their family were taken by military personnel to a quarantine centre in Batticaloa, eight hours away.

Fathima died on May 5 and her body was cremated in an undisclosed location. Sabry was pressured by officials of the Infectious Diseases Hospital to agree to have his mother’s body cremated as per pandemic-related government health regulations. One day later, though, Sabry was informed by hospital officials that his mother was, in fact, Covid-negative, and that the earlier diagnosis was erroneous.

Sri Lanka is one of the few countries that forcefully cremate the victims of COVID 19. A number of deceased Muslim persons with or without proper diagnosis of Covid 19 were cremated. Most of the persons cremated on a mere suspicion proved negative after the cremation.

Funeral right is the part and parcel of religious belief, observance and practice. Everyone has the right to choose the option of burial or cremation according to their belief as provided for in Article 18 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Sri Lanka is a signatory. Moreover, Article 10 of the Sri Lankan Constitution confers a non-derogable right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including the freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief of his choice. The decision of the Sri Lankan government for enforced cremation is arbitrary and in contravention of both UNDHR and Fundamental Rights enshrined in the Constitution of Sri Lanka. The World Health Organization, in its guidance for handling the remains of COVID 19 victims, clearly stipulates ‘Apply the principle of cultural sensitivity’.

Moreover, Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) protects everyone’s right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. The Human Rights Committee in its General Comment 22 paragraph 4 advises that the freedom to manifest religion or belief may be exercised “either individually or in community with others and in public or private”.

It elaborates that the freedom to manifest religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching encompasses a broad range of acts and the concept of worship extends to ritual and ceremonial acts giving direct expression to belief, as well as various practices integral to such acts, including ritual formulae or ceremonial acts.

Article 27 of ICCPR provides that in “States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their own religion, or to use their own language.” Similar language is used in Article 2.1. of the 1992 Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities.  Moreover, Article 4.1. of the latter stipulates that states are required to ensure that persons belonging to minorities may exercise their human rights without discrimination and in full equality before the law.

Many human rights defenders and organizations have raised their concerns over the forced cremation practice in Sri Lanka. Amnesty International issued a statement condemning the stand of the health authorities 8 pertaining to the burial heedless of WHO guidelines permitting it. In their letter dated April 8, 2020 four UN special Rapporteurs have raised their concerns over the forceful cremation of COVID 19 victims and requested the government to reconsider their decision.

Defying all of these efforts aimed at bringing redress to the grieved, Sri Lanka still forcefully cremates the victims of COVID 19. The last victim who returned from Australia even after his PCR test confirmed negative at the airport, was forcefully cremated on 14th of September. The violation continues unabated.

Will the world hear their voices?

Photo from Al-Jazeera

*The contents of this opinion piece are solely those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the view of the either Global Campus of Human Rights Asia Pacific, the universities under it, or the APMA program.

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