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South Asia

'Counter-productive': Sri Lanka's Second Emergency in 5 Weeks Draws Criticism From the West

While the Sri Lankan government justified the emergency by saying that it was needed for "public stability", foreign envoys have questioned its necessity given the largely peaceful nature of the protests.

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New Delhi: Sri Lankan president Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s second declaration of a state of emergency within a span of five weeks has drawn criticism from the West and the United Nations, which have said that this move, done in order to curtail widespread protests, could be “counter-productive”.

On Friday, May 7, President Rajapaksa announced that a state of emergency would be effective from midnight, saying that it was to ensure “public stability”.

The emergency was declared while the island nation was witnessing a country-wide hartal (strike) by over 1,000 trade unions as well a wave of protests calling on the Rajapaksa administration to resign, due to its disastrous bungling of the Sri Lankan economy which has led to a chronic shortage of food and fuel.

On April 1, Rajapaksa had declared a state of emergency ahead of a planned anti-government demonstration, which was revoked on April 5.

Watch: ‘If Rajapaksas Don’t Go, There Could Be Violence in Sri Lanka,’ Says P. Saravanamuttu

US ambassador to Sri Lanka, Julia Chung, tweeted that she was “concerned” by the government declaring another state of emergency, adding that the “voices of peaceful citizens” need to be heard. Noting that Sri Lanka’s challenges require long term solutions, she claimed that the state of emergency “won’t help do that”. 

Similarly, UK envoy Sarah Hulton said that a “democratic and peaceful approach” is essential to resolving current challenges. “Emergency laws restricting those rights work against democratic dialogue and solutions,” she tweeted.

Canada, which hosts a large Sri Lankan diaspora, also highlighted that demonstrations have been peaceful so far. “It’s hard to understand why it is necessary, then, to declare a state of emergency,” said Canadian high commissioner David McKinnon.

Echoing McKinnon’s sentiments, New Zealand high commissioner Michel Appleton stated that the state of emergency did not have a “clear rationale”.

The European Union’s Delegation in Sri Lanka also issued a statement, saying that instead of solving the nation’s problems, the state of emergency could have a “counter-productive effect”.

Similar statements were also issued by envoys from Norway and Switzerland. 

The United Nations resident representative in Sri Lanka, Hanaa Singer, observed that restrictions on fundamental rights and freedoms are “only acceptable when exceptional, proportional and justified”.

“But Peaceful expression of dissent is not an emergency. Root causes for dissent must be tackled,” she tweeted.

A day earlier, United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) had condemned reports of violence against children at the public protests.

In its statement, UNICEF noted that “all actors must guarantee the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression, including for children”. It had urged law enforcement agencies to avoid using force and ensure that “fundamental guarantees for the protection of children remain applicable everywhere, at all times”.

There has been no response from Sri Lanka’s close partners, India and China, on the imposition of the state of emergency. 

Justifying the declaration of emergency, the Sri Lankan government released a statement saying that the agitations “being held throughout the country, including the capital, for the last several days have posed a grave threat to the security of public life”.

“The government affirms that the State of Emergency was declared by the President, effective yesterday (May 6), to ensure political stability which is a vital condition in overcoming the current socio-economic crisis in the country, thereby assuring public safety and uninterrupted supply of essential services,” said the government statement on Saturday.