Sri Lanka economic crisis requires ‘immediate global attention’: Rights experts

Greater support must be given to Sri Lanka as the country faces economic crisis and political turmoil, a group of UN human rights experts said on Wednesday in an appeal to the international community.

“Sri Lanka’s economic collapse needs immediate global attention, not just from humanitarian agencies, but from international financial institutions, private lenders and other countries who must come to the country’s aid,” they said in a statement.

The nine experts expressed alarm over record high inflation, rising commodity prices, power shortages, a crippling fuel crisis and economic collapse, as the country grapples with unprecedented political turmoil. 

Prolonged crisis 
On Wednesday, lawmakers elected six-time Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as Sri Lanka’s new President. 

Former leader Gotabaya Rajapaksa stepped down last week after fleeing the country as protestors stormed key government buildings in the capital, Colombo. 

Sri Lanka has been rocked by mass protests which erupted in March in response to shortages of food, fuel, medicines, and other essential items.   

The situation was compounded by economic reforms such as deep tax cuts and servicing debt payments, which ate into the country’s foreign exchange reserves. 

Structural gaps exposed 
The crisis has had a serious impact on human rights, the experts said.  Prolonged disrupted access to food and healthcare, has severely affected people with illnesses, pregnant women and lactating mothers who are in serious need of life-assistance. 

“Time and again, we have seen the grave systemic repercussions a debt crisis has had on countries, exposing deep structural gaps of the global financial system, and affecting the implementation of human rights,” said Attiya Waris, UN independent expert on foreign debt and human rights. 

In April, UN experts urged the government to guarantee the fundamental rights of peaceful assembly and expression during peaceful protests, as thousands gathered in front of the President’s office demanding his resignation over corruption and mishandling of the economic crisis. 

UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet condemned the violence that broke out across the country, resulting in at least seven deaths. 

Human rights approach 
As foreign reserves dried up, Sri Lanka defaulted on its $51 billion foreign debt in May.  The government took steps to restructure the debt with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which in June noted that significant progress had been made. 

“Any response towards mitigating the economic crisis should have human rights at its core, including in the context of negotiation with the IMF,” said Ms. Waris.  

The issue of Sri Lanka’s rising institutional debt had been flagged in a report issued following an expert visit in 2019.  

The report found that debt repayments were the country’s largest expenditure, and highlighted the need for complementary alternatives and pursuit of less harmful policies. 

Inflation hit a record high of 54.6 per cent this month, while food inflation rose to 81 per cent.  

The experts said the “snowballing economic and debt crisis” was deepened by the government’s hasty and botched agricultural transition, adding that the World Food Programme (WFP) has launched an emergency response as nearly 62,000 citizens are in need of urgent assistance. 

The experts who issued the statement receive their mandates from the UN Human Rights Council, which is based in Geneva. 

They operate in their individual capacity and are neither UN staff, nor are they paid for their work. 

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