Centre for Policy Alternatives on 25 April, 2019

Understanding Emergency: Easter Sunday Attacks 2019

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The Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka were the worst incidence of terrorism since the end of the war a decade ago. Four days after the main events, the aftershocks of the attack have still not subsided and the country has not returned to normalcy. In order to deal with the situation, the President proclaimed a state of emergency and promulgated a set of emergency regulations on 23 and 24 April. The Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) fully appreciates the need for a robust and compelling response from the government in the face of terrorism, so as to reassure and restore public confidence in institutions and a swift return to political, economic, and social normalcy.

At moments like these, however, there is a danger of executive overreach, as demonstrated by our own past experience of protracted conflict, and that of other countries facing the threat of terrorism. While constitutional democracies accommodate the need for expanded executive powers in order to cope with emergencies, and accordingly the need for some regulated abridgement of individual liberties and normal checks and balances, it is critical to ensure that emergency powers are not allowed to completely extinguish the balance between freedom and security.

In particular, in equipping the state with adequate powers to respond to the threat of terrorism, we emphasise that the following points require serious attention if this is to be done consistently with the democratic values underpinning our Constitution:

  • That no ethnic or religious minority is alienated and marginalised through indiscriminate association with any terror groups in conflict with the state, and ensuring proactive measures to maintain communal harmony and safety;
  • That the exercise of emergency powers does not exceed the limits of the law and the Constitution, which limits have been expanded by the declaration of a state of emergency;
  • That emergency powers lawfully exercised have the effect of restricting fundamental rights only to the extent permitted by the Constitution and strictly necessary in a democratic society;
  • That administrative safeguards are in place to prevent or minimise arbitrary, unreasonable, or disproportionate practices, and in particular safeguards against the use of torture or other inhumane treatment;
  • That attempts are not made to evade necessary judicial and parliamentary oversight over the exercise of emergency powers; and
  • That all emergency measures are consistent with Sri Lanka’s obligations under international law, and in particular the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Judged against these constitutional standards, the emergency regulations passed yesterday give cause for concern. In the scope of offences and penalties, the extraordinary powers adversely affecting personal liberty and property, the potential for the imposition of undue and illegitimate restrictions on the freedoms of expression and assembly, and in the absence of effective oversight mechanisms, the regulations can be seen as pushing the boundaries of what is constitutionally permissible. We earnestly hope therefore that these powers are exercised with prudence and restraint, and that the current state of emergency is terminated as soon as exigencies permit.

Download a more detailed description of the contents of the current emergency regulations as well as the general legal framework governing states of emergency.

Download a full set of infographics in a high-quality PDF.

Download this document in Tamil here.

Download this document in Sinhala here.