Maldives

Executive Summary

The Republic of Maldives is a multiparty constitutional democracy. In September 2018 voters elected Ibrahim Mohamed Solih president. Observers considered the election mostly free and fair despite a flawed pre-election process, which was overseen by the former administration. Parliamentary elections held on April 6 were well administered and transparent according to local and international observers.

Maldives Police Service (MPS) is responsible for internal security and reports to the Ministry of Home Affairs. Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) is responsible for external security and disaster relief and reports to the Ministry of Defence. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

Significant human rights issues included: allegations of torture by government authorities; significant problems with the independence of the judiciary; trafficking in persons; criminalization of same-sex sexual conduct; and the lack of a legal framework recognizing independent trade unions.

The government took some steps to investigate officials who committed human rights abuses, including enforced disappearances, and established investigative commissions.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, except on religious matters, and the government generally respected this right.

Freedom of Expression: Ministry of Youth, Sports, and Community Empowerment regulations prohibit publishing literary material without first seeking authorization from the National Bureau of Classification. The regulations define publication of literary material as “any writing, photograph, or drawing that has been made publicly accessible electronically or by way of printing, including publicizing or circulating on the internet.”

The constitution prohibits utterances contrary to tenets of Islam or the government’s religious policies. In September the MPS arrested a local citizen for “criticizing Islam” on his twitter profile, days after he reported receiving death threats online after he claimed he was an atheist and would encourage prosecular activities on his island. As of September the MPS was also investigating the death threats made against him.

On October 10, the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Community Empowerment ordered the human rights-focused NGO Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN) to “suspend all activities” for the duration of an MPS investigation into “anti-Islamic” rhetoric used in the MDC’s 2015 “Preliminary Report on Radicalization in Maldives,” which explored institutional practices such as teaching of Islam, enforcement of laws, public awareness and education, social media and the work of religious organizations. The ministry cited Article 39 of the Associations Regulation in their suspension decision, which authorizes the Registrar of Associations to suspend associations for no more than a year in cases in which they “engage in any activity that under the laws and regulations of the Maldives is specified as an act that undermines national security or societal harmony.” In a press statement defending the suspension, the government argued the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights noted freedom of speech and expression could not be exercised “maliciously, in the form of hate-speech, or in a manner that contributes to public discord and enmity.” The investigation was initiated at the request of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs following an online campaign calling for the government to ban the MDC. Local media reported the MPS issued summons to the report authors and MDN Executive Director Shahindha Ismail to submit to police questioning. After the MPS found that the report mocked Islam, the government removed the MDC from the registry of associations on November 5, formally banning their activities.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. Criticism of the government and debates on societal problems were commonplace, but media did not question Islamic values or the government’s policies on religion.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The Parliament Privileges Act allows authorities to force journalists to reveal their sources, but authorities did not routinely take advantage of this provision. Media reported higher levels of self-censorship in reporting on religion due to concerns about harassment and threats. Several outlets continued to avoid publishing bylines to protect their journalists from possible punitive actions or harassment. NGO and journalist sources stated media practiced self-censorship on matters related to Islam due to fears of harassment from being labeled “anti-Islamic.”

There were no known restrictions on domestic publications, nor were there prohibitions on the import of foreign publications or materials, except for those containing pornography or material otherwise deemed objectionable to Islamic values, such as Bibles and idols for worship. The restriction applies only to items for public distribution; tourists destined for resort islands were not prohibited from carrying Bibles and other religious paraphernalia for their personal use. In August, the Maldives Customs service confiscated 109 books from a public book fair in Male organized by a private bookshop for content that “violated the principles of Islam,” but no charges were pressed.

The government generally did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.

The Communications Authority of Maldives (CAM) is the regulatory body mandated to enforce internet content restrictions on sites hosted within the country and to block domestic access to any websites. CAM maintained an unpublished blacklist of all offending websites. Although CAM did not proactively monitor internet content, it accepted requests from ministries and other government agencies to block websites that allegedly violated domestic laws on anti-Islamism, pornography, child abuse, sexual and domestic violence, and other prohibitions. The MPS reported it was investigating one website for unlawful content as of September. The MPS also reported receiving 15 complaints over online content posted on social media and closing seven of these cases due to lack of evidence while the remaining eight cases were still under investigation as of September.

In a January press statement, the MPS announced it was “meeting with” individuals posting online content that “disrupts public unity and peace” and those responding to such content “with verbal attacks that encourage violence and hatred.” The MPS went on to question former member of parliament Ibrahim Ismail to “clarify information” after he received online death threats following a report from an online news website claiming one of his tweets “insulted Prophet Muhammed”; independent reporter Aishath Aniya, who received death threats online for criticizing the design of a new mosque in Male City; Mohamed Siruhan, who allegedly operates a Facebook page that profiles citizens who the page claims are apostates; and religious scholar Sheikh Ali Zaid. The latter two had criticized Rasheed and Aniya over posts they believed “insulted Islam.” As of December, the MPS did not report any updates to this activity. Also in January, President Solih formed a ministerial committee to “find solutions to the issue of increasing criticism of Islam and related incidents,” but the committee had not revealed details of their activities as of December. NGOs reported an increase in online death threats and attacks against those perceived to be critical of Islam since January with little action from authorities.

The law prohibits public statements contrary to the government’s policy on religion or the government’s interpretation of Islam. In response to the law, there were credible reports that academics practiced self-censorship. The government censored course content and curricula. Sunni Islam was the only religion taught in schools.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.

The constitution provides for “freedom of peaceful assembly without prior permission of the State.” A 2013 law on peaceful assembly restricts protests outside designated areas, and a 2016 amendment to the law further restricts the designated areas for lawful protests in the capital city. Protesters must obtain prior written permission from the MPS to hold protests outside designated areas and from the Ministry of Home Affairs to hold protests within the designated area. Local civil society organizations continued to condemn the restrictions as unconstitutional, but noted permits were regularly issued and not used to stifle opposition viewpoints. In March the MPS dispersed a small gathering at the Artificial Beach in Male City after the Male City Council revoked their permission to use the area. The city council noted it had granted authority for opposition People’s National Congress (PNC) to use the area but argued there was no PNC presence at the gathering. Since November the MPS took action to disperse nonpreauthorized nightly protests in Male organized by the opposition in support of former president Abdulla Yameen.

In February the MPS deployed pepper spray to disperse opposition protestors gathered in a corridor near the cardiology center inside Indhira Gandhi Memorial Hospital in Male in support of former president Abdulla Yameen. The MPS’ “Use of Force Review” committee announced they were investigating the incident but had not shared a final report as of December.

The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the government imposed some limits on this freedom. The government allowed only clubs and other private associations that did not contravene Islamic or civil law to register.

NGOs reported that although sporadically enforced, a 2015 associations regulation threatened their freedom of operation. The regulation requires human rights and other NGOs to seek government approval before applying for domestic assistance above MVR 25,000 ($1,630) or for any foreign assistance. The regulation also requires organizations to submit a membership registry to the government and grants the registrar of associations sweeping powers to dissolve organizations and enter organizations to obtain documents without a search warrant.

The Political Parties Act restricts registration of political parties and eligibility of state funds to those parties with 10,000 or more members. A 2016 amendment to the act requires all political parties to submit fingerprints with each membership application, legalizing a 2011 Elections Commission requirement. Forms without fingerprints would be considered invalid, and those persons would not be counted as members of a political party. Transparency Maldives (TM) and the MDC raised concerns the law and subsequent amendments restricted the constitutional right to form and participate in political parties.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. Authorities reported, however, that migrant workers who overstayed their visas were held in the Hulhumale Detention Center for weeks or sometimes even years while awaiting the necessary travel documents from their respective governments prior to deportation. NGOs also reported concerns with a September High Court ruling declaring migrant workers who are arrested cannot be released until they identify a local national who will take responsibility for monitoring them until the conclusion of a possible trial.

Not applicable.

f. Protection of Refugees

Refoulement: The law obligates the state not to expel, return, or extradite a person where there is substantial evidence to believe the person would be in danger of being subjected to torture. The HRCM’s sixth annual antitorture report investigating one case involving the government violating the principle of nonrefoulement in the case of one foreign detainee. HRCM reported the case remains under investigation and the foreigner remained in the country as of September.

Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees.

Not applicable.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.

Recent Elections: The parliamentary elections held in April were well administered and transparent according to the TM and international election observers. Despite an assessment the overall election was well administered, the TM highlighted issues of concern including unverified reports of vote buying, lack of transparency in political financing, abuse of state resources and barriers for women’s equal participation in the electoral process.

The presidential elections held in September 2018 were generally free and fair, despite a flawed pre-election process which was overseen by the previous administration, according to local and international observers. The international community and local observers identified several issues of concern during the pre-election phase, including the disqualification of opposition candidates, restrictions on monitoring and candidacy, widespread disenfranchisement of voters, appointment of loyalists in key positions at the Election Commission (EC), and misuse of government resources for former president Yameen’s campaign. Immediately after the election, local observers reported minor administrative issues on voting day, but no issues that could have affected the results of the election as announced by the EC. On October 10, 2018, Yameen formally contested the presidential election results on the grounds of fraud and vote rigging. On October 21, 2018, the Supreme Court ruled there was no constitutional basis to question the legality or results of the election, citing a lack of evidence in Yameen’s petition.

Political Parties and Political Participation: Former president Abdulla Yameen was sentenced in November to five years’ imprisonment for money laundering. The opposition alleges Yameen’s arrest in February, his detention until March, and a court order to freeze his bank accounts were intended to obstruct opposition campaigning for the parliamentary elections that took place in April.

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women in the political process, and they did participate. The TM noted, however, a disproportionately low number of female candidates to contest the parliamentary elections in April. Of the total 350 parliamentary candidates, 35 were women, and only four women were elected to the 87-member parliament. Women’s rights activists highlighted lack of government and political party effort to encourage political participation of women. Legislation passed in December set aside 33 percent of local council seats in April 2020 elections for female candidates.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, and the government generally implemented the law effectively. Nonetheless, officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices with impunity and the government and judicial system have been slow to investigate and prosecute cases of corruption. Suspected cases of corruption in the judicial system also stymied the ability to provide additional oversight. There were isolated reports of government corruption during the year.

Corruption: The independent Anti-Corruption Commission has responsibility for investigating corruption charges involving senior government officials. According to NGOs, executive interference, a narrow definition of corruption in the law, and the lack of a provision to investigate and prosecute illicit enrichment limited the commission’s work.

In December 2018 President Solih established a Presidential Commission on Corruption and Asset Recovery to investigate corruption cases originating between February 2012 and November 2018. As of December the commission had not issued a report of its findings.

In August parliament removed former Supreme Court judge Abdulla Didi over eight ethics standards violations, including alleged abuse of authority and receipt of a one million dollar bribe to sentence former president Mohamed Nasheed to jail under terrorism charges. Ghaniya Abdul Gahoor, Didi’s spouse and former deputy ambassador to Malaysia, was also removed from her position during the investigation.

Financial Disclosure: The constitution requires parliamentarians to submit annually to the secretary general of parliament a statement of all property owned, monetary assets, business interests, and liabilities. The constitution also requires the president and each cabinet minister to submit a similar statement to the auditor general and for each judge to submit a similar statement to the Judicial Service Commission (JSC). It was unclear whether all officials submitted these statements, which do not require public disclosure. The law does not stipulate criminal or administrative sanctions for noncompliance and does not require the vice president to disclose income and assets.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

A number of domestic human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials often were cooperative and responsive to their views. The government deregistered and formally banned human-rights focused NGO MDN in November for using language the Ministry of Islamic Affairs argued criticized Islam in the MDC’s 2015 “Preliminary Report on Radicalization in Maldives.”

NGOs reported that although sporadically enforced, a 2015 associations regulation threatened their freedom of operation. The regulation requires human rights and other NGOs to seek government approval before applying for domestic assistance above MVR 25,000 ($1,630) or for any foreign assistance. The regulation also requires organizations to submit a membership registry to the government and grants the registrar of associations sweeping powers to dissolve organizations and enter organizations to obtain documents without a search warrant.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The HRCM is a constitutionally recognized independent institution with a mandate to promote and protect human rights under the constitution, Maldivian Islamic law, and regional and international human rights conventions ratified by the country. NIC is a constitutionally recognized independent institution with a mandate to investigate allegations of human rights violations by law enforcement agencies and employees, and it has the authority to forward any cases with criminal elements to police for further investigation. Both the ruling coalition and NGOs questioned the independence of the HRCM, which they reported was biased towards the former government.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape against both men and women, as well as spousal rape and domestic violence including physical, sexual, verbal, psychological, and financial abuse. The law also extends protection to wives against being forcibly impregnated by their husbands against medical orders and includes an extensive list of other abuses for which protection is provided. The law allows courts to issue restraining orders in domestic violence cases and criminalizes any actions against these orders. A man may be convicted of rape in the absence of a confession only if there are two male witnesses or four female witnesses willing to testify. In the case of a child, the burden of proof is lower. Penalties range from four-months’ to 10-years’ imprisonment, depending on factors such as the age of the victim.

NGOs and other authorities reported MPS officers were reluctant to make arrests in cases of violence against women within the family, believing such violence was justified. Reportedly, this made victims reluctant to file criminal cases against abusers. While the MPS received 387 cases of domestic violence as of September, only seven had been forwarded to prosecutors.

The Ministry of Gender, Family, and Social Services received reports of rape, sexual offenses, and domestic violence and conducted social inquiry assessments of cases they submitted to the MPS. They also provided psychological support to victims during MPS investigations.

To streamline the process of reporting abuses against women and children, the Ministry of Gender, Family, and Social Services established family and children’s service centers on every atoll in 2016. Residential facilities were established in only four of the centers to provide emergency shelter assistance to domestic violence and other victims. Authorities and NGOs both reported the service centers remained understaffed and underresourced, especially lacking budgets to travel to attend cases in islands. Staff employed at the centers lacked technical capacity and were forced to divide their time between administrative duties and casework. During the year the ministry began providing technical casework training to all social workers working in the centers, and reported having trained 99 percent of the staff as of September.

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): There were no data on the frequency of FGM/C, although certain religious leaders have intermittently called for the practice to be revived since 2014. Authorities reported no recorded cases but local NGOs believed the practice persisted and societal stigma restricted public discussion of the issue.

Other Harmful Traditional Practices: A 2015 amendment to the penal code states only Maldivian Islamic law penalties may be imposed for hadd (robbery, fornication, homosexual acts, alcohol consumption, apostasy) and qisas (retaliation in kind) offenses. Penalties could include hand amputation for theft and stoning to death for adultery. A woman was sentenced to death by stoning for extramarital sex in January, but the Supreme Court overturned the sentence. No hadd penalties were enforced during the year.

Sexual Harassment: The law bans sexual harassment in the workplace, detention facilities, and any centers that provide public services. NGOs reported that while the law requires all government offices to set up sexual harassment review committees, a significant number of government offices had failed to establish these committees or in cases where the committees had been set up, employees were unaware of their existence.

In contrast to previous years where no criminal charges were filed for cases of sexual harassment, the MPS reported forwarding two out of a total 45 received cases for prosecution. In July charges were filed for the first time against a local citizen accused of sexually harassing a woman on the street.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.

Discrimination: The law prohibits gender discrimination including in workplaces, educational institutions, and service providers, such as hospitals, but discrimination against women remained a problem. NGOs reported authorities more readily accused women than men of adultery, in part because visible pregnancies made the allegedly adulterous act more obvious, while men could deny the charges and escape punishment because of the difficulty of proving fornication or adultery under Islamic law. Women’s rights activists reported that women who initiated divorce proceedings faced undue delays in court as compared to men who initiated divorce proceedings. According to women’s rights activists, there were no policies in place to provide equal opportunities for women’s employment, despite provisions in the constitution and the law.

Birth Registration: Citizenship is derived through one’s parents. Under the law a child born of a citizen father or mother, regardless of the child’s place of birth, may derive citizenship. The Ministry of Gender, Family, and Social Services reported receiving cases where parents had either neglected to register their children or the Family Court had refused to register the marriages where the marriage ceremony was held outside of the country. In those instances, the Family Court subsequently refused to register any children born out of these marriages. The ministry received seven cases of denial of birth registration as of October.

Education: Education is free, compulsory, and universal through secondary school. The Ministry of Gender, Family, and Social Services handled 36 cases of children being deprived of education as of October. The ministry said this included schools’ refusal to enroll children due to missing identification documents or parental refusal to send children to school, in some cases based on religious reasons. Parents had either neglected to register their children in order to obtain necessary identification documents or the Family Court had refused to register the marriages of the parents in cases where the marriage ceremony was held outside of the country and subsequently refused to register any children born out of these marriages. The ministry reported in such cases the ministry was able to intervene to convince individual schools to enroll these children following consultation with the Ministry of Education. NGOs and activists noted the effect of religious extremism on child rights was an emerging issue but lacked a baseline study determining its prevalence.

Child Abuse: The law stipulates sentences of up to 25 years in prison for those convicted of sexual offenses against children. If a person is legally married to a minor under Islamic law, however, none of the offenses specified in the legislation is considered criminal. The courts have the power to detain perpetrators, although most were released pending sentencing and allowed to return to the communities of their victims. The MPS investigates and the Ministry of Gender, Family, and Social Services is in charge of following up on reports of child abuse, including cases of sexual abuse. Half of the total cases received by the Ministry of Gender, Family, and Social Services as of July were cases of child abuse, the majority involving sexual abuse. Of the child abuse cases received by the MPS , 43 percent were also sexual abuse cases, with the MPS forwarding only 16 percent of these cases for prosecution as of September. Human rights activists reported the lack of effective coordination between authorities handling child abuse cases remained a problem.

Early and Forced Marriage: A new Child Rights Protection Act, ratified in November, prohibits any marriage of a child under 18 years of age, replacing a 2016 amendment to the Family Regulation under which the Family Court was required to petition the Supreme Court for approval for girls and boys under age 18 to marry. The Ministry of Gender, Family, and Social Services was also to submit an assessment of the proposed marriage to the Supreme Court. Such a marriage could have proceeded only after the Supreme Court granted the Family Court approval for the union. The Ministry of Gender, Family, and Social Services reported receiving five requests for assessments to carry out child marriages of 16 and 17 year olds but the ministry had yet to conduct any assessments as of the change in law. The Supreme Court reported there were no child marriages during the year, but NGOs reported anecdotal evidence that some child marriages were conducted outside of the legal system. In November local media reported a group of religious fundamentalists from Raa Maduvvari island had entered into unregistered, unlawful marriages with girls, some as young as nine years old. In two separate operations in December, the MPS arrested the parents of one minor girl and four males involved with the fundamentalist group. On December 19, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued an Information Brief on the ongoing operations on the island, stating they were part of the government’s broader strategy in stopping and preventing the spread of violent extremist ideology in the country.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The Child Rights Protection Act ratified in November prohibits using, procuring, and offering children for pornographic performances. The crime is punishable by imprisonment of five to 25 years. The act stipulates that a child between ages 13 and 18 involved in a sexual act is deemed not to have given consent, “unless otherwise proven.” The law also treats the prostitution of children by a third party as a form of human trafficking with exploitation under the Prevention of Human Trafficking Act, subject to a 15-year maximum sentence. The penal code allows the Prosecutor General’s Office to lodge multiple charges against a perpetrator for a single offense. For sex trafficking, this means the office can file charges for human trafficking under the Prevention of Human Trafficking Act and for prostitution under the Child Rights Protection Act and aggregate the penalties so perpetrators serve longer sentences for a single offense. During the year the MPS investigated six cases of child pornography, and forwarded two for prosecution as of July. It also investigated two reports of child prostitution, but closed both after finding no evidence of any prostitution. The Ministry of Gender, Family, and Social Services received two reports of commercial sexual exploitation of children as of July. The Ministry and NGOs reported that, although there have been no confirmed reports of child sex tourism, government authorities lack the capacity to monitor the guesthouse tourism sector in remote islands.

Institutionalized Children: Local NGO Advocating the Rights of Children (ARC) released a report in 2016 detailing abuses in government-run “safe homes.” ARC reported children routinely spent many months at these homes, although they were intended to be temporary stopovers for children being taken into state care. According to ARC, the safe homes were inadequately furnished and equipped, lacked basic essentials, and were often understaffed, resulting in inadequate care, protection, and education for institutionalized children. The Ministry of Gender, Family, and Social Services reported a ratio of two to three care workers per every 10 to 12 children housed in one of the two government children’s homes, while the other employed three care workers per every 20 children. The ministry also reported both homes housed more children than their capacity allowed. NGOs reported staff were untrained to care for several children with autism housed in these facilities. The country lacked a juvenile detention center, so youth offenders were cohoused with juvenile victims of abuse. During the year there were several reports of children in the two government children’s homes running away from the institutions. NGOs noted the incidents reflected the inadequate supervision of the children by overstretched workers. The HRCM also reported investigating one case of 10 employees of Kudakudhinge Hiya children’s home mistreating 22 children living in the home, as of December.

International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

The public practice of religion other than Islam is prohibited by law, and the government did not provide estimates on the number of Jewish residents in the country. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

The constitution and law provide for the rights and freedom from most types of discrimination for persons with disabilities. Although the constitution provides for freedom from discrimination in access to employment for persons with disabilities, the Disabilities Act does not do so. The Disabilities Act provides for the protection of the rights of persons with disabilities as well as financial assistance. The act mandates the state to provide a monthly financial benefit of not less than MVR 2,000 ($130) to each registered individual. NGOs reported the National Social Protection Agency (NSPA), which handles the National Registry, has strict conditions and a cumbersome screening process that prevent the majority of persons with disabilities from being registered. The NSPA requires an assessment from a medical center in Male City, which can cost up to MVR 40,000 ($2,600) for some families living in the islands who have to travel and stay in Male City for lengthy periods while the assessment is completed. The NSPA has also published the requirements for inclusion in the National Registry and has rejected several applications. NGOs noted inclusion on the registry is a precondition to access several other benefits provided for persons with disabilities, including priority in accessing social housing schemes and special accommodations during voting.

Although no official studies have been concluded, NGOs which operate throughout the country estimated as much as 10 percent of the total population of persons with disabilities had been subjected to various forms of abuse and 40 to 60 percent of girls or women with disabilities, especially those who are visually impaired, were subject to sexual abuse. The families of these victims often do not report these cases to authorities, because the police investigation and judicial process is inaccessible to persons with disabilities.

Government services for persons with disabilities included special educational programs for those with sensory disabilities. Inadequate facilities and logistical challenges related to transporting persons with disabilities between islands and atolls made it difficult for persons with disabilities to participate in the workforce or consistently attend school. The vast majority of public streets and buildings were not accessible for wheelchair users.

The government integrated students with disabilities into mainstream educational programs at primary and secondary level. Most large government schools also held special units catering to persons with disabilities who cannot be accommodated in the mainstream classes. Each school also has a disability ambassador, and all teachers receive special training. Nonetheless, children with disabilities had virtually no access to transition support to higher secondary education.

Maldives Immigration reported approximately 200,000 legal foreign workers as of September, with an additional estimated 63,000 undocumented foreign workers, mostly from Bangladesh and other South Asian countries. NGOs reported government agencies implemented discriminatory policies towards expatriate laborers while Bangladeshi workers faced harassment and violence by local citizens. In an August statement, state-owned Waste Management Corporation announced many of their employees who are Bangladeshi were often subjected to physical violence and verbal attacks while on the job.

The law prohibits same-sex sexual conduct. Under the penal code, the punishment includes imprisonment of up to eight years, as well as a provision for a supplementary punishment of 100 lashes imposed under Maldives Islamic law. None of the legal provisions prohibiting discrimination covers discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. No organizations focused on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) problems in the country. There were no reports of officials complicit in abuses against LGBTI persons, although societal stigma likely discouraged individuals from reporting such problems. Local citizens who expressed support for LGBTI rights on social media reportedly were targeted for online harassment as “apostates” or irreligious. In July authorities filed murder charges against three male Bangladeshi migrant workers over the death of their colleague, a Bangladeshi man named Luthufaru, in May. The MPS reported the suspects had confessed to killing Luthufaru for unwanted advances and forced attempts to have sex. In November the MPS arrested two men for vandalizing a local coffee shop, allegedly due to the shop’s employment of an individual whose attire did not conform to gender stereotypes.

The trial of six men arrested in 2017 and charged in connection with the murder of Yameen Rasheed, a prominent blogger and social media activist who disappeared in 2017, continued during the year. Police initially stated a group of young men, unaffiliated with any organization, had killed Rasheed because they believed he mocked Islam and that they were investigating unspecified persons of interest who may have encouraged the suspects in committing the crime. Rasheed had received multiple death threats before his disappearance, which were reported to police, but according to Rasheed’s social media accounts, his friends, and family, police had not responded or investigated. NGOs reported an increase in online death threats and attacks against citizens perceived to be critical of Islam. While the government announced intentions to look into the matter (see section 2.a.) in January, NGOs reported the government failed to take action in these cases.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The constitution provides for workers’ freedom of association; however, there is no specific law protecting the right to freedom of association, which is required to allow unions to register and operate without interference and discrimination. As a result, the court system refused to recognize trade unions officially. Worker organizations are usually treated as civil society organizations or associations without the right to engage in collective bargaining. Police and armed forces do not have the right to form unions. The Freedom of Peaceful Assembly Act effectively prohibits strikes by workers in the resort sector, the country’s largest money earner. Employees in the following services are also prohibited from striking: hospitals and health centers, electricity companies, water providers, telecommunications providers, prison guards, and air traffic controllers. The Home Ministry enforces the act by arresting workers who go on strike, but there were no such arrests during the year. In June resort workers from JA Manafaru went on a hunger strike to protest the resort management’s decision to dismiss several employees. The conflict was resolved, without any dismissals, after Tourism Minister Ali Waheed went to the resort and held discussions with the management and representatives of the resort workers’ association, Tourism Employees Association of the Maldives (TEAM). TEAM noted this incident indicated the government is capable and willing to hold tripartite discussions even if it is not mandated under current domestic legislation.

The government did not always enforce applicable laws. Resources, inspections, and remediation were inadequate, and penalties were not sufficient to deter violations. The Labor Relations Authority (LRA) is mandated to oversee compliance of the Employment Act and its related regulations. The Employment Tribunal examines and adjudicates legal matters arising between employers and employees and other employment problems, but its processes are cumbersome and complicated. In addition, because the LRA does not regularly screen labor violations such as nonpayment of wages for elements of trafficking, the Employment Tribunal adjudicates some potential trafficking cases. Violators who refused to correct violations or pay fines were referred to the courts, whose decisions often were ignored. The cases are heard in the Dhivehi language, which few foreign workers understood. Foreign workers may not file a case with the tribunal unless they appoint a representative to communicate for them in the local language. If an employer fails to comply with a decision of the tribunal, the case must be submitted to the Civil Court, which often delays decisions. TEAM reported the judicial system continued to delay final decisions on numerous such cases, some older than six years of age. The Employment Tribunal only hears cases submitted within three months for cases involving unfair dismissals and within six months of the alleged offense for all other violations of the Employment Act. A September 2018 amendment to the Employment Tribunal regulation that states dismissed or withdrawn appeals can only be resubmitted once, after paying a MVR 500 ($32) fine, was still in place. Previously, there was no restriction on the number of times such cases could be resubmitted.

Under the law, some workers’ organizations were established as civil society organizations, specifically in the tourism, education, health, and shipping (seafarers’) sectors, although these functioned more as cooperative associations and had very limited roles in labor advocacy. The Teachers Association of the Maldives (TAM) and TEAM were among the more active workers’ organizations, along with the Maldivian Ports Workers. In September the workers’ associations, including TEAM, TAM, Maldivian Ports Worker, and newly established Maldives Health Professionals Unions jointly registered an umbrella organization called the Maldives Trade Union Congress, which aims to work in solidarity for the rights of workers in all major industries.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

All forms of forced or compulsory labor are prohibited, but the government did not effectively enforce applicable laws.

Resources, inspections, and remediation were generally inadequate, and penalties were not sufficient to deter violations. The foreign worker population, especially migrant workers from Bangladesh, were particularly vulnerable to forced labor in the construction industry, as were Sri Lankan and Indian women engaged in domestic work. Maldives Immigration detained undocumented workers at Hulhumale Detention Center, an immigration-processing center near Male, until deportation or repatriation. There were continued reports of bureaucratic delays in receiving passports from foreign missions for undocumented immigrants and substandard facilities at the immigration-processing center. Maldives Immigration reported it screened the workers for victims of trafficking, but there were reports some of the detained and deported undocumented workers should have been identified as trafficking victims.

Under the penal code, forced labor carries a penalty of up to eight-years’ imprisonment. Under section 29 of the Maldives Prevention of Human Trafficking Act, confiscation, alteration, or withholding of identity and travel documents is a crime, and perpetrators are subject to up to five-years’ imprisonment. In 2015 parliament approved the National Action Plan to Combat Trafficking in Persons for 2015-19. The penalty for human trafficking is a maximum sentence of 10 years. As of December the MPS and Maldives Immigration reported they were investigating more than 35 labor recruiters or agencies allegedly engaged in fraudulent practices. In September, Maldives Immigration denied entry to two Bangladeshi nationals reportedly engaged in trafficking Bangladeshi migrant workers to the country. Employee associations reported concerns the alleged traffickers were deported with no further action or attempts to identify local traffickers who worked with them to traffic victims.

The LRA, under the Ministry of Economic Development, recommended to the ministry and Maldives Immigration the blacklisting of companies that violated the law, precluding the companies from bringing in new workers until violations were rectified the LRA reported, however, that the Ministry of Economic Development and Maldives Immigration did not always take their recommendations to blacklist and allowed companies to continue operations. In addition to blacklisting, the law allows a fine of not more than MVR 50,000 ($3,250) for forced labor and other violations of the Employment Act, but the LRA reported this amount was not sufficient to deter violations by large companies.

As of September, Maldives Immigration reported the number of documented foreign workers at approximately 200,000. They estimated there were an additional 63,000 undocumented foreign workers in the country, predominantly men from Bangladesh and other South Asian countries. Some of the foreign workers in the country were subject to forced labor in the construction and tourism sectors. Both the LRA and TEAM noted an increasing trend of resorts hiring third party subcontractors to work in departments such as maintenance, landscaping, and laundry services. These subcontractors reportedly hired undocumented migrant workers who received a lower salary, work longer hours, and often experience delays in payment of salaries and work without a legal employment contract. Most victims of forced labor suffered the following practices: debt bondage, holding of passports by employers, fraudulent offers of employment, not being paid the promised salary, or not being paid at all. Domestic workers, especially migrant female domestic workers, were sometimes trapped in forced servitude, in which employers used threats, intimidation, and in some cases sexual violence to prevent them from leaving.

Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits the worst forms of child labor and sets the minimum age for employment at 16, with an exception for children who voluntarily participate in family businesses. The law prohibits employment of children under age 18 in “any work that may have a detrimental effect on health, education, safety, or conduct,” but there was no list of such activities. The law prescribes a fine of no less than MVR 1,000 ($65) and no more than MVR 5,000 ($325) for infractions.

The Ministry of Gender, Family, and Social Services, the Ministry of Economic Development, and the Family and Child Protection Unit of the MPS are tasked with receiving, investigating, and taking action on complaints of child labor. According to the LRA, the MPS and the Ministry of Gender, Family, and Social Services none of the complaints received related to child labor or employment of minors. Additionally, the LRA found no cases of child labor during its regular labor inspections during the year. Resources, inspections, and remediation were inadequate, because no additional resources were dedicated specifically to uncover additional child labor cases.

Government officials and civil society groups reported concerns that some Bangladesh migrant workers in the construction and service sectors were under 18, but possessed passports stating they were older. Civil society groups also reported that minors were used in the transport of drugs for criminal gangs.

Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings .

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law and regulations prohibit discrimination with respect to employment and occupation based on race, color, sex, political opinion, religion, social origin, marital status, or family obligations. The government generally enforced those laws and regulations, with some exceptions that included unequal pay for women and discrimination in working and living conditions of foreign migrant workers, especially from Bangladesh.

According to NGOs, there were no policies in place to provide equal opportunities for women’s employment, despite provisions in the constitution and the law. The law and constitution prohibit discrimination against women for employment or for equal pay or equal income, but women tended to earn less than men for the same work and also because they tended to work in lower-paying industries. The absence of child-care facilities made it difficult for women with children to remain employed after they had children.

The Employment Act establishes an Employment Tribunal to examine and protect the rights of employers and employees in legal matters and other employment problems.

Discrimination against migrant workers was pervasive (see section 7.b.).

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The country does not have a national policy on minimum wage. Wages in the private sector were commonly set by contract between employers and employees and were based on rates for similar work in the public sector. According to 2016 Asian Development Bank statistics, 8.2 percent of citizens lived below the poverty level of MVR 29 ($1.90) per day.

The law establishes maximum hours of work, overtime, annual and sick leave, maternity leave, and guidelines for workplace safety. In March, President Solih announced civil servants would be allowed six months of maternity leave, instead of the previously allocated three months, and one month’s paternity leave instead of the previously allocated three days. The law provides for a 48-hour per week limit on work with a compulsory 24-hour break if employees work six days consecutively. Certain provisions in the law, such as overtime and public-holiday pay, do not apply to emergency workers, air and sea crews, executive staff of any company, or workers who are on call. Employee associations reported some government schools and hospitals placed a cap on overtime pay. The law mandates implementation of a safe workplace, procurement of secure tools and machinery, verification of equipment safety, use of protective equipment to mitigate health hazards, employee training in the use of protective gear, and appropriate medical care, but there were no national standards for safety measures, and as a result such measures were at the discretion of employers. The LRA also reported difficulties in assessing safety standards during inspections due to the lack of national standards. In January the government published safety regulations for the construction industry which requires employers to provide employees with safety equipment such as helmets, belts, and masks, but NGOs reported the government failed to monitor implementation of these standards. All employers are required to provide health insurance for foreign workers.

In 2013 parliament approved the country’s accession to eight core International Labor Organization conventions, but the government had not finalized the bills required for the conventions to be legislated into domestic law as of December.

The LRA and Employment Tribunal are charged with implementing employment law, and the LRA conducted workplace investigations and provided dispute resolution mechanisms to address complaints from workers. The most common findings related to lack of or problematic provisions included in employment contracts and job descriptions, overtime and other pay, and problems related to leave. The LRA preferred to issue notices to employers to correct problems, because cases were deemed closed once fines were paid. The LRA typically gave employers one to three months to correct problems but lacked sufficient labor inspectors and travel funding to enforce compliance.

Migrant workers were particularly vulnerable to exploitation, worked in unacceptable conditions, and were frequently forced to accept low wages to repay their debts with employment agencies, especially within the construction sector. Female migrant workers, especially in the domestic service sector were especially vulnerable to exploitation. Employers in the construction and tourism industry often housed foreign workers at their worksites. Some migrant workers were exposed to dangerous working conditions, especially in the construction industry, and worked in hazardous environments without proper ventilation. During the year there were multiple accidents at construction sites in Male, including the death of a migrant worker struck by a falling rock at a construction site in Hulhumale in February.

The Employment Act protects workers who remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety without jeopardy to their employment.

Sri Lanka

Executive Summary

Sri Lanka is a constitutional, multiparty democratic republic with a freely elected government. Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected president on November 16. Accredited domestic and international observers described the election as peaceful and technically well managed but noted that unregulated campaign spending, abuse of state resources, and media bias affected the level playing field. Following the results of the presidential election, the prime minister and cabinet peacefully resigned, and a new cabinet was sworn in on November 22. The timeline for parliamentary elections in 2020 was pending at year’s end.

The Sri Lanka Police are responsible for maintaining internal security and are under the Ministry of Defense. The military, also under the Ministry of Defense, may be called upon to handle specifically delineated domestic security responsibilities, but generally without arrest authority. The nearly 11,000-member paramilitary Special Task Force, a police entity that reports to the Inspector General of Police, coordinates internal security operations with the military. Civilian authorities generally maintained control over the security forces.

On April 21, suicide bombs killed 258 individuals. The attacks were the responsibility of the National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ), members of which had sworn allegiance to the Islamic State. The following day the government declared an emergency under the Public Security Ordinance, deployed the armed forces domestically, and gave them arrest authority. During the emergency the government banned three Islamist organizations: the NTJ, Jamathe Millathe Ibrahim, and Vilayath As Seylani. The three Islamist groups remained banned after the emergency expired on August 22. President Maithripala Sirisena subsequently ordered the military to remain deployed across the country after the expiration of the emergency, although no longer with arrest authority. President Rajapaksa in turn extended the order on November 22.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful killings by the government; torture by government agents; sexual abuse; arbitrary detention by government entities; restrictions on freedom of expression, including unjustified arrests of journalists and authors, and limited social media blocking; widespread corruption; violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons, and the criminalization of same-sex sexual conduct.

Often police reportedly harassed civilians, often with impunity, although the government took steps to investigate and prosecute some officials who committed human rights abuses. The government did not implement a mechanism to hold accountable military and security personnel accused of atrocities during the 1983 to 2009 civil war as called for in 2015 by UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) Resolution 30/1.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression, including for the press. According to UN and civil society reports, intelligence operatives conducted domestic surveillance operations and harassed or intimidated members of civil society. During the emergency, following the April 21 attacks, the government banned face coverings such as the burqa, niqab, and full-face helmets, citing national security and public safety concerns. The ban on face coverings was briefly lifted when the emergency regulation lapsed; however, in late August, the cabinet passed legislation permanently banning the burqa, the niqab, and similar face coverings, after consultation with the Muslim community.

Freedom of Expression: Authorities restricted hate speech, including insult to religion or religious beliefs through the police ordinance and penal code. The government requested media stations and outlets to refrain from featuring hate speech in their news items and segments.

In April Kurunegala police arrested Shakthika Sathkumara, a 33-year-old novelist, under the ICCPR law. His short story, “Ardha,” which reportedly dealt with homosexuality and child sexual abuse in a Buddhist monastery, angered members of the country’s Buddhist clergy. He was released on bail in August after being remanded for four months. On July 29, Amnesty International declared Sathkumara a prisoner of conscience. At his criminal hearing on December 10, the court granted the government’s request for a continuance in the case until May 2020. His fundamental rights petition challenging the constitutionality of his arrest was continued until June 2020.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. Journalists in the Tamil-majority North and East, however, reported harassment, intimidation, and interference from the security sector when reporting on sensitive issues related to the civil war or its aftermath. They reported the military contacted them to request copies of photographs, lists of attendees at events, and names of sources from articles. They also reported the military directly requested that journalists refrain from reporting on sensitive events, such as Tamil war memorials or land occupation protests, and that they feared repercussions if they did not cooperate.

In May, after communal violence following the Easter Sunday attacks of April 21, the HRCSL issued guidelines that called for all electronic media institutions to exercise sensitivity when broadcasting news due to concerns over the Muslim community being unreasonably subject to unsubstantiated suspicion and disrespect.

On September 9, then president Sirisena brought the state television Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation under the purview of the Ministry of Defense. The Working Journalists Association of Sri Lanka and the Free Media Movement strongly condemned the decision. Two fundamental rights petitions, one filed by a civil society activist and one filed by a member of parliament, were pending before the Supreme Court.

Violence and Harassment: There were reports of harassment and intimidation of journalists when covering sensitive issues.

On April 20, police arrested and released on bail Shanmugam Thavaseelan, a correspondent of the English-language online newspaper the Tamil Guardian, following a complaint filed by the navy stating the journalist, who was covering a disappearances protest, assaulted and caused injury to a navy officer attached to the ‘Gotabaya’ Camp in Mullaitivu. Charges reportedly were that he had threatened and photographed protesters at an earlier disappearances rally.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF), in a June statement, expressed alarm over a resurgence in police attacks on Tamil journalists and urged authorities to ensure that police cease the harassment of reporters. On May 27, Tamil daily Virakesari journalist Kanapathipillai Kumanan, who was covering a dispute between Hindu and Buddhist temples, was physically assaulted and verbally abused by the officer in charge of the Kokkilai police station. According to RSF, the May 27 violence against the reporter was the third reported attack on a journalist of Tamil origin during the year.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: On several occasions print and electronic media journalists noted they self-censored stories that criticized the president or his family. These journalists said they had received direct calls from supporters of the government asking them to refrain from reporting anything that reflected negatively on the ruling party or opposition politicians.

There were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. The government placed limited restrictions on websites it deemed pornographic. In the aftermath of the Easter Sunday attacks, the government imposed a temporary ban on several social media platforms, including Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram. The nine-day ban on social media was briefly reimposed May 13 after anti-Muslim riots.

State university officials allegedly attempted to prevent professors and university students from criticizing government officials. The government interfered with university appointments and credentialing of individuals based on legal activities and political expression.

On November 9, the Jaffna University leadership endorsed the September 27 decision of the University Grants Commission of Sri Lanka (UGC) to debar K. Guruparan, the head of the Department of Law, from legal practice. Leaked letters from the Ministry of Defense to the UGC showed that Guruparan was debarred for pursuing habeas corpus cases filed in 2017 by three families regarding the disappearance of 26 youths in Jaffna allegedly involving the military. Plainclothes military intelligence personnel travelling with Attorney General Department representatives threatened the lawyers and families outside of the court.

In May the UGC removed the university’s vice chancellor, Jaffna Ratnam Wigneswaran, without cause or an inquiry. An affidavit in response to a fundamental rights petition filed by the chairman of the UGC at the Supreme Court showed that the removal was due to a complaint from the Directorate of Military Intelligence of the Army regarding Wigneswaran’s participation in an event called Thamil Amutham, where a reconstructed memorial monument carrying Tamil nationalist proclamations was unveiled within the university premises.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association. The government restricted these rights in a limited number of cases.

At the conclusion of his visit to the country in July, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Freedom of Association and Peaceful Assembly Clement Nyaletsossi Voule observed that authorities applied laws in discriminatory ways, with Tamil protests and gatherings in the North and East disproportionately facing crackdowns. Although he noted that the country had a comprehensive legal framework governing the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, it was “scattered in different sets of laws and regulations which seem to be interchangeably enforced.”

The law provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, and the government generally respected this right. The constitution stipulates that the freedom of assembly may be restricted in the interest of religious harmony, national security, public order, or the protection of public health or morality. It also may be restricted in the interest of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others, or in the interest of meeting the just requirements of the general welfare of a democratic society. Under Police Ordinance Article 77(1), protesters must seek permission from the local police before holding a protest. The emergency regulations in force from April 22 to August 23, following the Easter Sunday attacks, granted the security services extensive powers to detain and question suspects without court orders for up to 90 days. Under the emergency, the government instituted nighttime curfews and curtailed freedom of movement, and it permitted the president to ban public assembly.

The law provides for freedom of association but criminalizes association with or membership in banned organizations. Christian groups and churches reported that some authorities classified worship activities as “unauthorized gatherings” and pressured them to end these activities. According to the groups, authorities sometimes justified their actions, stating the groups were not registered with the government, although no law or regulation specifically requires such registration.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons (IDPs), refugees, returning refugees, stateless persons, or other persons of concern.

The country’s civil war, which ended in 2009, caused widespread, prolonged displacement, including forced displacement by the government and the LTTE, particularly of Tamil civilians. According to the Ministry of National Policies, Economic Affairs, Resettlement and Rehabilitation, Northern Province Development and Youth Affairs, 25,889 citizens remained IDPs as of August 31. The large majority resided in Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mannar, and Batticaloa Districts in the North and East. While all IDPs had full freedom of movement, most were unable to return home due to: land mines; restrictions designating their home areas as part of HSZs; lack of work opportunities; inability to access basic public services, including acquiring documents verifying land ownership; and lack of government resolution of competing land ownership claims; and other war-related reasons. The government did not provide protection and assistance to these IDPs in welfare camps.

The government promoted the return and resettlement of IDPs by returning approximately 8,000 acres of military-seized land since 2015 and making additional state land available for landless IDPs. The military and other government agencies supported the resettlement of IDPs by constructing houses, schools, toilets, and providing other social services on newly released lands.

f. Protection of Refugees

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to IDPs, refugees, returning refugees, and asylum seekers.

After the April 21 attacks, more than 1,600 Muslim and Christian refugees were forced to leave their homes in the wake of retaliatory attacks and seek protection in three welfare centers in Negombo and Pasyala. Local community members threatened to destroy the houses of Pakistani, Afghan, and Iranian refugees. The government, police, and security forces assisted UNHCR to ensure the protection of refugees. In the months following the April 21 attacks, most refugees who were not resettled outside of the country had returned to their rented residences.

Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status. A 2005 Memorandum of Understanding allows UNHCR to operate in the country to conduct refugee registration and status determinations. UNHCR also facilitates durable solutions for refugees, in the form of resettlement to third countries. The government relied on UNHCR to provide food, housing, and education for refugees in the country and to pursue third-country resettlement for them. Asylum seekers, on the other hand, had to rely on the support of NGOs for basic needs.

Access to Basic Services: The law does not permit refugees and asylum seekers to work or enroll in the government school system, but many worked informally. Refugees and asylum seekers registered with UNHCR have access to free health care in state hospitals.

Not applicable.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.

Recent Elections: Domestic and international observers concurred that the 2019 presidential election was technically well managed, with few reports of violence. Observers pointed out, however, that unregulated campaign spending, abuse of state resources, and media bias affected the level playing field. Commonwealth observers commended the country on a largely peaceful, credible, and orderly election, but they expressed concern that some groups experienced fear and intimidation. Both local and international observers reported several dozen incidents of postelection violence, particularly targeting minority groups.

Political Parties and Political Participation: According to foreign election observers, although the election was free and fair, media institutions were biased towards the two leading candidates, and political parties used social media platforms to spread disinformation and hate speech. The EU election observation mission’s preliminary findings stated: “The presidential election was largely free of violence and technically well-managed, but unregulated campaign spending, abuse of state resources and media bias affected the level playing field.” According to the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), more than 1.2 million migrant workers were not able to exercise their franchise due to the requirement that they return to their home voting districts to vote. ANFREL reported accessibility challenges to 1.3 million persons with disability, especially wheelchair-bound and elderly voters at polling centers.

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women or members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate. The HRCSL wrote to the election commission on November 8 raising concerns over the disenfranchisement of 8,000 bhikkhunis (female Buddhist priests) due to procedural issues preventing the issuance of national identity cards to them. The HRCSL noted that the Department of Registration of Persons does not recognize bhikkhuni as a profession for the purpose of national identity cards.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively, and officials often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. There were numerous reports of government corruption during the year.

Corruption: Corruption remained a significant and continuing problem. International companies frequently reported requests for bribes on issues ranging from customs clearances to government procurement. As of November the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption arrested 42 individuals on suspicion of providing and accepting bribes during the course of the year.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires all candidates for parliamentary, local government, provincial, and presidential elections to declare their assets and liabilities to the speaker of parliament. Some but not all candidates in parliamentary elections submitted their financial reports to the speaker, but authorities did not enforce compliance. By law members of the public may access records relating to the assets and liabilities of elected officials by paying a fee.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

A number of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials somewhat were cooperative and responsive to their views.

The United Nations and Other International Bodies: UNHRC continued to have a country-specific resolution related to addressing justice, accountability, and reconciliation in the country. In March UNHRC adopted a resolution granting two additional years to the country to fulfil its commitments to reconciliation and transitional justice.

At the 42nd session of UNHRC in September, the core group expressed concern that the country had made “slow” progress on accountability, calling on UNHRC and the international community “to give the necessary attention and support to Sri Lanka.” Despite the country’s cosponsorship of the 2015, 2017, and 2019 resolutions, senior government officials continued to make public statements attacking the UN process and asserting they would not take any steps to hold “war heroes” accountable, despite their commitment to initiate a criminal justice process, with international participation, to address war-time abuses.

On September 25, the UN Department of Peace Operations banned deployment of nonessential Sri Lankan army troops in UN peacekeeping missions in response to the appointment of Shavendra Silva as army commander. The United Nations also decided to repatriate Sri Lankan Army units and individual officers serving with peacekeeping missions beginning in October. It suspended future Sri Lankan army deployments except where suspension would expose UN operations to serious operational risk. Nonetheless, on November 13, a new contingent of 243 army personnel of the Combat Convoy Company were deployed to Mali to serve in the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The HRCSL has jurisdiction to investigate human rights violations. The HRCSL consists of five commissioners and has divisions for investigations, education, monitoring and review, and administration and finance. There are 10 regional offices across the country. The HRCSL accepts complaints from the public and may also self-initiate investigations. After an allegation is proven to the satisfaction of the commission, the HRCSL may recommend financial compensation for victims, refer the case for administrative disciplinary action or to the attorney general for prosecution, or both. If the government does not follow an HRCSL request for evidence, the HRCSL may summon witnesses from the government to explain its action. If the HRCSL finds the government has not complied with its request, the HRCSL may refer the case to the High Court for prosecution for contempt by the Attorney General’s Department, an offense punishable by imprisonment or fine. By statute the HRCSL has wide powers and resources and may not be called as a witness in any court of law or be sued for matters relating to its official duties. The HRCSL generally operated independent of and with lack of interference from the government.

The HRCSL was also responsible for vetting of the country’s peacekeepers. The memorandum of understanding between the United Nations, HRCSL, Ministry of Defense, and Ministry of Law and Order for the vetting of military and police participants in peacekeeping operations was finalized in December 2018. As of August 2019, the vetting process was carried out by the HRCSL.

In April the government appointed five commissioners to the Office for Reparations, an independent authority created by the Office for Reparations Act passed in October 2018. The office is mandated to identify aggrieved victims qualified for reparations and provide appropriate compensation individually or collectively.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law prohibits rape and domestic violence, but enforcement of the law was inconsistent. Section 363 of the penal code does not explicitly criminalize rape of men. Section 365 B (1), which is gender neutral, criminalizes “grave sexual abuse.” The prescribed penalties for rape are seven to 20 years’ imprisonment and a fine of at least 200,000 Rs ($1,160). For domestic violence, a victim can obtain a protection order for one year and request a maintenance allowance. The law prohibits spousal rape only if the spouses are legally separated.

Women’s organizations reported police and judiciary responses to rape and domestic violence incidents and cases were inadequate. The police Bureau for the Prevention of Abuse of Women and Children conducted awareness programs in schools and at the grassroots level to encourage women to file complaints. Police continued to establish women’s units in police stations. Services to assist survivors of rape and domestic violence, such as crisis centers, legal aid, and counseling, were generally scarce nationwide due to a lack of funding.

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): Some of the country’s Muslims historically practiced FGM/C, but it was not a part of public discourse until recent years when media articles drew attention to the practice. There were no statistics on the current prevalence of FGM/C in the country, which does not have laws against FGM/C. In May 2018 the director general of health services from the Ministry of Health issued a circular prohibiting medical practitioners from carrying out FGM, but FGM/C itself is not criminalized. Several civil society groups led mostly by Muslim women continued to campaign against FGM/C.

Sexual Harassment: Sexual harassment is a criminal offense carrying a maximum sentence of five years in prison. Sexual harassment was common and was a particularly widespread problem in public transport.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no credible reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.

Discrimination: Women have equal rights to men under civil and criminal law. Adjudication of questions related to family law, including marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance, varied according to the customary law of each ethnic or religious group, resulting in discrimination.

Birth Registration: Children obtain citizenship from their parents.

Child Abuse: According to reports and evidence from fundamental rights applications and complaints filed with police during the year, school authorities frequently violate government regulations on banning corporal punishment in schools. There was also growing public concern about the high incidence of violence, including sexual violence, against children in the family and community. Despite successful efforts to reform the penal code, the basic criminal law, and other laws on child abuse, cruelty to children and their exploitation in trafficking, and child labor persisted. Penalties vary based on the type and degree of child abuse, but trials tended to drag on for years.

Most child abuse complaints received by the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA), usually via a toll free 24-hour hotline, related to violence inflicted on children, and the rest of the complaints addressed related issues such as cruelty to children, deprivation of a child’s right to education, sexual abuse, and child labor. Teachers, school principals, and religious instructors reportedly sexually abused children. In a number of child rape cases, government officials were the suspected perpetrators. Civil society organizations working on children’s issues asserted children had insufficient mechanisms to report domestic violence or abuse safely. Although police stations are supposed to have an officer dedicated to handling abuse complaints from women and children, the government did not consistently implement this practice nationwide. Although the police Children and Women Bureau plays a major role in investigating abuse cases, depending on the severity of the case, some fall under the jurisdiction of the magistrates’ courts as outlined in the criminal procedure code. In these instances police file a formal complaint sheet and begin a judicial medical process. The attorney general files indictments for child abuse cases exclusively in high courts.

The NCPA’s founding chairman, Harendra de Silva, said the organization failed at its core mandate due to increasing politicization in recent years. He stated the thousands of child abuse cases that were pending in courts and other state institutions, including the NCPA, signaled a “trend of corruption.” According to the NCPA, at least 9,000 complaints are filed annually on various forms of abuse, including cruelty to children, sexual harassment, rape, grave sexual abuse, child labor and trafficking. The NCPA began awareness programs during the year, such as Jana Paura or “people’s shield”, to educate the public on child protection and children’s rights. The Attorney General’s Department reported that, from January to July 31, some 3,113 child abuse cases were concluded where 1,881 indictments were served in high courts; advice was sought on 399 cases; and 833 cases were discharged.

On June 12, the Supreme Court ruled that Chief Inspector Waruni Bogahawatta of the Matara police station, an award-winning female police officer, was responsible for a minor girl’s unlawful arrest and deprivation of her liberty. The officer allegedly detained her without justification and subjected her to degrading treatment while she questioned the child in a bid to frame a local politician for rape. The Supreme Court also ordered Bogahawatta to pay approximately 98,600 Rs ($570), and the state to pay approximately 49,300 Rs ($285), as compensation to the victim.

Early and Forced Marriage: Civil law sets the minimum legal age for marriage at 18 for both men and women, although girls may marry at age 16 with parental consent. According to the penal code, sexual intercourse with a girl younger than 16 years, with or without her consent, amounts to statutory rape. The provision, however, does not apply to married Muslim girls older than 12. The Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act, which applies only to Muslims, permits the marriage of girls as young as 12 at the consent of the bride’s father, other male relative, or a quazi (a judge who interprets and administers Islamic law).

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits the commercial sexual exploitation of children, the sale of children, offering or procuring a child for child prostitution, and practices related to child pornography, but authorities did not always enforce the law. The minimum age of consensual sex is 16.

In June UN-appointed independent rights experts said the scale of the country’s child sex tourism industry has reached such worrying proportions that the authorities should act immediately. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child said that the scourge was “very widespread,” particularly in the North of the country.

Displaced Children: IDP welfare centers and relocation sites exposed children to the same difficult conditions as adult IDPs and returnees in these areas.

International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

The Jewish population is very small. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

Various laws forbid discrimination against any person with physical, sensory, intellectual, or mental disabilities in employment, education, air travel, other public transportation, and access to health care. In practice, however, discrimination occurred in employment, education, and provision of state services, including public transportation. Children with disabilities attended school at a lower rate than other persons. There were regulations on accessibility, but accommodation for access to buildings and public transportation for persons with disabilities was rare. Observers of the November presidential election noted process improvements were needed to ensure participation of persons with disabilities in future elections.

Both local and Indian-origin Tamils maintained that they suffered longstanding, systematic discrimination in university education, government employment, housing, health services, language laws, and procedures for naturalization of noncitizens. Throughout the country, but especially in the North and East, Tamils reported security forces regularly monitored and harassed members of their community, especially activists, journalists, and former or suspected former LTTE members.

The government had a variety of ministries and presidentially appointed bodies designed to address the social and development needs of the Tamil minority. The government implemented a number of confidence-building measures to address grievances of the Tamil community. The Office of National Unity and Reconciliation, established in 2016, continued to coordinate the government’s reconciliation efforts. The office focuses on promoting social integration to build an inclusive society, securing language rights for all citizens, supporting a healing process within war-affected communities via the government’s proposed Commission for Truth, Justice, Reconciliation, and nonrecurrence of the violence. The Tamil National Alliance and Defense Ministry continued to meet in accordance with a formal dialogue on returning military-held lands in the Northern and Eastern Provinces inaugurated in 2017.

On August 29, then president Sirisena, in his capacity as minister of defense, directed officials to estimate the extent of lands under occupation and release them appropriately with the consultation of the security forces and to submit a report before October 1 to the governor of the Northern Province. The submission was pending at year’s end.

On November 16, three buses carrying Muslim voters from Puttalam to Mannar were reportedly stopped in Thanthirimale by Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) supporters. The SLPP supporters burned tires and threw rocks, eventually hitting one of the buses and breaking a window. At least one shot was reportedly fired, but no one was injured.

In May extremist groups led by Buddhist monks and politicians attacked and vandalized mosques, Muslim-owned businesses and homes in Kurunegala, Gampaha, and the Puttalam Districts, resulting in one death and extensive property damage. In Negombo and Chilaw, police initially were slow to respond or stop perpetrators from damaging Muslim buildings and assaulting Muslim individuals resulting in the death of a Muslim citizen and damage to Muslim-owned businesses. Buddhist monks also used hate speech on social media in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday attacks; a chief prelate of the Asgiriya chapter stated, “Don’t eat or drink from Muslim shops. Traitors who have destroyed this country shouldn’t be allowed to live in peace”.

The country’s indigenous people, known as Veddas, reportedly numbered fewer than 1,000. Some preferred to maintain their traditional way of life, and the law generally protected them. They freely participated in political and economic life without legal restrictions, but some did not have legal documents.

The law criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults. Those convicted of engaging in same-sex sexual activity in private or in public face 10 years’ imprisonment. Although prosecutions were rare, human rights organizations reported police used the threat of arrest to assault, harass, and sexually and monetarily extort LGBTI individuals. Antidiscrimination laws do not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Transgender persons continued to face societal discrimination, including arbitrary detention, mistreatment, and discrimination accessing employment, housing, and health care.

Persons who provided HIV prevention services and groups at high risk of infection reportedly suffered discrimination. In addition, hospital officials reportedly publicized the HIV-positive status of their patients and occasionally refused to provide health care to HIV-positive persons.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right of workers to form and join unions of their choice. Exceptions include members of the armed forces, police officers, judicial officers, and prison officers. Workers in nonessential services industries, except for workers in public-service unions, have the legal right to bargain collectively. The law does not explicitly recognize the right to strike, but courts have recognized an implied right to strike based on the Trade Unions Ordinance and the Industrial Disputes Act. Nonunion worker councils tended to represent labor in export processing zone (EPZ) enterprises, although several unions operated in the zones. According to the Board of Investment, which operates the EPZs, if both a recognized trade union with bargaining power and a nonunion worker council exist in an enterprise, the trade union would have the power to represent the employees in collective bargaining.

Under Emergency Regulations of the Public Security Ordinance, the president has broad discretion to declare sectors “essential” to national security, the life of the community, or the preservation of public order and to revoke those workers’ rights to conduct legal strikes. In addition to the Public Security Ordinance, the Essential Public Services Act of 1979 allows the president to declare services provided by government agencies as “essential” public services. In 2018 and also during the year, the government used the essential public-services act to declare the Sri Lankan Railway and petroleum sector as essential sectors in attempts to force striking union members back to work.

The law prohibits retribution against striking workers in nonessential sectors. Seven workers may form a union, adopt a charter, elect leaders, and publicize their views, but a union must represent 40 percent of workers at a given enterprise before the law obligates the employer to bargain with the union. The law does not permit public-sector unions to form federations or represent workers from more than one branch or department of government. The Labor Ministry may cancel a union’s registration if it fails to submit an annual report for three years.

The law prohibits antiunion discrimination. Labor laws do not cover domestic workers employed in the homes of others or informal-sector workers.

The law allows unions to conduct their activities without interference, but the government enforced the law unevenly. Violations for antiunion discrimination may result in a fine of 100,000 Rs ($578). The law requires an employer found guilty of antiunion discrimination to reinstate workers fired for union activities, but it may transfer them to different locations. In general these penalties were insufficient to deter violations. Only the Labor Ministry has legal standing to pursue an unfair labor practice case, including for antiunion discrimination.

Since 1999 the Labor Ministry has filed 14 cases against companies for unfair labor practices under the Industrial Disputes Act. The ministry did not file any new unfair labor practices cases during the year. The courts issued rulings on four cases and continued to try the other five; three cases have not been filed due to inadequate evidence. Citing routine government inaction on alleged violations of labor rights, some unions pressed for standing to sue, while some smaller unions did not want that ability because of the cost of filing cases. Workers brought some labor violations to court under the Termination of Employment and Workmen Act and the Payment of Gratuity Act. Lengthy delays hindered judicial procedures. The Industrial Dispute Act does not apply to the public sector, and public-sector unions had no formal dispute resolution mechanism.

The government generally respected the freedom of association and the right to bargain collectively. Public-sector unions staged numerous work stoppages on a number of issues, ranging from government moves to privatize state-owned enterprises to wage issues.

While some unions in the public sector were politically independent, most large unions affiliated with political parties and played a prominent role in the political process.

Unions alleged that employers often indefinitely delayed recognition of unions to avoid collective bargaining, decrease support for unionization, or identify, terminate, and sometimes assault or threaten union activists. The Ministry of Labor requires labor commissioners to hold union certification elections within 30 working days of an application for registration if there was no objection or within 45 working days if there was an objection. The commissioner general of labor held five union certification elections in 2017. No union certification elections were held in 2018 and from January to September 2019.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced and compulsory labor, but penalties were insufficient to deter violations. The government did not effectively enforce the laws due to inadequate resources, inspections, and remediation efforts, as well as a lack of identification of forced labor cases. Labor Ministry inspections did not extend to domestic workers. The government sporadically prosecuted labor agents who fraudulently recruited migrant workers yet appeared to sustain its monthly meetings to improve interministerial coordination.

Children between the ages of 14 and 18 and women working as live-in domestic workers in some homes were vulnerable to forced labor (see section 7.c.).

Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The minimum age for employment is 14, although the law permits the employment of younger children by their parents or guardians in limited family agricultural work or technical training. The government increased the compulsory age of education from 14 years to 16 years in 2016. The law prohibits hazardous work for persons younger than 18. The law limits the working hours of children ages 14 and 15 to nine hours per day and of ages 16 and 17 to 10 hours per day. The government estimated less than 1 percent of children–approximately 40,000–were working, although employment was often in hazardous occupations. The government currently classifies 51 activities as hazardous.

The government did not effectively enforce all laws, and existing penalties were not sufficient to deter violations.

The Labor Ministry made some progress in implementing its plan to eliminate the worst forms of child labor. The government appointed district coordinators with responsibility of reducing child labor in all 25 districts and provided new guidelines for district officials. The Department of Labor continued its efforts to monitor workplaces on the list of hazardous work for children.

According to the Child Activity Survey of 2016 published in February, children worked in the construction, manufacturing, mining, and fishing industries and as cleaners and helpers, domestic workers, and street vendors. Children also worked in agriculture during harvest periods. Children displaced by the war were especially vulnerable to employment in hazardous labor.

The list of hazardous work prohibited for children younger than 18 does not include domestic labor. This left children employed as child domestic workers vulnerable to physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Family enterprises, such as family farms, crafts, small trade establishments, restaurants, and repair shops, commonly employed children. Criminals reportedly exploited children, especially boys, for prostitution in coastal areas catering to sex tourists (see section 6, Children).

Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings .

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The constitution prohibits discrimination, including with respect to employment and occupation, on the basis of race, religion, language, caste, sex, political opinion, or place of birth. The law does not prohibit employment or occupational discrimination on the basis of color, sexual orientation or gender identity, age, HIV-positive status, or status with regard to other communicable diseases. The government has proposed reforms to existing labor legislation that would more explicitly prohibit discrimination based on gender and other categories. Women have a wide range of workforce restrictions, including caps on overtime work and limits on nighttime shifts.

The government did not always effectively enforce these laws, and discrimination based on the above categories occurred with respect to employment and occupation. For example, some employers specified particular positions as requiring male or female applicants, and women often earned less than men for equal work.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The parliament passed its first-ever national minimum wage law in 2015 and the government issued a Gazette notice on October 18, increasing the minimum monthly wage for private-sector workers by 25 percent. The changes increase the minimum wage increase from Rs 10,000 ($54.90 per month or $1.83 per day) to Rs 12,500 ($68.30 per month or $2.27 per day). The Department of Labor’s 44 wage boards continued to set minimum wages and working conditions by sector and industry in consultation with unions and employers. On September 24, the Cabinet of Ministers approved salary increases for all government employees effective January 1, 2020. The minimum private-sector and public-sector wages are well above the government’s official poverty line, which was Rs 4,166 ($22.98) in 2016.

The law prohibits most full-time workers from regularly working more than 45 hours per week (a five-and-a-half-day workweek). In addition, the law stipulates a rest period of one hour per day. Regulations limit the maximum overtime hours to 15 per week. Overtime pay is 1.5 times the basic wage and is paid for work beyond 45 hours per week and work on Sundays or holidays. The provision limiting basic work hours is not applicable to managers and executives in public institutions. The law provides for paid annual holidays.

The government sets occupational health and safety standards. Workers have the right to remove themselves from dangerous situations, but many workers had no knowledge of such rights or feared that they would lose their jobs if they did so.

Authorities did not effectively enforce minimum wage, hours of work, and occupational safety and health standards in all sectors. The Labor Ministry’s resources, inspections, and remediation efforts were insufficient. The number of labor inspectors was insufficient for the size of the country’s workforce. Occupational health and safety standards in the rapidly growing construction sector, including on infrastructure development projects, such as port, airport, and road construction, as well as high-rise buildings, were insufficient. Employers, particularly those in the construction industry, increasingly used contract employment for work of a regular nature, and contract workers had fewer safeguards.

Labor Ministry inspectors verified whether employers fully paid employees and contributed to pension funds as required by law. Unions questioned, however, whether the ministry’s inspections were effective. The Labor Department used a computerized Labor Information System Application designed to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of inspections, but officials and trade unions noted concerns that the system was not well maintained.

Enforcement of labor laws and basic work conditions was also insufficient. Under the Shop and Office Act, the penalties for violating hours of work laws are a fine of 500 Rs ($2.89), six months’ imprisonment, or both. The law charges a fine of 50 Rs ($0.29) per day if the offense continues after conviction. These penalties were insufficient to deter violations. Labor inspectors did not monitor wages or working conditions or provide programs or social protections for informal sector workers. In September amendments to the factories ordinance and the wages board ordinance increased fines for nonpayment of salaries to workers under the purview of the wages board between Rs.5,000 ($27) to Rs.10,000 ($55), along with an imprisonment not exceeding one year.

Human Rights Reports
Edit Your Custom Report

01 / Select a Year

02 / Select Sections

03 / Select Countries You can add more than one country or area.

U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future