USCIRF Expresses Concern Over Sri Lanka's Forced Conversion Bill

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) expressed concern Wednesday about a proposed pending legislation in Sri Lanka that addresses forced religious conversions

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) expressed concern Wednesday about a proposed pending legislation in Sri Lanka and the climate of inter-religious conflict and intolerance emerging in the predominantly Buddhist nation.

The parliamentary bill addressing forced religious conversions reemerged this year in the wake of December’s tsunami that devastated parts of South Asia and as religious tensions escalated following unspecified and unconfirmed reports relating to alleged methods of distributing aid.

If enacted, the bill would fall short of international standards with regard to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief.

“The Commission expresses concern about the proposed pending legislation and the climate of inter-religious conflict and intolerance emerging in Sri Lanka,” USCIRF said in a statement released on July 13. It urged all parties to work together to restore a climate of religious respect, tolerance, and freedom in Sri Lanka.

“The Commission further urges the Sri Lankan government to refrain from passing laws that are inconsistent with international standards,” USCIRF continued. “The Commission also reiterates the importance of promoting freedom of religion for all.”

Citing comments made in a report by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Asma Jahangir, USCIRF said the provisions of the draft legislation on conversions "could result in the persecution of religious minorities rather than the protection and promotion of religious tolerance."

In preliminary findings based on her visit to and investigation in Sri Lanka, Jahangir addressed "allegations that faith based organizations that have brought humanitarian assistance to Sri Lanka for the victims of Tsunami, have adopted certain methods of exploiting the vulnerability of the population."

Although Jahangir was not "able to confirm these allegations by precise and individual cases," she concluded that "a sufficient number of allegations are confirmed by a number of sources."

Noting that these cases "raise anxiety," she pointed out these are "regrettable practices but do not constitute a criminal offence or a clear violation – as long as such conversions are not carried out by force, pressure, or other coercive methods."

In its statement, USCIRF noted that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) upholds the right to have or to adopt a religion or belief and to manifest that belief publicly. This right includes an individual's ability "to replace one's current religion or belief with another or to adopt atheistic views, as well as the right to retain one's religion or belief." However, in disputes involving conversion activities, the USCIRF said the rights and interests of the source (the person attempting to convert another), the target (of the persuasion), and the state can sometimes conflict.

"Though we recognize that there are various and competing rights at stake in such matters, this proposed legislation appears to be in violation of international law," said Michael Cromartie, USCIRF’s newly-elected Chair. "The approval of this law would therefore signal that the government of Sri Lanka is moving in the wrong direction with regard to the protection of religious freedom as outlined in Article 18 of the ICCPR."

The USCIRF said that, if passed, the bill against religious conversions would:

• provide for prison terms of up to five years for anyone who attempts to convert a person from one religion to another by "the use of force or by allurement or by any fraudulent means," with the terms "fraud" and "allurement" vaguely defined such that many charitable activities could be included;

• establish reporting requirements for any person who adopts a new religion as well as for any person who takes part "directly or indirectly" in the conversion of another person, requiring individuals to inform government authorities of their action or face the threat of jail time and fines upon conviction; and

• provide an opportunity for "any interested person" having "reason to believe" a violation of the act to bring cases in the public interest, thereby inviting the kind of abuse seen with the blasphemy laws in Pakistan.

“The proposed legislation also appears to violate the standards of protection for religious freedom found in Sri Lanka's own constitution,” the Commission added, ‘which guarantees the right of every person in Sri Lanka to "freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, including the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.’”

Several provisions of identical legislation introduced last year were found to be unconstitutional by Sri Lanka's Supreme Court. Moreover, the Supreme Court also determined that "two forms of wrongful conduct [outlined in the bill], namely the use of force and the adoption of fraudulent means, are already found in the penal code for different offences."

USCIRF stated that if the current draft bill were to go forward without the constitutionally offending provisions and become law, the legislation could still potentially be used to criminalize manifestations of religion or belief that are protected under international human rights treaties to which Sri Lanka is a signatory. The Sri Lankan government has not opposed the draft legislation, and there are reports that it has prepared its own bill addressing forced religious conversions.

"Despite years of civil war, Sri Lanka by many standards is a functioning democracy, which is a commendable achievement," noted Commissioner and former USCIRF Chair Preeta D. Bansal. "Yet, the renewal of violence against religious minorities, [and the] reintroduction of this legislation on conversions represent a setback.”

Bansal stated that the U.S. government should urge the government of Sri Lanka to

(1) make a greater effort to hold the perpetrators of violent attacks on members of religious minorities accountable for their actions;
(2) oppose the pending draft legislation proposed by the JHU which would violate international legal standards; and
(3) in order to foster and restore inter-religious harmony, urge the creation of an inter-religious or governmental body to investigate allegations of unethical conversion activity, and report publicly on its findings."

Meanwhile, Cromartie urged all the parties involved to “work together to restore a climate of religious tolerance in Sri Lanka,” hoping that the Sri Lankan government “will pass laws that are consistent with international standards."