Is Sri Lanka ready to dignify LGBTIQ lives?


EQUAL GROUND – Colombo Sri Lanka
21st May 2018

Can policy reform bring about social change in this country and how do we provide a life free of discrimination for all Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Intersex, and Questioning Community (LGBTIQ) persons in Sri Lanka?

The Executive Director of EQUAL GROUND Rosanna Flamer-Caldera sat with DIG Ajith Rohana of the Sri Lanka Police, Professor Camena Guneratne from the Open University, Ms Ambika Satkunanathan of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, and Dr. Paikiasothy Sarvanamuththu of the Center for Policy Alternatives to discuss how to combat discrimination of LGBTIQ persons, as we commemorated the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Intersexism and Transphobia (IDAHOBIT represents an annual landmark to draw the attention of decision makers, the media, the public, opinion leaders and local authorities to the alarming situation faced by LGBTIQ people and all those who do not conform to majority sexual and gender norms) on the 17th of May 2018.

The discussion revolved around the commitments made by the Government of Sri Lanka during its Universal Periodic Review (The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a unique mechanism of the Human Rights Council (HRC) aimed at improving the human rights situation on the ground of each of the 193 United Nations (UN) Member States. Under this mechanism, the human rights situation of all UN Member States is reviewed every 5 years) in November of 2017 (The Government of Sri Lanka supported four recommendations on protecting LGBTIQ persons from discrimination and stated that they will be committing to reform the law of the country to reflect these recommendations).

During the panellist’s presentations, DIG Ajith Rohana acknowledged that there are isolated incidents of discrimination of LGBT persons, but they are working towards eliminating them by introducing sensitising programs in the police training curriculum. He strongly emphasised that no one should be discriminated because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.

A highlighted point that was repeatedly discussed was the importance of social change following policy change and how the narrative should be shaped when challenging the laws that criminalise same-sex conduct. Humanising LGBTIQ issues by using real-life examples and cases of queer people can make it more relatable to those who do not understand the struggles of the LGBTIQ persons and eventually change people’s negative perceptions about the community.

Dr Sarvanamutthu strongly believes that there is power in numbers and representation. He suggests that it is time that families rally behind the movement; He urged parents and grandparents to strongly question the law and file for a class action lawsuit demanding for the decriminalisation of their children and grandchildren.
From a policy change stand point Professor Camena stated that even though the constitutional reform process is in the back burner there could be a possibility of explicit protection offered to the LGBTIQ community through expansion of the fundamental rights chapter. This reform, coupled with an introduction of post-enactment of judicial review of all legislation that is inconsistent with the constitution can nullify the criminalisation of same-sex conduct as stated in Penal Codes 365 and 365A of Sri Lanka.

The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka has taken a strong public position in including explicit protection for the LGBTIQ community (The HRCSL appointed an LGBTIQ subcommittee, spearheaded the gender recognition certificate for transgender persons and is working with the press council of Sri Lanka to introduce a set of ethical media reporting guidelines). In Ms Satkunanathan’s presentation, she discussed the importance of not only sensitising the general public and civil society organisations but also the staff at the HRCSL (Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka) to be empathetic and non-judgemental.

The LGBTIQ community can also use other forms of legislature such as arbitrary violence and torture to safeguard themselves from unauthorised searches and questioning. Ms Ambika also urged that community members make use of the HRCSL’s complaint mechanism to report violations. We understand that policy change does need to be followed by social change and the continuous fight for equal rights has to involve the youth and multiple stakeholders such as our family members to strengthen our position.