IBAHRI condemns forced cremations of Muslim Covid-19 victims

Friday 8 January 2021

The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) condemns the forced cremations, in violation of traditional Islamic funeral practices, of Muslim individuals who have died in Sri Lanka from Covid-19.

In Islam, cremation is viewed as a sin and as the desecration of human remains. However, despite the World Health Organization’s (WHO) specific guidelines on Infection prevention and control for the safe management of a dead body in the context of COVID-19, which permit burials of bodies of Covid-19 fatalities, the Government of Sri Lanka has insisted that the Muslim dead also be cremated since March 2020. A BBC report cites Dr Sugath Samaraweera, the government's chief epidemiologist, as saying cremations were necessary as a preventative measure as burials could contaminate ground drinking water.

IBAHRI Co-Chair and immediate past Secretary-General of the Swedish Bar Association, Anne Ramberg Dr jur hc, commented: ‘Since the WHO guidance shows no public health risk through burial of Covid-19 victims, the Sri Lankan government’s policy of forcible cremation is in contravention of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)Articles 9and 18respectively – which guarantee an individual’s right to freedom of religion, and the right to manifest their religion in customs and practice. Therefore, the denial of religious freedom for Sri Lanka’s Muslims to bury their dead in accordance with their religious beliefs, as enshrined in international law, is a direct contravention of the ICCPR to which Sri Lanka is a party.’

Ms Ramberg added: ‘Further, the WHO guidance states, “the dignity of the dead, their cultural and religious traditions, and their families should be respected and protected throughout. ”So, coupled with no scientific basis to deny individuals’ autonomy on how to manage the death of a family member, we call on Sri Lanka to reverse the enforced cremation policy and ensure the individual’s right to freedom of religion is upheld.’

On 31 March 2020, following the cremation of a Muslim Covid-19 victim against the wishes of the family, the Ministry of Health of Sri Lanka issued a circular that amended previous guidance stating that bodies related to death of either confirmed or suspected of Covid-19 should be cremated within 24 hours. On 8 April 2020, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief sent a letter, co-signed with other UN special procedure mandate holders, to the President of Sri Lanka urging the government to revise the policy and uphold freedom of religion in the country.

IBAHRI Director Baroness Helena Kennedy QC commented: ‘There are no guidelines from medical organisations worldwide to justify the policy of forced cremations in Sri Lanka, and no scientific evidence indicating that burial poses any threat to public health during the pandemic. China and Sri Lanka are the only countries to impose a policy of forced cremations. The WHO calls for the preservation of religious and cultural traditions in policies dictating the management of Covid-19 victims’ bodies. The Sri Lankan government must at once revert this policy to comply with international law and allow the Muslim population dignity in death, and the right to enact this fundamental religious tradition.’

In the absence of official figures from the Sri Lankan government, the media has reported that 15 forcible cremations have taken place, including a 20-day-old baby who died after allegedly testing positive despite both parents testing negative. However, confidential sources have confirmed to the IBAHRI that the number is at least 105.


Notes to the Editor

  1. The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI), an autonomous and financially independent entity, works to promote, protect and enforce human rights under a just rule of law, and to preserve the independence of the judiciary and the legal profession worldwide.
  2. The International Bar Association (IBA), the global voice of the legal profession, is the foremost organisation for international legal practitioners, bar associations and law societies. Established in 1947, shortly after the creation of the United Nations, it was born out of the conviction that an organisation made up of the world's bar associations could contribute to global stability and peace through the administration of justice.
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