Rising rights violations against students – Report

Two student unions in Sri Lanka published a report last Monday claiming an increase in rights violations against university students. The report claimed that students have suffered more than 1,000 human rights abuses since 2009.

The Student Human Rights Report 2012 contains statistics from all 15 state universities. It reported 524 cancellations of classes and, in the past year, 104 disciplinary inquiries against students, and 44 imprisonments.

There were also 67 cancellations of Mahapola scholarships, which are awarded to students from low-income families and pay US$20 a month subsistence income.

The report was produced by two major student unions: the Inter University Students’ Federation (IUSF) in association with the Student Organisation for the Protection of Human Rights (SHR). It was released on 10 December in the capital Colombo.

The report's objective is to make the public aware of rights violations against students and get the attention of authorised bodies meant to protect students' rights.

IUSF Convener Sanjeewa Bandara claimed that more than 1,000 students had been suspended from universities during the past three to four years. Students had been penalised for fighting for their rights, but would continue protesting to safeguard free education regardless of the crackdown.

Types of violations

According to the report, students at Sri Jayewardenepura University faced the worst violations, including law suits, imprisonments and class cancellations.

Early this year, there was unrest at Sri Jayewardenepura following a bomb blast that damaged the symbolically significant Student Heroes Memorial dedicated to students killed in previous uprisings. During the subsequent wave of protest, more than 100 students were arrested.

Student demonstrations against private universities led to the closure of two universities and some 200 students were arrested.

During the past two years the Ministry of Higher Education outlawed some 30 student unions, including eight major student councils, ostensibly for 'ragging' – the ritual bullying of new students, which is forbidden.

Addressing the media, IUSF Secretary Chinthaka Rajapaksa said the rights of undergraduate students had been increasingly violated over the past year and the government had not taken any action to prevent the situation.

“We are ready to submit this report to foreign and local human rights organisations for their concern,” he said. Rajapaksa vowed to keep fighting until action was taken by the authorities to protect student rights.

Head of the SHR Nuwan Bopege said: “The hardships that students face have been ignored and buried by the Sri Lankan government.

“By using free education as an excuse, the rights of undergraduates have been increasingly violated over the past year, and the government has restrained any further action taken, by either imprisonment or remanding of students.”

Bopege said two students had recently died under suspicious circumstances.

The government had a “policy of vengeance”, he claimed. “We witnessed how government treated the Jaffna university students merely because they protested” against the establishment of private universities.

“We still fight for the protection of our fellow students' rights. We will force the government to stop the violations of human rights of students. We continue our fight until government stops murdering students,” Bopege said.

Local and international human rights organisations have expressed concern about rights violations during recent violent clashes at the University of Jaffna between students and the police. Dozens of students were injured and this, along with the arrest of 10 students, sparked popular protests in Tamil-dominated northern Sri Lanka.

Amnesty International expressed grave concern about the situation at the University of Jaffna, as did the Asian Human Rights Commission, which identified the crisis there as part of the larger issues facing higher education in Sri Lanka.

A boycott by academics and students at Jaffna has ground academic activities to a halt. Parameswaran Thamodaran, president of the teachers’ association at Jaffna, told the media that many students had abandoned their studies, and that some had fled the country in fear.

The protests, strikes and other higher education controversies in recent months have been a severe setback for the ministry’s ambitions for Sri Lanka to become an Asian education hub.

Higher Education Minister SB Dissanayake claimed that the IUSF, which has the backing of the Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna party, is behind all the campus unrest.