Sri Lanka’s forced cremation of COVID victims’ bodies is a ‘human rights violation’

United Nations has urged the Sri Lankan government to halt its policy of forced cremations of coronavirus victims, a practice it said went against the beliefs of the country’s Muslims and other minority populations.

Ignoring the World Health Organization’s guidelines on burials and cremations, Sri Lanka made cremation mandatory in March last year for people who die, or are suspected to have died, from the coronavirus.

The UN’s human rights experts said on Monday the policy could “foment existing prejudices, intolerance and violence”.

“The imposition of cremation as the only option for handling the bodies confirmed or suspected of COVID-19 amounts to a human rights violation,” the experts said in a statement.

“There has been no established medical or scientific evidence in Sri Lanka or other countries that burial of dead bodies leads to increased risk of spreading communicable diseases such as COVID-19.”

The UN experts noted that while the government tasked health authorities to explore burial options amid the pandemic, the advice of a panel of experts to include both burial and cremations as options was allegedly ignored.

Moreover, the UN said pursuing the policy of forced cremations would only deter people from seeking healthcare over “fears of discrimination”.

“We are equally concerned that such a policy deters the poor and the most vulnerable from accessing public healthcare over fears of discrimination,” the experts warned.

Several protests were reported across northeastern Sri Lanka last month against the forced cremations, with many tying white ribbons to the gates of a crematorium as a sign of anger.

Amnesty International called on authorities to “respect the right of religious minorities to carry out the final rites” according to their own traditions.

Many others protested online, claiming that Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was using the pandemic to marginalise Sri Lanka’s minorities, especially Muslims.

Muslims, who account for 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s 21 million population, have had a strained relationship with the majority Sinhala Buddhists