Global creditors should provide debt relief to Sri Lanka: Amnesty

The island nation is in the grip of a dire economic crisis and has defaulted on its foreign loans.

International creditors should provide debt relief to Sri Lanka to alleviate suffering as its people endure hunger, worsening poverty and shortages of basic supplies, rights group Amnesty International has said in a statement.

For months, Sri Lanka has been in the grip of a dire economic crisis and has defaulted on its foreign loans. The government is in talks with its creditors on restructuring its more than $51bn total foreign debt.

A preliminary agreement with the International Monetary Fund for a $2.9bn relief package hinges on other creditors giving assurances on loan restructuring.

Lenders should ensure that “their human rights responsibilities and Sri Lanka’s human rights obligations are central to any future commitments around Sri Lanka’s debt, including restructuring and changes to the terms of repayment,” London-based Amnesty International said on Wednesday.

“For months now, the people of Sri Lanka have been suffering from severe shortages of food and have struggled to access healthcare, while sky-high inflation has exacerbated already existing patterns of inequality,” the group said in its latest report on the Indian Ocean island nation, titled “We are near total breakdown”.

As Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange reserves dwindled, shortages of essentials such as fuel, medicine and cooking gas deepened. Cooking gas supplies were restored through World Bank support, but shortfalls of fuel, critical medicines and some food items persist.

A father and son share a meal at their shanty in Colombo [Eranga Jayawardena/AP]

Amnesty urged Sri Lanka’s leaders and the international community to safeguard human rights in handling the crisis by increasing international assistance, ensuring comprehensive social protections and considering “all options for debt relief, including debt cancellation”.

“The Sri Lankan authorities and the international community must act quickly to mitigate the widespread human rights cost of the crisis, which has cruelly stripped away people’s access to their rights,” said Sanhita Ambast, the group’s researcher on economic, social and cultural rights.

The island’s economic crisis triggered extraordinary protests and unprecedented public rage that ultimately forced President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brother, former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, to step down.

The COVID pandemic and rising prices due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have deepened Sri Lanka’s woes. But many in the country hold the once-powerful Rajapaksa family responsible for severely mismanaging the economy and tipping it into crisis.

The Amnesty report said as of June, about 11 percent of households reported making no income while 62 percent said their incomes had fallen.

Consumer inflation surged to a record of nearly 70 percent in September while food prices nearly doubled, according to the government’s latest statistics.

Agricultural yields dropped by more than half in the past two growing seasons because of a suspension of imports of chemical fertilisers, ostensibly to promote organic farming.

According to the World Food Programme, more than 6 million people – nearly 30 percent of Sri Lanka’s population – are currently facing food insecurity and require humanitarian assistance.

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