Muslim families in Britain whose loved ones have been cremated in Sri Lanka have filed a complaint with the United Nations, labeling the South Asian nation’s controversial policies “unfair and discriminatory” and calling for an immediate suspension.
Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka made cremation mandatory in March for people who died, or are thought to have died, from the coronavirus.
This action greatly disappointed Muslims, because according to Islam, the dead must be buried.
Christians also buried their bodies, and several people in Sri Lanka were also injured by the act, which was carried out despite World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines allowing burials of people who died from COVID.
The UK complaint was filed with the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on Friday by the British Muslim Council (MCB) in partnership with UK-based law firm Bindmans on behalf of the family.
Zara Mohammed, secretary general of the MCB, described the country’s cremation policy as “unprecedented”.
“No other country has committed such unfair and discriminatory acts,” he said in a statement issued on Monday. “We sincerely hope the Sri Lankan government will change its policies in line with the advice of the World Health Organization.”
Tayab Ali, a partner at Bindmans who represents MCB and his family, described the practice as “heartless”.
“Our client is already suffering from the loss of a family member to COVID,” he said in a statement. “It is heartless for the Sri Lankan government to add to the distress by unnecessarily forcing the bodies of loved ones to be cremated.”
Ali also asked the UNHRC to “take immediate action after receiving this complaint by taking temporary measures to stop this cremation”.
UN experts urge to rethink policy
The complaint said there was “no justification, in fact, for the burial ban being maintained by the Sri Lankan government”.
“This has been recognized by many UN agencies,” he said. “There are, as scientific experts have suggested, various protective measures that can be implemented to protect public health without a complete denial of the right of individuals to practice their religion and to be buried according to their beliefs.”
Sri Lankan officials claim that the bodies of COVID victims will contaminate groundwater if buried.
But some experts have disputed these claims, noting that if the burial site was well planned, groundwater would not be affected.
In January, a panel of experts appointed by Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Health said burying those who died from COVID-19 was permitted, in line with precautionary measures to reduce the pandemic.
The UN special rapporteurs, for their part, have twice asked the Sri Lankan government to reconsider its mandatory cremation policy in letters sent to authorities in January this year and last April.
In their most recent notes, UN experts said the practice was against the beliefs of Muslims and other minority communities in Sri Lanka, and could “give rise to existing prejudice, intolerance and violence”.
The WHO says there is no evidence to suggest that cremation is preventing the spread of the coronavirus.
“While we must be alert to the serious public health challenges posed by the pandemic, COVID-19 measures must respect and protect the dignity of the dead, their cultural and religious traditions or beliefs, and their families as a whole,” said UN experts.
Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s critic has accused his government of using the pandemic to marginalize Muslims, who make up about 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s 21 million population.
More than 70,000 COVID-19 infections have been recorded in Sri Lanka since the pandemic broke out, and 365 people have died after contracting the virus, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.