Sri Lanka: Compulsory cremations  

This case focuses on states taking unnecessary measures that severely and specifically impact minorities.

Health worker in Kaluthara, Sri Lanka, March 2020Health worker in Kaluthara, Sri Lanka, March 2020

Themes: Freedom of religion or belief, legitimate limitations, public health grounds, COVID-19

In March 2020, the government of Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka banned the burial of victims of COVID-19 and instituted a policy of compulsory cremation. The authorities cited risks to the country’s water supply, even though guidelines from the World Health Organisation state that it is safe to bury victims of COVID-19.

Islam prohibits cremation. By March 2021, two thirds of COVID-19 victims were from minority communities. Many victims avoided seeking treatment, fearing diagnosis and cremation.
Mohammed Niyas’ two-month-old baby boy was one such victim. At the crematorium, Mohammed and his relatives chanted a funeral prayer, overcome by the loss of the child and the added trauma of being unable to bury him according to Islamic tradition. “We are being forced to go through this trauma,” said Mohammed. He called the government’s policy painful and unfair but felt powerless to challenge it.

Sri Lanka ended the compulsory cremation policy in February 2021, but then required Muslim COVID-19 victims to be buried at a remote government-designated site in the absence of their families and without final religious rites. This policy was ended in March 2022.

Facilitators notes

This is an example of how the COVID-19 pandemic was used as a pretext to restrict freedom of religion or belief of minorities in illegitimate ways. You may wish to mention the following in connection with the group’s report back:

In January 2021, UN thematic human rights experts issued a statement urging Sri Lanka to end the compulsory cremation of COVID-19 deceased. They said, “We deplore the implementation of such public health decisions based on discrimination, aggressive nationalism and ethnocentrism amounting to persecution of Muslims and other minorities in the country,” added the experts. “Such hostility against the minorities exacerbates existing prejudices, intercommunal tensions, and religious intolerance, sowing fear and distrust while inciting further hatred and violence.”

You may find the following guidance from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights helpful in relation to this case:

  • If derogations from a State’s human rights obligations are needed to prevent the spread of COVID-19, all measures taken should be proportionate and limited to those strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.
  • Emergency declarations based on the COVID-19 outbreak should not be used as a basis to target particular individuals or groups, including minorities. Measures taken must not involve prohibited discrimination on any grounds such as race, colour, sex, sexual orientation and gender identity, disability, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.  


Washington Post 12 February 2021
United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Emergency measures and COVID 19 – Guidance