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Monday, December 4, 2023

Human Rights Day: Amidst some progress I observe the alarming silence of decent people – Chairperson, HRC – Sri Lanka

Reflections on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and our collective future.

Deepika Udagama ( Chairperson, HRCSL)

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”

The above quotation is from Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Declaration was adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948. It has gone on to become the most respected secular document in the world, translated into more than 500 languages and dialects. Constitutions, including our own, have adopted parts of it, it is often cited in courts of law, parliaments and invoked by millions of people in distress.

I have been deeply moved and profoundly influenced by the Declaration. Millions around the world have had the same experience.

The Declaration celebrates its 70th anniversary next year and global commemorations have already begun. Sri Lanka too should join in the celebrations and reflect on lessons we can learn from this document if we wish to seriously work toward a decent and humane future for ourselves and our children.

The idea of human rights has been around for millennia. The Declaration broke new ground by proclaiming a set of ‘universal human rights’, rights which all of us are entitled to as human beings. The idea of universal human rights does not respect the arbitrary boxes we have created for ourselves– race, ethnicity, caste, class, sex, etc. The rights recognised also cover all aspects of human existence. They span the right to life, freedom from torture, freedom of expression to the right to just and favourable conditions of work and the right to education and medical care.

The Declaration was adopted for humankind to rekindle faith in itself after the brutalities of two devastating world wars in the first half of the 20th Century. One cannot say in all honesty that brutal tendencies of human kind are behind us. Yet today we have a frame of reference to reassure ourselves of the ideals we have set for ourselves and the need to work to achieve those ideals. The genius of the drafters of the Declaration is that they have succeeded in capturing the essence of what it means to be human anywhere in the world and articulate that essence in the form of rights that have a resonance in our everyday lives.

Two statements from the exquisitely worded Preamble to the Declaration are, in my opinion, of great significance:

‘ Whereas it is essential, if man (sic) is not to be compelled to have recourse as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law…’

‘The General Assembly proclaims this Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive … to promote respect for these rights…’

The first is the call on governments to protect human rights by the rule of law if they do not wish to see political uprisings against tyranny and oppression. That is the fundamental tenet of human rights—that governments bear the primary responsibility to protect people’s rights. The expectation of peoples all over the world is just that. Sri Lankans are no exception. Sri Lankans have invested heavily in political change to secure and freely exercise their rights. A major demand for change was the right to live free from fear. Being able to live in an equal and inclusive society was another.

[alert type=”success or warning or info or danger”]Our Commission’s observation, by and large, is that, the largest accomplishment of the government in the past two years is to create a free environment for people to exercise their rights, in particular free expression, association and assembly. The climate of fear has dissipated. Demonstrations and strikes have become daily fare.[/alert]

There are, of course, exceptions such as the constant complaints we receive from the North about surveillance of civil society activities allegedly by intelligence authorities. Yet, we also see an openness in the North and East about discussing violations and the like that was previously absent. Significantly, we have not received complaints of enforced disappearances or of politically motivated extra-judicial killings. The enactment of the Right to Information Act, legislative recognition of the need to increase women’s political representation, ready ratification of human rights treaties are also significant achievements.

Thankfully, the Commission has yet to witness an attempt at political interference in its work.

However, custodial violence, torture in particular, continues to be a problem. Radical police reforms are needed to address those serious concerns. Due process rights in law enforcement and administration of justice need to improve, including the abrogation of PTA. Hate speech is not addressed expeditiously paving the way for bigots to spread tribal venom. Disappointment is rife about the failure to address impunity issues relating to violence against journalists and similar political crimes. Also, the long delay in establishing promised transitional justice mechanisms is greatly disappointing. We are encouraged though by news that the Office of Missing Persons may be set up soon.

So, the challenge is to consolidate the improvements and to continue to press for progress in other areas.

Improving human rights in a country, however, is not a one way street. We cannot only expect governmental behavior to change. As the second statement in the Declaration quoted above calls for, have even a reasonable number of ‘individuals and organs of society’ in Sri Lanka striven to work toward respecting others’ rights? Are we, as citizens and community and professional bodies of this country, invested in creating a decent and peaceful society? Do we have a vision of a democratic and inclusive future we want to leave for our children?

In my opinion, the moral compass of a society becomes clearer when there is freedom to enjoy rights.

So, have we done well? What does our conscience tell us?

Amidst some progress I observe the alarming silence of decent people; the brashness of tribal voices that once again wish to unleash ethnic violence; that they get a lot of press, not the peace makers; of the many who think only of their rights and benefits and not of the larger good; of professional bodies that play politics and abandon ethical obligations; of a partisan media culture that one is hard pressed to understand given the oppression and violence they were once subject to; of opinion makers who think of winning an argument for the moment, and abandon responsibility for the future.

The Universal Declaration is clear in its message: The possibility of living free and dignified lives in a society comes as a package deal. It has to be a collective effort. If others’ rights are violated, it will eventually affect me. Our efforts must not be limited to demanding from our elected government that it discharge its paramount duty to protect our rights. We too are obligated as citizens, to sincerely believe in, and live by, human rights values.


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