The past week was devoted to the hosting of human rights events by a number of organisations with interest in that particular subject. Human rights have become a matter of controversy especially after the suppression of the protest movement. There was and is tension between the interests of those who prioritize the claim of national security and stability and those who prioritize justice. The issue of justice has come to the fore in the context of the debilitation of the economy, which is seriously affecting the great majority of the population even if it does not or may not impact so heavily on some others. What is being seen is a continuing plunge of the economy with those who are most responsible for the economic calamity still in power and bringing in more of their numbers to the seats of power ignoring the impacts of their actions in the past and present on the people at large.
The release of economic information that the economy had shrunk by 11.8 percent in the last quarter ending in September is ominous news. It indicates that the calamitous though revolutionary events of the second quarter of the year, which ended in July with the assumption of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to the presidency has not been reversed by the state repression that took place thereafter. It is evident that the political repression of the protest movement has not yielded positive results in terms of coaxing more economic investments that would reboot the economy. This was reflected in three events I attended last week as part of the marking of International Human Rights Day. Two were by civil society organisations, Right to Life Collective and Association of War Affected Women. The third was by the National Human Rights Commission, which is a state institution.
The latter event was particularly impressive as it brought together the diversity and pluralism of Sri Lankan society in a manner that is seldom seen or publicly acknowledged. The Human Rights Commission has attracted considerable attention in recent times for different reasons. The present members of the commission were selected in terms of the 20th Amendment to the constitution that gave the sitting president the discretion to appoint whomever he wanted. The 20th Amendment sought to concentrate power in the hands of the president and was introduced during the early period of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s period.
The 20th Amendment and the weakening of independent institutions earned the opprobrium of civil society groups and the international community that was focused on human rights issues. One of the unfortunate consequences of this was the downgrading of the Human Rights Commission from having “A status” to “B status” by the international accreditation agency. This meant that the observations and opinions of the human rights commission were viewed with more circumspection and with less weight than would otherwise have been. It would also impact on the level of economic and institutional support that would be made available by international agencies whose mandate is to promote good governance in the world.
The downgrading of the Human Rights Commission has indirectly affected the national economy by reducing the inflow of dollars it might have obtained through international partnerships. It has also contributed to the poor image that the international community had about the situation of human rights in the country. One of the consequences would be the European Union’s decision to warn about the possibility of withdrawal of the GSP Plus tax concession to Sri Lanka until a whole host of human rights protections were implemented including the repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act. The weakening of the credibility of the justice mechanisms in Sri Lanka due to the 20th Amendment would also have contributed to the harsher resolution passed against the country at the last session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in October.
The passage of the 21st Amendment by the government has been generally appreciated even though the repeal of the 20th Amendment through it has been incomplete. For instance, the president retains his institutional grip over parliament by having the right to dissolve it at his discretion in two and half years and his ability to keep multiple ministries under his control. Also, the president has the discretion to appoint whomever he wants to ministerial positions. However, with regard to the appointment of members to the independent commissions, the 20th Amendment ensures that the arbitrary power of the president to make such appointments is taken away from him. This gives a greater likelihood of persons of integrity being appointed to be members of the independent commissions.
The 21st Amendment also contains provisions for the re-constituting of the members of the independent commissions, including the Human Rights Commission and Elections Commission. Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa has expressed his concern that the government is planning to appoint new members to the Human Rights Commission and Elections Commission as those two commissions, in particular, have taken up independent positions that are not in keeping with government policy at the present time. This would be unfortunate as many in civil society have been appreciative of the positions that these two commissions have taken up on matters of controversy.
Indeed, my participation at the International Human Rights Day event organized by the Human Rights Commission was motivated by the desire to show solidarity with a state institution that was championing the cause of democracy and human rights even at the potential risk of earning governmental displeasure. The event organized by the Human Rights Commission was exemplary as it took a deeper and more profound approach to the problems of human rights that are besetting the country. At the present time, the focus of attention is on the rights to protest against the government that are contained in basic human rights covenants.
The right of freedom of association and of the right to free expression are fundamental to a functioning democracy. The suppression of the protest movement has seen these rights being limited and constricted by the government. The justification given by the government and by business associations is that the need of the hour is political stability in which the economy might be revived. These arguments ignore the importance of inclusion, and the failure of inclusion, that have brought the country to this sorry pass. The dismal economic performance of the last quarter suggests that this is the missing dimension that needs to be included into government policy. The false stability they seek from restriction of the people’s rights does not provide any advantage to the country.
President Wickremesinghe has pledged to fast track the national reconciliation process that focuses on the failure of inclusion of the country’s ethnic and religious minorities which led to decades of discrimination, alienation and eventually to terrorism and war. However, to be truly inclusive is to go beyond the limits of ethnic and religious diversity. It is to also take into account the other aspects of diversity and pluralism in Sri Lankan society which extend beyond the ethnic and religious cleavage. There are also issues of caste, region, gender, sexuality, disability and occupation that cause large segments of the population to be excluded from enjoying their human rights and from participating in the mainstream of social and economic life.
The Human Rights Commission event gave an indication of the wide range of its services to marginalized sections of the national community. Those given an opportunity to speak on behalf of the groups they represented included women in politics, torture victims, physically. There were at least twenty such groups who spoke at the event, disadvantaged, sex workers, sexual minorities, free trade zone workers, and AIDS patients which was very moving as when a dwarf mother spoke of the way her son who was also born a dwarf had been treated without kindness or dignity when he went to the bank and stood in front of the teller counter which was taller than him.
One of the grievances highlighted by the speakers was that they could speak and protest, but they would not be heeded. There were promises given, but no action or follow up thereafter. A respect for pluralism would mean that all voices are heard and heeded regardless of their numbers or position in society. The inclusion of unseen and unrecognized minorities in the care and protective embrace of the state will build confidence in the Sri Lankan state of the visible and recognized minorities of whom President Wickremesinghe is talking about when he promises national reconciliation next year by Independence Day.
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