Featured image courtesy The Justice Project – South Asia
As I watched “Silence in the Courts“, a documentary movie by award-winning Sri Lankan filmmaker Prasanna Vithanage aired at the University of Ottawa Human Rights Film Festival on 3rd December 2015, the narrative was all too familiar – the powerful man and the powerless woman – showing man’s unchecked reptilian indulgence for power, pleasure and to procreate, being played out. In this case, if not for a couple of more enlightened men who believed the woman’s story enough to share it with the world, this too would have gone unnoticed like many other violations and crimes that some men in power commit with impunity.
“Silence in the Courts” was a part of a series of international films highlighting compelling human rights issues focusing on the theme of violence against women.
This film is about two women from rural Sri Lanka, sexually abused by a Judge nearly two decades ago who try in vain to seek justice. They were assertive to report the crimes, even as they were stigmatised by their own community. However, their plea is ignored and subverted by the country’s highest legal authorities including the Attorney General who later became Chief Justice – journalist and publisher of Ravaya, Victor Ivan begins to write in-depth stories highlighting their plight. No other media covered the story and Victor Ivan is even ridiculed for his efforts.
The women have no recourse until finally, thanks to Ivan and human rights lawyer Kalyananda Thiranagama, some justice is meted to the perpetrator. The Judge is subjected to an internal inquiry and interdicted with pay. The story ends there for the women, who feel justice was denied as they did not have the means to have their rights as a citizen recognised.
The film traces stories of these hapless women, the brave journalist and the committed human rights lawyer, through court records and articles, to uncover this shocking miscarriage of justice and how the powerful collude to cover up for each other’s crimes.
Prasanna Vithanage was at the screening for a conversation with the audience. When asked why he chose to make this documentary – he said, “I have a keen interest in human rights and this narrative is symbolic of the powerful acting with impunity in many facets of Sri Lankan society, which has shameful repercussions for the country”. He trusts the film will bring this topic to the surface for reflection, conversations and for everyone – parents, educators, politicians and government – to take action, to make things different in Sri Lanka and most of all, in this case – bring justice for the women.
Our Nature and Nurture
At a fundamental level, human behaviour is predicated on nature – our physiology and chemical balance – and how significant people in our lives nurtured us. On the side of nurture – What examples did we have in life? What values were instilled in us? What kind of conversations did we have with our parents, elders, teachers and mentors? What kind of a society did we grow up in? How was our self-esteem shaped?
As we grow up as adults, we are supposed to move away from being self-centered and impulsive, to control our emotions and primal impulses to put off our need for instant gratification, so we may learn to live and share life with others with decorum and in harmony.
Sri Lankan society has been caught in the whirl of a brutal war, where the Emergency regulations gave political leaders and their bureaucratic cronies unlimited power. This coincided with an open liberal economy where money and consumption defined power and success rather than one’s values and integrity. This has enshrined a vested self-interest in Sri Lanka’s cultural, political, economic and social institutions. When unchecked, this culture breeds a certain reptilian selfish indulgence, in those who are in positions of power.
Yet this is not a Sri Lankan problem alone, as Prof. John Packer – Director, Human Rights Research and Education Centre, University of Ottawa, pointed out when he introduced the next documentary – “Finding Dawn” by Christine Welsh – a Canadian Metis (mixed Aboriginal – French heritage). Dawn is one of an estimated 1,000 Aboriginal women in Canada over the past 30 years, murdered or disappeared across Canada. The heart wrenching movie illustrates the deep historical, social and economic facts that contribute to the epidemic of violence against Native women in Canada.
Again, the same narrative – powerful against the powerless and Canada is shamed by the inaction of the previous Conservative government of Stephen Harper, who merely stated that these are crimes that the Police have to solve. It is also alleged that these crimes happen within the Aboriginal community, so mainstream society can stay above this as this is an “Aboriginal problem”. The irony is that the Police had not solved many of them.
The result is, as the documentary depicts, the Police and government authorities do not put the same effort unless the missing women were of European ancestry. Many of the victim’s families voiced their dismay about this second class treatment.
In this dominant Canadian narrative, there is no acknowledgement of the systemic racism that prevailed over the 400 year colonial history of Canada, and in the last 150 years, plucking children away from Aboriginal families to residential schools, which took away their culture, language and self esteem.
Then I came across this bizarre story from Vancouver, British Columbia (BC) in the 1990s of the fate of two lawyers – a BC Cree woman, Renate Andres-Auger and Jack Cram who brought forward allegations about the sexual exploitation of children at the Vancouver Club and resorts in Whistler, BC by some powerful men.
In 1999, Jennifer Wade, a founder of Amnesty International in Vancouver, referred to this in a keynote presentation at the Global Conference on the Commercial Exploitation of Children and Youth.
She said “Ms. Auger and her lawyer, Jack Cram, were first not listened to in the court, and then were handcuffed and dragged out of the courtroom to a jail cell. When Jack Cram eventually did speak, he put before the judge some of his allegations involving cover-ups by the head officers of the Law Society and the judiciary to aid and abet pedophiles and drug dealers. When he insisted on giving more details on radio, Jack Cram was met by ten policemen upon his return from a radio station. He was then put into an ambulance and taken to the psychiatric ward of Vancouver General Hospital. He believes he was injected again and again with mind disorienting drugs.”
I was so shocked to hear of this happening in Canada, as it coincided with me reading the same story in Anthony J Hall’s well researched book, Earth into Property (pp 389-390);
No public investigation into the treatment and accusations of Andres-Auger and Cram ever took place. We can only speculate, therefore, on the circumstances behind such a dramatic collapse of dignity and due process in the criminal-justice system. Certainly it is made to seem probable that some highly placed group or individual believed that he, she, or they had a great deal to lose if Andres-Auger and Cram had been able to press charges.
It was then quite poignant, as I was reading Earth into Property, allegations were made against the Quebec Provincial Police in October 2015 for abuse and sexual assaults against aboriginal women in Val-d’Or, north of Montreal, made public in a report from Radio-Canada’s investigative program Enquête.
Responsibility and the Power of Position
On October 22nd, 2015 in addressing these issues, Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard stated, “There is no tolerance in our society for any act of oppression of any kind — particularly not from people who hold positions of power and especially not toward segments of the population that are already in vulnerable positions due to their status — Aboriginal women’s status in particular.”
This is exactly it – people who hold positions of power have to be the most responsible, as they epitomise the law and the duty to safeguard every citizen. If they do not take this responsibility seriously, their immense power enables them to manipulate the system as they wish over powerless people. When the power of position is misused, even by one person going astray, it plays havoc with society, as it creates fear and vulnerability.
Then, when the perpetrators are protected by the very system that is supposed to enforce the law, it adds insult to injury.
How do we bring this conversation to the surface to examine the root causes? This conversation needs to cover values, parenting, schooling, culture, gender, class, governance, the will to uphold and enforce the law and the importance of leadership. When the political process has eroded with expediency for the powerful, a culture of impunity pervades and is endemic as it is in Sri Lanka and in Canada, when it comes to disadvantaged parts of society.
In today’s age of information and social media, the emperor is exposed without clothes, as the powerful cannot hide their misdeeds using the system anymore. Now these stories are coming out, and the credibility of our governments and political leaders are at stake.
The question is, how do we change this situation?
The moral compass of people also depends on culture, history and the socio-economic situation.
In any society, there is a certain percentage of psychopaths and sociopaths on the bell curve to different degrees of affliction. First of all, it is governance, as laws have to protect people from these crimes and they have to be enforced.
The other side of the coin comes from nurture. Positive parenting and teaching is crucial to build self esteem and to reduce sociopathic tendencies. Self esteem leads to personal responsibility that comes from values and conscience.
It is really true that it takes a village to raise a child.
It is those conversations I had with my mother and even more with my grandmother, about being a man of honour, about the importance of respect, that I know became the voice of reason that tempered my behaviour, to control my primal reptilian impulses in certain situations. Gaining the space to think of the consequences, the bigger picture of how my behaviour and actions impacted on others helped to bring some rationality to highly emotional situations.
That is why I believe we have to go back to those basics. We have to catch abhorrent behaviour at a young age. Parents are best placed to notice and correct behaviour patterns and next come the school and then the community – the neighbours and our spiritual guides.
However, there has to be a framework for a positive society in place that respects man and woman alike as distinct partners. If mothers and grandmothers and other female elders, siblings, friends are to have an influence on young men, society has to respect women and this should be reflected in the media. Only then can the significant women in our lives influence us – as sons, grandsons, nephews and brothers, husbands, fathers – to respect ourselves first, so we can respect the women in our lives to form our true partnerships to make this world a better place.
Riane Eisler, in her book Chalice and the Blade says we live in an exciting, dangerous time in which we can overthrow our hierarchically controlled patriarchal system and replace it with a technologically advanced model of the partnership system in which both genders work together to emphasize the nurturing side of life.
The only way to make that happen is to make movies like Silence in the Courts and Finding Dawn mainstream so more and more people can have these crucial and important conversations.