Colombo, Human Rights, Human Security, Peace and Conflict

A Romance with Rights

Mario Gomez reflects on the work of Sri Lankan human rights activist Sunila Abeysekera. Ms Abeysekera was recently honoured by Human Rights Watch with the Human Rights Defender Award for 2007. He was speaking at a ‘Celebration off Human Rights Defenders’ to honour both Ms Abeysekera and Rajan Hoole and Kopalasingham Sritharan of the University Teachers for Human Rights (UTHR) who were recently awarded the Martin Ennals 2007 Award for Human Rights Defenders. The celebration was organised by Inform, the Law & Society Trust and the Rights Now Collective for Democracy on 6th December 2007.

Sunila Abeysekera
Photo credit: Tim Hetherington, 2007 from HRW website

This afternoon we are gathered to celebrate and pay tribute to two Sri Lankan human rights defenders: one a fearless group that has exposed human rights violations mainly in relation to the conflict, and secondly, to an equally fearless woman who has played many roles in her campaign of human rights for all.

We are also gathered here at a moment of severe human rights crisis and their struggles reflect the many micro struggles that others undergoing in different parts of the country.

I have been asked to speak a few words on Sunila and have been deeply touched by this request.

Sunila entered my life and I entered hers sometime in the 1990s, I am not so sure exactly when. Since then I have been inspired by her work and the reason, the activism and the maturity she has brought to human rights work. In between then and now we have taught human rights activists in Bangkok, collaborated on IDP projects, been part of team that produced a book on ESC rights and demonstrated at Lipton’s Circus on Wednesday afternoons, among other things.

I thought I would share with you this afternoon, three facets of Sunila’s work, which to me have been the most striking.

Working for Women and Being Woman
The first facet of Sunila’s work relates to her activism and thinking around women and gender. I think the first thing that strikes you when you when you work with Sunila is that she is a woman. I refer here not just to the biological fact but to the power, the frankness, the passion and the astuteness of many women that an encounter with Sunila brings.

I think the fact that Sunila is not just a human rights activist, but a ‘woman’ human rights activist is a dimension of her work that you cannot ignore.

Related to this is her work around gender equality. Her Master’s thesis at the Institute of Social Studies in the Hague on ‘Equality and Difference’ was a pioneering piece of work and was written at a time when many feminists were interrogating the concepts of equality that predominated in some of the early feminist struggles.

However, what I found most striking about Sunila’s work in this area was her ability to translate the everyday struggles of a battered woman, an IDP woman, or a mother of a disappeared, into the language of rights and into a language that was understandable to many. She has the capacity to de-mystify the concepts of feminism, equality and difference, relate these concepts to the day to day struggles, and reach out to students and other people in way that many others could not.

All Rights
The second important facet of her work relates to her struggles around a variety of human rights issues. So while women’s rights and gender equality has been an important part of her work she has also contributed in important ways to the protection and promotion of other human rights.

She has been a tireless advocate against torture, a strong critic of disappearances and abductions, and an ardent campaigner on the right to free expression.

Unlike many other activists she has also been a fighter for economic and social rights. One of the initiatives that Sunila and I worked on was the activists’ manual ‘A Circle of Rights’. The book was designed for activists in the field and for those training in the area of economic and social rights. I was fortunate to be a part of this global team, together with Sunila and we worked on the manual, on a pilot programme to test the manual and then on the video that accompanied the manual.

She has also worked on those rights that have been marginalized within the human rights movement, for example the rights of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender (LGBT rights). Her work in this area has been of a pioneering kind and has contributed to lifting the veil, even if only marginally, for those with a variety of sexual orientations.

Her work illustrates the idea that human rights are interrelated and indivisible. It shows us that any attempt to protect and promote only some rights will be an incomplete endeavour that does not capture the complexity of the lives and the struggles of many people around the world.

Balancing Intellectualism with Activism
The third part of her work relates to the balance she has struck between the theoretical aspects of human rights and the activism of human rights. Few people I have known have been able to reflect and theorize on human rights and combine this with robust and relevant activism with equal aplomb. Sunila has been one of the few people with this capacity, Neelan Tiruchelvam and Richard de Zoysa are two other names that spring to mind, albeit Richard for much shorter period.

Regional and Global work
A fourth facet of her work is her global human rights work. There are two aspects of this part of her work. First is her strategic use of international procedures and forums to support domestic human rights struggles. And second is her work as a global human rights activist working on many issues of concern to the global North and global South. However, this part of her work I think this has been acknowledged elsewhere and also in the film that was screened earlier and so I will not dwell on this aspect.

Persisting and Being Smart
I would like to note two other qualities of Sunila’s work that I think are of immediate relevance to our work in Sri Lanka today.

One of the challenges of human rights work is to persist. To persist, even if you feel your work is not making a difference, to persist in times of adversity, and to persist when personal security is at stake. Sunila’’s work is an example of persistence and continuing to struggle in good times and bad.

But I think human rights work also needs to be smart and unashamed to make tactical withdrawals when such a withdrawal is called for, without sacrificing any of the principles we all believe in. Human rights work does not mean a blind assertion of rights, but rather a smart reading of political and social context and a nuanced understanding of the moment.

While the rights language may be appropriate at some moments they may not work at other moments and it is important to be able to recognize this. One of the critiques of rights based work is that human rights defenders are too preoccupied with the rights discourse to the exclusion of other discourses and other strategies of change.

Here too I think Sunila has shown remarkable insight and has been able to read situations and contexts with maturity and astuteness. She has shown remarkable political sense to read contexts intelligently looking for the points of greatest vulnerability and the windows of greatest opportunity.

We are gathered here this afternoon at a moment of grave human rights crisis. It is surely the ‘worst of times’. Sometime in the mid 1990s we thought this country had turned a crucial corner and had been able to put behind, the horrendous violations of the past. I think we rested too lightly in thinking that the ‘age of never again’ was already here.

The events of the past two years have shown us that the capacity for oppression and brutality both within the state structures and among non-state actors has not withered. In fact it seems to have ripened with age and acquired a chilling blazé.

The two qualities that Sunila has shown: the capacity to persist and a political sense to read situations smartly are of great relevance today. I think we need to draw inspiration from the many other struggles around rights whether it be in Argentina, in South Africa or in Timor Leste, where people fought for many years in the name of what they believed to be right.

Many of us in the human rights struggle are in it because we believe that it is the right thing to do even if at times like this we often feel powerless.

At dark hours like this the capacity to pick up and go on is an important quality. But equally important is the capacity to be politically smart especially when one is up against actors who manipulate the rights discourse for their own ends.

In the work of Sunila we find these qualities that I think the human rights struggle of Sri Lanka desperately needs at the current moment: the capacity to persist and the ability to be politically smart.

I hope Sunila would pardon me, if I say that over the years she has had a romance with rights that many of us would die for to have with our partners. It has been a relationship of love, a relationship of the mind, a journey of unbelievable ecstasy, a journey of incredible loneliness, and a struggle of unwavering commitment.

Today we applaud an exceptional person. A woman with all the qualities of a real woman; a human rights activist who has balanced mature intellectual work with robust activism; and a human being with some of humankind’s best qualities.

May the fire never die…

Editors note: For an interview with Sunila filmed on this day in Sinhala, where she speaks about the award and the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, please visit the Vikalpa YouTube Channel.