Advocacy, Diaspora, Human Rights, Human Security, Jaffna, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance

The Relevance of Human Rights – A Lankan Perspective

[Editors Note: Prof. Rajan Hoole, co-founder of UTHR (J) and co-author of the Broken Palmyra, presents this piece exclusively to Groundviews for Human Rights Day 2009].

One important indicator of Human Rights protection in modern society is successful enforcement of the rule of law. Human Rights activism in Lanka came about as a response to special challenges arising from progressive deterioration of the rule of law. The law is technical in its workings. Good laws and good law enforcement advance human rights, and their opposites lead to conflict and crisis. The strengthening of institutional aspects of human rights, the promotion of a human rights culture and the ambient political mores in which these operate, interact with and influence one another. Deterioration of one will undermine the others.

Sinhala Only was bad in law and was a reflection of the changing political culture. It resulted in communal violence in 1956 and 1958. Law enforcement did not go so far as to punish the offenders, because the political class at that time forbad it. How the sympathies of many powerful MPs were with the attacks on Tamils is documented in Tarzie Vittachi’s Emergency ’58. The book is an example of the kind of activism that has since been missing. The country had not reached a point where Vittachi feared politically connected assassins at the gate. Despite his vacillations, no one accused Prime Minister Bandaranaike of a direct hand in the riots (That changed with Prime Minister Jayewardene in 1977).

Consequently ethnicity dominated the political landscape to a point where it began to over-determine all other contradictions. Instead of strengthening and deepening the democratic culture, the evolving politics undermined institutions of law enforcement and transformed the state into one that was patrician not only in class terms but also with regard to ethnicity and religion.

What began with 1958 was a major blow to the rule of law in Ceylon. Once that element of cynicism creeps into the system that the powerful are above the law, it opens the flood gates for the weaker to advocate extra-legal measures and even rebellion. The powerful who use violence against Tamils even for purely ideological reasons, would no sooner resort to violence against Sinhalese for power and loot. Was it not the deep set corruption within Ceylonese society that triggered the 1971 JVP-led Sinhalese youth uprising?

The examples above give some idea of what human rights activism has meant in Lanka, even when it was not called by that name. It must address reform or repeal of bad laws, press for new laws and measures to address protection against injustices, expose failures in law enforcement and seek remedies, campaign for new sensitivities on the part of law enforcement authorities to make marginalised sections feel that the law protects them and perhaps most importantly in this country, usher in new sensitivities and constitutional reform not just to contain conflict between classes and ethnic groups, but also to make them feel equal partners in this country. It is activism that singly or in partnership straddles several areas and levels.

The first time many of us became familiar with the term human rights was after the Civil Rights Movement (CRM) which was founded in the wake of the 1971 JVP insurgency, became active in several of the spheres mentioned above including the North-East conflict. Experience teaches us that to be effective, such a movement must command a virtual political base of sympathisers who would in a crisis stand by it. The CRM in its early years was aided by two commanding figures, Bishop Lakshman Wickremasinghe and Somasundaram Nadesan, who could stand up to anyone in the country. Bishop Lakshman was also well grounded in workers concerns and the Trade Union Movement.

Another important initiative was the Citizens’ Commission headed by Justice O.L. de Kretzer with Justice V. Manickavasagar and Bishop S. Kulandran that looked into the police charge resulting in nine deaths by electrocution at the International Association for Tamil Research conference in Jaffna held in January 1974. The Commission’s conclusion was that the ‘tactful’ course for the Police was quieta non movere (leave well alone) rather than to have acted precipitately in trying to arrest a Tamil Nadu Politician who had already got off the stage at the request of the organisers. Mrs. Bandaranaike’s government could easily have faced the truth rather than allow the TULF to carry out vicious propaganda blaming Mayor Alfred Duraiappah for the deaths. No one then called Justice de Kretzer a traitor.

Another late instance is the Kenneth de Lanerolle Committee report on the attack on Tamil students at Peradeniya University by a mob of students connected to the UNP in May 1983. The author exposed the violence as planned and instigated without provocation, and was uncompromisingly clear that justice should be done.

These examples show that there were men and women from all communities that wanted the truth be told and justice done. They saw this as indispensable to peace and communal harmony.

Thus human rights activism is well grounded in local traditions and local initiatives. Against this background it is rather strange that some of the most powerful in the land today should excoriate human rights activism and attempts to report the truth as the work of Western agents and traitors. Are we so barbarous as to believe that strictures against torture and murder are eccentricities of an alien culture?

Where things went wrong

Ethno-centric ideologies advancing grandiose claims to hegemony, founded on shadowy legends that oversimplify or mythologise, are merely a hair’s breadth away from crimes against humanity. This was the background to the 1958 violence. August 1977 was far worse in that strong circumstantial evidence points to its planning and execution at the highest level. The core of the evidence before the Justice Sansoni Commission of Inquiry was the viciously mischievous radio message sent from Jaffna Police Station on 17th August 1977 that mobs are burning buses, were attacking the Jaffna Buddhist vihare and had assembled at the Jaffna Railway Station to attack passengers, meaning Sinhalese, and the situation was serious.

The message was dictated by HQI Godfrey Gunasekera to PC Kumarasamy in the presence of Inspector Gurusamy and sent on his order to Police HQ as coming from A.S. Seneviratne, SP Jaffna. DIG North, Ana Seneviratne and SP Jaffna were then at their stations. Although the recipient at Police HQ asked for a clarification, Inspector Gurusamy without saying the message was a lie, cancelled the first message and asked HQ to await a further message. However police messages, such as the one by IGP Stanley Senanayake calling for protection of Buddhist sites in Jaffna, with no subsequent clarification, were calculated to add fuel to the fire. The Police’s intention is further exemplified by Superintendent of Police Liyanage, who was in Jaffna till 17th August afternoon and in the evening was in Anuradhapura spreading spiced up versions of the false radio message and instigating violence.

There can be little doubt in the mind of a lay observer that this was newly elected Prime Minister Jayewardene’s way of teaching the Tamils a lesson, which we saw again in 1983. Justice Sansoni in his report avoided the implications of the testimony before him and simply dismissed any suggestion of high level involvement. He tended to blame the violence on the political demand for Eelam. Today even the key evidence that transpired under cross examination by Attorney Leslie Bartlett is hard to find.

The evidence before the Commission made a good story for investigative journalism anywhere. But the Press shunned it as bringing shame on the Sinhalese. This absence of publicity helped Jayewardene to apply pressure on Sansoni, who protected the Government from blame. Our judges too are products of our society.

Few leaders of society have seen the propensity for the country to go on without any account for the communal violence of 1958, 1977 and 1983, as courting utter ignominy. Many of them were socially comfortable with the rulers. Meeting them personally and getting some verbal assurances and then lapsing into complacency became an agreeable form of activism. Confrontation was anathema. The country carried on regardless, until a new outburst of barbarity came with the second JVP insurgency in 1987, which flowed directly out of July 1983.

Once the Jayewardene government began to act in total disregard for the law many persons who had been active in challenging the Government became thoroughly perplexed. The 1982 referendum was followed by the July 1983 violence and then by grand schemes for defeating terrorism by driving out Tamils through brute force and planting Sinhalese settlements in the North-East. Weli Oya was the prime example. It introduced a new menacing level of violence from both sides.

Avenues for challenging the Government legally were then limited. The CRM continued to work in this area. It was party to the Paul Nallanyagam case that marked a notable victory. Nallanayagam, a local activist from Kalmunai exposed a massacre by the STF and was detained under the PTA. Compensation claims of Welikade Massacre victims provided a legal window resulting in CRM Secretary Suriya Wickremasinghe’s long and painstaking analytical study of the crime. Going beyond this required a political base, which was almost non-existent after the Traditional Left committed hara-kiri by joining the Sinhala Only bandwagon in the 1960s. The 1971 JVP insurgency was an early manifestation of this suicide. The vacuum is keenly felt to this day. In the 1970s several new Left movements responded to this vacuum by taking up the struggle for social justice from outside the mainstream parliamentary democracy. They too were pushed into human rights activism in a manner they had not anticipated.

Social Justice and Human Rights

From the earliest days of Left activism in Lanka, there was also a deep consciousness of the class nature of the ‘rule of law’. We could easily lose sight of the fact that a vast number of people from the poorer strata of this country never had access to justice. Consequently most Left critiques, especially from those who aimed at total social transformation, ignored the importance of the human rights struggle. This changed when J.R. Jayewardene’s regime from 1977 moved to suppress the workers’ struggles in a ruthlessness manner. In facing up to Jayewardene’s increasingly authoritarian rule and the suppression of trade unions, many Left activists advanced democratic and human rights as an important aspect of their struggle for social emancipation. A number of movements were formed. Among them were the Movement for the Defence of Democratic Rights (MDDR) and the Movement for Inter-Racial Justice and Equality (MIRJE). Among their activities were campaigns for the release of political prisoners, which meant close engagement with the law. Jayewardene’s suppression of workers and Tamils and his cynical dalliance with the JVP, finally making them scapegoats for the 1983 communal violence rendered the existing vacuum explosive. The JVP used the oppression and even ethnically charged rhetoric, to muster rural youths for its “revolution”. The result was massive bloodletting and unprecedented human rights abuses from 1987 to 1990, once more raising new challenges for human rights communities the world over on dealing with non state forces.

This was an experience that showed how over-determination of ethnicity in political life enthroned a state of permanent impunity to the detriment of social justice and ethnic equality.

Tamils and Human Rights

What happened in Tamil society, in response to this attitude of the South, was a similar frivolous approach of debasing the law and playing with fire. Its campaign against Alfred Duraiyappah as a traitor, for the small prize of capturing the Jaffna parliamentary seat, provided the cue for the rise of the LTTE which began with his assassination. Murdering ‘traitors’ became a means to cheap popularity for the incipient militant groups. Inspector Gurusamy, who admitted before the Sansoni Commission that he was forced to be party to the radio message that ignited the 1977 riots, was shot dead by militants the following year. He had merely done the work of a servant and was an important witness. Killing him was meaningless and irresponsible.

Thus on the one hand the Government arrogantly made a virtue of acting outside the law. On the other, Tamil nationalists supporting the separatist project insisted that there was no prospect of justice from the Sinhalese state and either supported or turned a blind eye to the killing of police officers. They ridiculed attempts to challenge the State through appeals to the law. Parallel trends in the North and South reinforced one another.

When Jayewardene criticised the TULF’s silence on the killing of policemen, the TULF was cornered. They were being overtaken by the monster they had spawned. In early 1982 the next step in degeneration came when the LTTE killed Sundaram, a key figure in its rival the PLOTE. A few months later the PLOTE murdered two LTTE sympathisers. Not quite knowing this, I called at the house of my friend, the TULF MP for Jaffna, at dusk. He came to the gate a long while later, apologised, spoke of his own fear and said, “The fellows have gone mad.” Seven years later he was killed by the LTTE. The rest is history.

Human Rights acquires an ambivalent reputation

Our induction into human rights activism came with different individuals, among whom was Dr. Rajani Thiranagama who had been active in diverse ways, coming together at the end of 1986. Having failed in efforts to mitigate the effects of the LTTE’s refusal to respond to the December 19th 1986 (Chidambaram) proposals and continue the war at enormous cost, it became our lot to experience relief at the coming of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), and then despair and destruction when the LTTE began an insensate war with the IPKF. We believed that the only course open to us was to tell the whole truth and face the consequences. We authored the Broken Palmyra, frequently by candle light, after regular interviews with victims.

Our common position born of experience was that it was meaningless to criticise the governments of Sri Lanka or India, without questioning what happened among us and what we did as a people. When in the middle of 1988, there was a call by a section of academics in the South to form the University Teachers for Human Rights (UTHR), in response to the effects of the JVP insurgency; we found that we had been moving in the same direction. Several of the academics in the South too felt that they must challenge both the Government and the JVP. We began issuing our reports under the name UTHR (Jaffna).

The national UTHR became paralysed after some months when one section tried to push it in a pro-JVP, anti-IPKF direction. Prof. H. Sriyananda who was co-chairman of the UTHR was of a very clear mind that the UTHR should be meticulously impartial in its reporting and continued to be a good friend of ours. Thanks to the political base we had because of the wider involvements of Rajani and some others, we were able to withstand pressures from the combatant parties to manipulate us. Our fundamental standpoint was the people’s interest. From this standpoint we took a strong stand against the politics and methods of the other actors on the scene. Even in exile we remained part of a wider, virtual political community of like minded people on issues, new friends, old friends and those with whom we had earlier differed.

There were other developments which gave human rights an ambivalent reputation. The SLFP in 1988 tried to ride to power on the back of JVP terror. The JVP, after leading it up the garden path, dropped the SLFP rudely and then targeted its members. JVP terror forced all political parties to rely on state protection and many cooperated with state terror. When some SLFP politicians took up human rights, mainly targeting the UNP government, it degenerated into a game of running with the hare and hunting with the hounds. That too was a logical consequence of Sinhalese chauvinism.

The human rights slogan became a weapon against the UNP and aided Chandrika Kumaratunge’s election as president. Not surprisingly her Commissions of Inquiry into violence during the JVP era were seen as a dishonest and partisan endeavour and evoked widespread cynicism about human rights itself. The guilt was all over. The result did much harm in making peace without human rights seem acceptable, even if illusory.

In this context, while the West-initiated, Norway-facilitated peace process had many flaws from the start, there was reluctance on the part of civil society activists to criticise it. Since the process would temporarily stop the war; they hoped the LTTE might in the meantime be tamed through pure appeasement. This meant turning a blind eye to political killings by the LTTE and enhanced conscription of children, using the access provided by the peace process, without any real checks. Neither had they, after many years of encounters with the LTTE, done their home work.

Those who knew the LTTE better were clear that the peace process was doomed and would give discredited Sinhalese chauvinist politics a new lease of life. This is where we are today. Ironically, it is the chums of one time human rights champion Mahinda Rajapakse, who in his time lobbied all the well known human rights organisations in the West, who should take up cudgels against local human rights advocates as agents of the West. These advocates, though threatened regularly by the President’s cronies, have spoken out boldly, but without going for where it really hurts. There has been a spate of human rights violations since the public execution of the five students in Trincomalee on 2nd January 2006. There were the horrendous killings in Vankalai and Allaipiddy. But local groups made almost no impact. Little is on record about the host of terrible violations by the Government and the LTTE during the recent war.

Challenges Ahead

We presently have two contestants for the presidential election. Both have appalling records and hold out no hope of improving the state of human rights or taking meaningful action against past violations. Going by the past record, the tendency in civil society would be to throw principles to the wind and opt for patently ill-fated pragmatism, where they would have no influence over what follows.

The end of the war provides an opportunity for removing ethnic over-determination from our political life and to redirect our energies towards the imperative of reforming the state and revamping its institutions, providing appropriate political and constitutional arrangements to remove conflicts that have dogged us. It however looks as if this opportunity will be missed, leading to manifold challenges before the human rights community. In the South, human rights activism is failing to build broader movements and is hoping for a change of the government in power as a lever to promote human rights. This course has repeatedly failed.

The Tamil community has been through a very destructive phase lasting the best part of three decades and is in a state of paralysis. When the politics of the South shows no prospect of changing course, the Tamils as a people need to do a serious reappraisal. They cannot go on blaming Sinhalese politics, because the community’s future is at stake. It is imperative for the community to regenerate itself economically and socially and to identify short term and long term strategies towards achieving dignity. This must go hand in hand with convincing the Sinhalese masses that their well being is intertwined with respecting the rights of minorities and the inviolability of their political and cultural space.