Thirty-five years ago, human rights and democracy in Sri Lanka unravelled in a spectacular manner. Yet the background to these blatant abuses included an erosion of economic and social rights, with which political rights are interconnected. To tackle today’s challenges, it may be helpful to take an approach which seeks to uphold all human rights, for everyone.

The gradual undermining of rights and what followed

The events of July 1983 and their aftermath shocked many, in Sri Lanka and beyond. Police stood by as thugs linked with the ruling party worked their way through Colombo, burning the furniture, homes and businesses of Tamils and in some cases committing murder. Images were broadcast across the world, along with accounts by horrified tourists.

The massacre of over fifty inmates of a high security prison was a further indication of lawless brutality at the highest levels. Though many Sinhalese people bravely protected their neighbours, saving numerous lives, hundreds of thousands of people in Southern and Central parts of the country fled. Though political leaders claimed this was a spontaneous response to the killing of a group of soldiers by rebels, it was clearly carefully orchestrated.

There had however been warning signs and a gradual undermining of safeguards against state brutality and tyranny, as well as of a growing culture of prejudice and violence. Upcountry Tamils, who were largely responsible for the nation’s wealth, were treated shabbily and often denied basic human rights. Members of other communities had tended to allow or even encourage this – but were to learn the hard way that, where anyone is denied justice, all are at risk.

The government which won the election in the late 1970s took the country in an alarming direction. By the early 1980s Sri Lankans had learnt to accept, for the most part, what might once have seemed intolerable, including concentration of power in a President, intimidation of judges, hate-speech against minorities by government ministers.

A Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) which enabled the arbitrary arrest, detention and sometimes torture of broadly law-abiding young people had, in fact, increased support for terrorism, as victims and their peers were left feeling alienated and angry. Though the armed Tamil nationalist movement had been tiny, the wounding and killing of civilians by the security forces also helped it to recruit, though numbers remained low. The burning of the Jaffna library – one of the nation’s cultural treasures – in 1981, with the complicity of ministers, deepened ethnic divisions, along with state encouragement for a ‘Sinhala Buddhism’ far removed from the compassionate and peaceful wisdom of the Buddha.

A leading figure in this attempt to twist religion into a tool of oppression was Cyril Mathew, Minister of Industries and president of the ruling party’s ‘union’, the Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya (JSS). This was involved in suppressing dissent, including attacks on strikers. Creating violent militias which are not part of the security forces can help regimes to bypass accountability for unlawful acts. The shift of power to the president and removal of civic rights from a key opposition figure, former prime minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, were indicators too that democracy was in peril.

The island was all the more volatile because of economic unrest and a sense among many youth of all ethnic communities of being undervalued and lacking hope. Though an impressive health and education system had been developed, development had largely stalled or was being directed in ways that did not benefit the majority of people. Parts of the country were particularly affected: for instance agriculture in the less fertile North could not offer a livelihood to more than a limited number of people but there was little in the way of industry to compensate.

In this context, discrimination in admission to university became a highly charged issue, causing much resentment. The Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), which despite its name was a fairly conventional opposition party, began to float the notion of independence, though perhaps mainly as bargaining tactic from which a way forward involving some regional autonomy could be negotiated, between the extremes of over-centralisation of power and separation.

Meanwhile young Sinhalese people from low-income families, largely in the deep South, were finding that – however well they did at school or even if they were graduates – their own prospects of suitable employment were thwarted. Though geographically not far from the elite who controlled most of the state apparatus and big business, they were far removed socially from those in charge, who tended to have little interest in the wellbeing of ordinary Sri Lankans. Feeling unheard and undervalued, some joined the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which was then functioning as a democratic political party.

Inflation was running at 15% a year from 1977-82 – not good news for ordinary households struggling to get by. But from the perspective of the US and UK governments of the time, heavily influenced by neoliberalism and concerned too about strategic advantage, the Sri Lankan regime was one worth backing. This political and military support (in part through mercenaries with close links to the UK armed forces) gave top politicians the confidence to override the rights of ordinary people.

An election was due to be held in August 1983, which would almost certainly have been lost by those in power. They had no intention of letting that happen; a heavily rigged referendum in late 1982 led to the election being ‘postponed’ – and replaced by arson, killing and ethnic cleansing.

What happened subsequently has been reported extensively, as President JR Jayawardene and Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa failed even to make a half-convincing pretence of sympathy with the victims. Instead they banned the JVP and two left-wing parties, bizarrely claiming that they had been responsible for the violence, and removed all TULF MPs from Parliament, choking off routes to allow peaceful opposition. Rebellions broke out, in the South and in the North and East, and were brutally repressed, with human rights violations on all sides, while the Indian armed forces too were sucked into the mayhem.

Intimidation and murder by the JVP and the Tigers’ terrorist attacks on Sinhalese and Muslim civilians, along with slaughter of rival Tamil groups and anyone suspected of disobedience to their dictatorial leader, deepened a culture in which unbridled use of power was seen as acceptable. Escaping that legacy has proved extremely difficult.

Celebrating the Universal Declaration

However later in 2018 a very different anniversary will be celebrated: seventy years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This reflected a process to which people from many different parts of the world, faith and cultural traditions contributed, including from Asia.

Though many people today think of the 1948 Universal Declaration in terms of political freedoms, in fact its scope is far wider. While the wording of the English language version is at times dated (for instance using ‘he’ to refer to people in general), it remains relevant.

Rights include ‘the right to life, liberty and security of person’ and not to ‘be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment’, that ‘All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law’ and none should face ‘arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.’

It is indeed important that ‘Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence’. Everyone also has the right to ‘freedom of thought, conscience and religion’, ‘freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers’ and ‘freedom of peaceful assembly and association.’

Sri Lanka’s experience highlights how much it matters that ‘Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives’ and of ‘equal access to public service in his country’ and that ‘The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.’

When such rights have been disregarded, the price has been high indeed.

However, from Article 23, the emphasis shifts to economic, social and cultural rights. For instance, ‘Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security’, ‘Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment’ and ‘Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.’

Other rights include ‘the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control’; while ‘Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance’.

A right that matters deeply to many Sri Lankans is ‘the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit… Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups’.

Likewise ‘Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.’

These are based on core principles set out in the preamble: that ‘recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.

‘disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people.

‘it is essential, if man 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 peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life’.

Thus the same underlying concerns, about upholding human dignity and worth and enabling people to live peaceably together, free from fear and want, underpin both sets of rights.

Further Covenants and Conventions set out, in more detail, how states are required to behave, especially towards the most marginalised and vulnerable in society. Those with economic or political power periodically complain about these rights, which they may portray as a burden on business or interference with national decisions. Yet few would wish to be deprived of these themselves.

Sri Lanka today

The government in power in Sri Lanka today has made some attempts to heal past wounds and achieve a measure of reconciliation, as well as to assure minorities that they are valued and equal. Yet there is still a long way to go and, in some instances, progress has seemed more a matter of show than substance.

Meanwhile neoliberal economic policies keep being pursued and privatisation continues, including in healthcare and education. Maintaining high quality public services, so that the poorest have equal access to opportunities and any necessary support, seems to be low on the government’s list of priorities. Corruption remains a problem.

Against this background, a yearning for authoritarianism may exercise an increasing hold: people the world over all too easily forget lessons from the past. The Friday Forum, a group of concerned citizens, recently drew attention to a worrying trend. Venduruwe Upali Thero, a senior Buddhist monk, had called on former army officer Gotabhaya Rajapaksa to give firm leadership, even if he had to be ‘a Hitler’ to do this. Vijayakala Maheswaran, a legislator in Jaffna, had urged a return to Tiger rule. And retired Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekara had verbally attacked Deepika Udagama, Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, saying that traitors should be sentenced to death.

Such statements ‘encourage support for authoritarian and dictatorial governance as a legitimate and acceptable form of good governance,’ the Friday Forum warned.

‘They also spread messages that directly or indirectly advocate the worst forms of violence, intolerance and hate.’

However simply opposing the erosion of political rights, when many people feel devalued and insecure because their economic and social rights have been overlooked, is not enough.

Instead a focus on human rights as a whole, for everyone, may have a chance of bringing together a broad cross-section of society. This may not win favour with the most prosperous and powerful, whose own rights are relatively secure) though past experience has shown that, when a culture of violence gets out of hand, even the mightiest may fall victim).

Cultural rights too are important, though it should be emphasised that respect for people’s language, artistic and religious heritage in no way requires that others be suppressed. On the contrary, human rights of all kinds can lead to mutual flourishing.

The challenges of building an ethos of rights for all should not be underestimated. But if those too young to have lived through the events of July 1983 and their aftermath are to be spared such horrors, it may be necessary to work towards a recognition that all deserve basic freedoms, recognition of human dignity and the necessities of life.

Editor’s Note: To view more content marking 35 years since Black July, click here.