Photo courtesy of Sri Lanka Brief

Today is Human Rights Day

Human rights is a much misunderstood and maligned concept in Sri Lanka. It is sometimes seen as a Western notion and not in keeping with the culture of the country. However, people forget that human rights are universal rights that existed here long before there was contact with nations on the other side of the world.

The criticism of human rights as a concept came in the 1990s when leaders of some Asian states connected human rights to Western ideology that promoted individualism in contrast to Asian values that were more community-oriented. It was also claimed that human rights were a luxury that less developed countries could not afford and that economic development should remain the priority.

“The notion of human rights builds on our shared humanity. These rights are not derived from the citizenship of any country, or the membership of any nation, but taken as entitlements of every human being,” said Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, speaking at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in 1997.

“For example, the human right of a person not to be tortured is independent of the country of which this person is a citizen and thus exists irrespective of what the government of that country – or any other -wants to do. A government can, of course, dispute a person’s legal right not to be tortured, but that will not amount to disputing what must be seen as the person’s human right not to be tortured,” he pointed out.

On the matter of economic development versus human rights, Professor Sen had this to say: “There is, in fact, little general evidence that authoritarian governance and the suppression of political and civil rights are really beneficial in encouraging economic development.”

Buddhism emphasises freedom of thought and freedom of expression articulated in the discourses of the Buddha. It embraces the sanctity of all life.

Professor L. P. N. Perera, former Vice Chancellor of Sri Jayewardenepura University, in his book Buddhism and Human Rights, demonstrated that every one of the 30 articles of the The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948, from labour rights to fair wages, leisure and welfare have been included by the Buddha in his teachings on life and society, wrote Dr. Ananda Guruge in his foreword to the book.

Human rights are the basic rights and freedoms that belong to every person in the world from birth until death. They are: the right to equality and freedom from discrimination; the right to life, liberty and personal security; freedom from torture and degrading treatment; the right to equality before the law; the right to a fair trial; the right to privacy; freedom of belief and religion; and freedom of opinion.

The UDHR was the first legal document to set out the fundamental human rights to be universally protected. It is the foundation of all international human rights law. The UDHR, together with the two covenants – the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights – make up the International Bill of Rights.

Sri Lanka is party to both covenants and has an obligation under international law to respect, protect and fulfill human rights. Human rights are held up to international standards and judged accordingly. Fundamental rights are enshrined in Chapter Three of the Constitution of Sri Lanka.

In 1997, the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) came into being. Today, just three Commissioners are functioning. There is no Chairperson. Five other commissioners have been proposed. With the 20th Amendment, the President can appoint the commissioners at his discretion.

National human rights institutions (NHRIs) are graded according to the UN’s Paris Principles that set out international minimum standards that all NHRIs must meet if they are to be credible. The Paris Principles require that NHRIs have independence in law, membership, operations, policy and control of resources.

Sri Lanka is one of the few Asian countries to have an A status according to the Paris Principles, a highly coveted rating, where a main criterion is the independence of the commissioners. With the disappearance of that independence under the 20th Amendment, it is likely to lose that status and with it the financial assistance that enables the Commission to function without depending on a cash-strapped government for resources.

The basic functions of the HRCSL are to promote and monitor fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution and to make recommendations to the government on how to comply with international human rights standards. This is done by addressing public complaints brought to the Commission, which has the legal right to go to court if the recommendations are not implemented.

“The government has to guarantee that every person has a right to a life free of unfair treatment with the basic needs of food, shelter, health, education, security and other rights being met,” said Human Rights Commissioner Ramani Muttetuwagama.

Most of the complaints handled by the commission are small ones concerning day to day lives of ordinary people. It could be about getting a road made or school admissions or treatment at a police station or the delivery of a pension or water connections. Ms. Muttetuwagama cited the instance of a man who was passionate about maintaining the sanctity of Sigirya rock, coming to the Commission with complaints about placards polluting the area.

Most of the time, she pointed out, government officials responded to a phone call or a directive to fix the problem although there was a list of habitual offenders who ignored any interventions.

However, a lack of resources of inquire into complaints has led to backlog stretching three or four years.

The HRCSL is also hampered by the erroneous public perception that it is endowed with greater powers than it actually has such as the power to issue judgements, which is actually a function of the court, Ms. Muttetuwagama pointed out.

In the last  few months, driven by the spread of COVID-19, HRCSL has been issuing a series of media releases on a range of related issues including quarantine roundups, arbitrary lockdowns and forced cremations. The Mahara prison riot brought out the inhumane overcrowding in the prison system while women are still waiting for news of sons, husbands, fathers and brothers inside the prison.

In the coming months and years, as Sri Lanka’s human rights situation slides down a slippery slope, the HRCSL and other human rights defenders will have their work cut out for them.