Photo courtesy of Amnesty International

A cascade of reports from human rights organisations including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have drawn attention to rise of authoritarian and nationalistic regimes around the world that is having an adverse impact on human rights and the adherence of state to international human rights law.

Authoritarian regimes were trying to “wrestle away human rights based values and replace societies with autocracy, repression and war,” warned Amnesty International’s Senior Director Deprose Muchena. He called on states to adopt a more consistent approach to defending human rights as well as a strengthening of global institutions for defending human rights.

But as authoritarian regimes have taken hold, eroding human rights and democracy, is the battle for  democracy and human rights a losing one in South Asia?

“We don’t believe human rights is losing. We can’t not believe in fighting for human rights because it’s the work we do; it is the right thing that needs to be done. It is true that governments are cracking down on human rights defenders and on freedom of expression but the battle has to continue and we will all fight it together,” Yamini Mishra, Director for South Asia, Amnesty International told Groundviews in an interview.

Most countries around the world have accepted the concept of universal human rights. One hundred and ninety three countries have signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which is the prime global document protecting human rights. Under the UDHR were established the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

While the ICESCR deals with the right to have an adequate standard of living and suggests that people cannot not enjoy human rights without first having a reasonable standard of living free of poverty and hunger, the ICCPR focuses on equality, freedom of thought and religion, freedom of expression, freedom from torture and freedom from arbitrary arrest, among others.

When states are taken to task for reneging on their obligations to uphold the human rights of their citizens, they often fall back on the concept of sovereignty and the right to manage their own affairs without outside interference.

However if the human rights, including economic rights, of citizens are being violated by their own governments, then the international community has an obligation to step in while considering how to do in proportion to the offenses being committed. The argument of sovereignty can be overridden by the fact that most states of the world have signed UN treaties and conventions that bind them to the international community and universal principles of human rights that they are obliged to uphold.

When the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), under a Human Rights Council (HRC) resolution, established an accountability project to preserve and analyse evidence relating to violations and abuses of human rights and related crimes in Sri Lanka, Foreign Minister Ali Sabry evoked the concept of sovereignty as a defence.

“Sovereignty is being used to push back on human rights but human rights are universal and not an attack on sovereignty. It is about people’s rights and there is no tension between human rights and sovereignty; sovereignty is used as convenient tool by governments to supress rights,” Ms. Mishra pointed out.

As Sri Lanka goes through its worst economic crisis, it is beholden to many countries and institutions for funds to get out of its dire straits, some of which are tying human rights protection to economic aid The government has made many pronouncements on establishing a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, repealing the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and decriminalising homosexuality but there has been very little action taken. In fact, with the clampdown on protests and the arrest of some protesters under the PTA, the government is violating many of the rights it is obliged to protect under the ICCPR.

The attempt to replace the PTA with the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) has drawn international and national condemnation and has forced the government to delay presenting the bill to parliament. Political analyst Prof. Jayadeva Uyangoda said that the ATA was a direct response to last year’s aragalaya and was seeking to counter political activism. As the economic situation worsens for the country’s poor, working class and middle class, the government was preparing to quell possible unrest with the draconian new law, he told a seminar on the ATA, adding that oppressive laws would “turn the common man into a terrorist”.

Human Rights Watch condemned the ATA as a law that would allow the government to systematically violate human rights by using draconian measures to silence peaceful critics and target minorities. “The Bill needs to be seen both in light of Sri Lanka’s abusive history of counter-terrorism powers and the current Government’s repression of peaceful dissent. Sri Lanka’s international partners should make it absolutely clear that they will not reward this abuse with trade preferences and other support,” Human Rights Watch said.

International human rights organisations are in the forefront of pushing the government to adhere to its international obligations. “We work to influence governments to formulate laws that abide with international human rights standards and hold governments accountable for upholding these laws. We advise governments about respecting standards and monitor if laws are being implemented or are misused,” Ms. Mishra said. Amnesty International has campaigned for the release of people detained under the PTA  as well as aragalaya protesters and documents use of tear gas and water cannon while calling out the government if it uses too much force.

Human rights organisations were also keeping a close watch on what conditions Sri Lanka had to meet for its IMF funding, which they said would adversely affect the poor and marginalised; they are calling for better protection and safety nets at a time when, according to the World Food Programme, one in three families were experiencing food insecurity and that half were buying food on credit.

“To protect rights when removing subsidies and introducing taxes for fossil fuels, the Government should adequately invest in social protection, the use of renewable energy sources and other measures to move toward a rights-aligned economy,” Human Rights Watch said.

“Human rights are indivisible and one set of rights should not be prioritised over the other. Economic wellbeing as well as the right to protest should not take a back seat because the country is going through an economic crisis. We are not against negotiations with the IMF but minimum human rights should not be trampled on,” Ms. Mishra said. “We want Sri Lanka to come out of the economic crisis, which has impacted the right to food, health and education. When the government cuts down on expenditure, it affects the poor so social protection must be adequate. Creditors also have human rights obligations,” she pointed out.