HUMAN RIGHTS IN SRI LANKA: SOME ETHICAL AND PRACTICAL ISSUES
HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVITY: THE ESSENCE
How does a human rights organisation respond to oppression? Here there is broad consensus. It is widely believed that the concept of human rights is sufficiently well grounded in international relations, to the extent that institutions which violate them face international opprobrium as the result of exposure. This they can ill afford in a world where such relations are important.
In the preface to Volume 1 we raised some issues explaining why we felt our organisation must also take cognizance of violations by non‑state organisations as well. This assumes an added importance in our country because the nature of insurgency here is one where ideology has become a mere smokescreen. The motivating principle behind the liberation struggles seems to be power no matter what the cost to the civilian population. A natural outcome of this is to exploit the oppressive qualities of the enemy and provoke scenes of gore, resulting in publicity abroad and popular resentment within. It is a novel and totally destructive idea which can deprive a society of the last vestiges of civilised life, with no hope of good for decades to come.
The current practice of Human Rights organisations is to record and protest against violations by the State. This is based on the premise that the state has, in various ways, its obligation and accountability to the people and to the international community. However, when groups struggling against state oppression violate human rights (eg.practice torture, kill dissenters), Human Rights organisations are faced with a dilemma; how are they to respond to this reality? Apart from what these organisations do, the contending political forces, who are fighting against the state, expose and protest against the methods used by their opponents and rivals. They do this in order to mobilise the people behind them. In these circumstances, these political forces view Human Rights organisations as a vital ally; they tactically co‑operate with them and even encourage them to carry out their work. When Human Rights are looked at as a tactical issue, which liberation groups try to make use of, the conflict between the theory and practice surfaces.
Although Human Rights cannot be handled in the abstract it is essential that this concept be developed in the context of human emancipation; it plays a vital role in determining the strategy as well as the tactics of any genuine liberation/revolutionary movement. Such movements struggle to create a new kind of state power. Therefore they are a state in the making. In this process very often movements which do not function strictly within a Human Rights framework, bring about situations which marginalise the people, and compel them to be passive, silent and resigned; the people are thus compelled to accept the denial of their right to speak out freely, to determine their own lives and even to life itself ‑ all of which are the basis of the struggle against state oppression. It then comes to be of paramount importance for Human Rights organisations to investigate and protest against these violations by the anti‑state forces also. Paradoxically, then, in an atmosphere in which the community has become terrorised and resigned, those of its members who try to question all violations of human rights can easily be marked out, and their action be treated as a challenge to the authority of the dominant groups. The lives of those who do this valuable work are put at risk. Thus a concept of human rights which exempts from accountability the forces claiming to fight on behalf of the people has encourage the recent development of the situation we have in our country and internationally. Experience shows the urgent need to develop and publicise human rights and morality consistent with the realisation of human emancipation.
In the South events have far surpassed in atrocities anything this country has ever known before, the question assumes a poignant note of urgency. This has been compounded by the killing, allegedly by the state, of several lawyers involved in human rights work. When the JVP ‑ an organisation that has closed hospitals regardless of the sick, has killed employees who disobeyed its call to shut down public services, together with their relatives, has remorselessly hunted down and killed political opponents without any constructive idea whatsoever, and has, in keeping with its declared policy, killed relatives of servicemen ‑ talks about human rights violations by the state, it is time to be more watchful. The concept of human rights becomes a mockery and human rights workers are in danger of being seen by servicemen and many others as being in league with those murdering their families.
In the context of what was said earlier, we may note that the functioning of the Sri Lankan state is in a condition of serious breakdown, and its most conspicuous power is its ability to deliver giant reprisals. Unless the human rights organisations in the South feel their way towards a more objective approach towards the state and the anti‑state forces, they may find themselves driven to total silence by the weight of events, by either fear, guilt or disillusionment. By adopting an approach which also questions the role of anti‑state forces they may succeed in infusing some good sense into the contending parties, particularly the state, which has much greater destructive power.
It is only fair to point out that such a realisation has been there amongst southerners who have consistently campaigned for human rights even when it was an unpopular word. This is implicit in the lecture on Violence and Human Rights delivered by Reggie Siriwardene on 19th june 1989, to commemorate the first anniversary of the disappearance of human rights worker K. Kanthasamy:
But there is no fatality about the way in which these conditions, and the issues arising out of them, translate themselves into widespread and continuing violence. The transition from conflict to violence of that nature is dependent on decisions made by the choice and will of leaders ‑ of those in control of the apparatus of the State as well as those contending against it. It is dependent on judgements made by the former about what is legitimate in maintaining the security of the State and by the latter about what is justified in opposing or in subverting it. Often the decisions in this respect by one of these forces evoke a countervailing reaction from the other, as we have seen in the cycles of State violence and anti‑State violence in recent times. It is this area where conscious decisions, which can raise or reduce the level of violence in our society, are made by political actors that I am concerned with in this lecture.
When I say conscious decisions, I am not claiming that the decisive agent ‑ the head of a government, the leader of a militant group, or any other ‑ is always aware of the ultimate consequences of his action. His decisions are ofent motivated by considerations of immediate expediency. But it is all the more important, therefore, to bring into focus the wider and long term consequences of such decisions(excerpt from lecture).
We have made a practical distinction between states where the state machinery is intact, and states where a breakdown has occurred. Whatever the means adopted, the aim is to make the offender feel even a little sensitive that his action is both wrong and against his interests. This seeks to tap the sense of decency and good sense in the offender however residual.
Given the complex nature of the conflict in this country, two starkly contrasting approaches present themselves: that of human rights which must tap whatever good there is in the armed combatants; and that of the current insurgency that seeks to exploit the negative qualities of the adversary. Our experience of the latter is that the process multiplies to chronic proportions the weaknesses and foibles of all concerned, resulting in unmitigable evil. [Top]
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