The American Nobel literature prize winning author Ernest Hemingway in one of his bestselling novels, ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ says, “I belong to humanity and every person’s death diminishes me”. It is in the light of deep reflections such as this that the United Nations on March 3 marks Zero Discrimination Day.
The UN in a statement says it is highlighting the urgent need to take action against discriminatory laws. In many countries, laws result in people being treated differently, excluded from essential services or being subject to undue restrictions on how they live their lives, simply because of who they are. Such laws are discriminatory—they deny human rights and fundamental freedoms.
According to the UN, States have a moral and legal obligation—under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, human rights treaties, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and other international obligations—to remove discriminatory laws and to enact laws that protect people from discrimination.
“Ending discrimination and changing laws is the responsibility of us all. Everyone can play a part in ending discrimination and can try to make a difference, in ways both big and small. The Zero Discrimination Day 2019 campaign challenges people to act against laws that discriminate in their country” the UN says at a time when the United States President Donald Trump has enforced discrimination against tens of millions of people from largely Muslim countries, refugees, asylum seekers and even Afro - Americans. As a result most analysts believe the US has abdicated its position as the moral leader of the free democratic world and this has created turmoil.
With China moving strongly to become the world’s number one economic power Europe also has been thrown into confusion while Britain is facing its biggest crisis since second world war. Two years ago Britain held a referendum where by a narrow majority the people decided that the country should pull out of the European Union or what is described as Brexit. Britain faces a March 29 deadline to come to an agreement with the EU leaders and Prime Minister Theresa May is trying desperately to reach a deal after Britain’s parliament earlier rejected the deal she made. Most analysts now say there is a growing possibility of Britain crashing out of the EU with no deal and potentially drastic consequences while the opposition Labour Party on Monday called for a second referendum on whether to quit the EU or remain. We focus on this issue because one of the main causes of Brexit was the general complaint that Britain had too many immigrants. At the heart of it was a subtle form of discrimination against people of other nationalities.
In Sri Lanka too, since and before independence in 1948 there had been discrimination in many forms along racial, religious, caste and class lines. Some attribute the language policy of 1956 which made Sinhala the official language caused discrimination against the Tamil speaking minorities. However, many others point out that during the colonial administration the majority Sinhalese were heavily discriminated against through the divide and rule policies of the British. Due to the growing unrest among the Tamil Political leaders following the necessary social changes that came about after the British colonial rulers left the country, Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike reached a power sharing agreement with the then Federal Party leader S. J. V. Chelvanayakam. But hard line factions opposed Mr. Bandaranaike and these moves failed.
In 1965 the United National Party leader and Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake formed a national government including the Federal Party. One of the Tamil party leaders M. Thiruchelvam was made Minister of Local Government. The government worked out a District Councils agreement but a minster leaked it to the media and certain factions forced the Senanayake government to abandon the move.
In the 1970’s the Sirimavo Bandaranaike government brought about a district quota system for admission to universities to create a level playing field for students from underprivileged districts. However, this was perceived by some as being against the Tamil community. Due to various reasons, by the late 1970s Tamil militant groups came into being and it led to the devastating 30-year war in which hundreds of thousands were killed or injured with the material damage being incalculable.
As we move into 2019, most parties are focused on elections though we are not sure whether provincial, parliamentary or presidential elections will be held first. The political equations are puzzling but we hope all parties would focus on the building of a just, peaceful and all inclusive society based on unity in diversity.