An international conference on ‘Human Rights, Citizenship and Democratization’ is scheduled to be held in Colombo this Saturday (27) and Sunday (28) with the participation of both local and foreign delegates.
Professor Ravindra Fernando, Director, Centre for the Study of Human Rights (CSHR) of the Faculty of Law, and Senior Professor of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology, Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo, spoke about the thematic issues and objectives of the conference in an interview with the Daily Mirror. Following are some excerpts:
Q Why is such a conference organized in Sri Lanka?
Due to war propaganda and State-backed ideologies during the 30-year-long war in the country, human rights have become a controversial concept within the Sri Lankan society. However, we can find such developments in any other country during periods of war. But, once warfare ends, we have to move away from that mentality. Thus, we are now more focused on healing the wounds of the war. In this context, human rights actors have a responsibility to promote this discourse and make it the leading ideology of the post-war reconciliation process. It is the only way we can assure that our society will not plunge into the past blunders. As a human rights institution with a rich history of 25 years, the CSHR wanted to nourish this dialogue by sharing our experience and lessons learnt to create a common platform for all human rights educators, activists and promoters for a more productive discussion.
Q What are the objectives of this conference?
Apart from the aforesaid reasons, the CSHR is commemorating its silver jubilee this year. Therefore, we consider this as an opportunity to reflect on our past and envision the way forward.
Q Sri Lanka has been branded a ‘Pariah State’ in the recent past over its human rights records. However, do you see any progress after the consensual government came to power?
Certainly, there is a progress. But we have a long way to go. Whichever party is in power or whatever the government’s political agenda is, as citizens we should take the initiative to ensure that our rights are protected and democracy and rule of law upheld. We must demand for good governance. In Sri Lanka, people always look up to the government. We should encourage the concept of citizenship and empower the public to take things into their hands, although not in an unruly manner. Fighting for citizens’ rights, however, is a never ending struggle.
Q A section of the global community and the Tamil Diaspora demand the participation of foreign judges in the domestic inquiry into the alleged human rights violations during the final phase of the humanitarian operation. What are your thoughts on this concern?
During the past couple of years, our judiciary lost its credibility due to some politically motivated decisions. The impeachment of Chief Justice Dr. Shirani Bandaranayake, my former colleague at the Colombo University, marked the height of those events. However, it is manifest that these practices have changed now. Our judiciary has made really good decisions during the past one and a half years, and some of them were against the government. However, it will take a few more years and a little more effort to regain the reputation we had before.
Q Do you think our judicial system is incapable of conducting an investigation of this sort, satisfying both the international community and agencies?
Sri Lanka is one of the oldest democracies in Asia. Our legal system and judiciary have evolved for nearly two and a half centuries. We have produced the best judges as well as judgments in the Commonwealth. Thus, no one can say our judiciary is incapable of conducting such inquiries. In the past our judges have been members of many international tribunals. But we have to admit that the prestige of our judiciary was damaged.
Q The Parliament passed a vital piece of legislation to establish a permanent body called the ‘Office of Missing Persons’ (OMP). What are your comments on this?
Regarding the Office of Missing Persons, we need to establish a strong body, as we are a country that suffered from thousands of involuntary disappearances throughout our post war era. In 1971 and 1987- 1989 in the South and throughout the 30-year-war in the North and East, as well as in the rest of the country, we had to face this problem. Thousands of people are lamenting the loss of their loved ones. Therefore, we need a mechanism to address this issue. Its scope and nature can be debated.
I wish to remind everyone what our former Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar said at an Army cadets passing out parade in 1998;
“While it is universally recognized that the armed forces of a State have a duty to protect and assert the sovereignty of the State as well as to fight the battles of the State, they also have a responsibility to protect the human rights of the non-combatant civilians. The government owes a duty to the parents and kith and kin to help them to ascertain the fate of the loved ones and offer some compensatory relief to lighten their misery.”
Q What is the impact of the international human rights perspective on smaller countries like Sri Lanka?
World superpowers have their own political and economical strategies for smaller States like ours. But, we cannot say that we do not need freedom, democracy or human rights because they demand us to secure them. Although we may have different economic and political views, we cannot say ‘no’ to universal human values. As a member of the United Nations, we have to accept the principles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Q The delay in enacting laws in Sri Lanka has adversely affected the protection of human and fundamental rights. What is the remedy?
Although our legal system is enriched with positive developments, there are certain archaic procedural weaknesses in our system. These defaults definitely have to be reconsidered and revised.
Q How do you see the recent political transformation and the resultant reconciliation initiatives in the country?
There are many positive initiatives. However, apart from dialogues at a policy level, those initiatives have not reached the grassroots level. All citizens should be a part of the reconciliation process. Otherwise, it will not last long. So there is much to be done.
Q The unity government is unique and entirely a new experience to the Sri Lankan citizenry. How do you see this phenomenon?
It is indeed good for human rights. We are now drafting a new Human Rights Action Plan for the years 2017-2022. The government has appointed a committee to “Eradicate Torture, and Other Cruel, Inhuman, Degrading Treatment and Punishment from Police Practices.”
As we have been used to strong one party governments, the unity government is a new experience to us. Today, we have a unity government of two major political parties, which has to work to protect democracy, human rights and the rule of law. As citizens we should demand the government to work to achieve above principles.