f the many events celebrated annually by the United Nations, one of the most important is today’s golden jubilee of the day on which the UN General Assembly adopted two international treaties that would forever shape international human rights. They were the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
Worked out in the aftermath of the second world war, in which more than 30,000 people were slaughtered, the two covenants -- along with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights -- became the International Bill of Human Rights setting out the civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights that are the birthright of all human beings.
According to the UN, since that time a fundamental sea change has taken place across the world, with many countries recognizing human rights and the rule of law as the basis for truly resilient and stable societies.
This is of particular significance for Sri Lanka. Until the people’s silent revolution this year on January 8 when Maithripala Sirisena emerged from a powerless Cabinet to become the Executive President, we had seen a near total breakdown of the rule of law, the independent judicial service and other virtues or values of democracy. Some 11 months after the election of President Sirisena and four months after the election of the new National Unity Government, Sri Lanka is making steady though sometimes slow progress towards ensuring the birthright of people of all religions and races, whatever their social status may be. The implementation of the provisions of the 19th Amendment in April this year was a landmark. While reducing the powers of the Executive Presidency, a Constitutional Council was set up to appoint more than 10 Independent Commissions, most importantly the Independent Elections Commission.
The rule of law and the independence of the judicial service have been restored to a large extent. Last week the Government presented the long-delayed Right to Information Bill and effective steps are being taken for an independent probe on alleged human rights violations or war crimes during the final stages of the war in 2009.
The UN says the two covenants are more relevant today than ever. Yet, challenges remain. Freedom underpins the International Bill of Human Rights – freedom from fear, freedom of speech, freedom of worship and freedom from want. Fifty years on, many people are still unaware of the existence of the International Bill of Human Rights and many countries still have much to do to build political institutions, judicial systems and economies that allow ordinary people to live with dignity. Sri Lanka also has much to do.
The growth of hate speech against religious and racial minorities, the justification of rights’ violations in the name of combating terrorism, the clawing back of economic and social rights in the name of economic crises or security and the failure to respect the right to privacy in the digital age, show the relevance of the two covenants and the need to respect them, the UN says.
The theme for this golden jubilee year is, “Our Rights, Our Freedoms, Always” - with a year-long campaign to shine a light on the inalienable, inherent rights of global citizens.