Opening a new session of Parliament on Wednesday, President Ranil Wickremesinghe outlined a policy statement, amid indications that the country is recovering from one of its worst economic and debt crises, but whole lot of other issues need to be tackled, including the disruptive factor of racial discrimination which has plagued Sri Lanka since independence in 1948. In this area, there were and still are several issues – Tamil Congress leader, G.G. Ponnambalam’s “50-50” issue, Sri Lanka Freedom Party leader, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s “Sinhala Only” policy which led to racial riots in 1958 and his assassination the next year, his widow Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s Republican Constitution, and factors such as the district quota system in education where the Colombo or Jaffna students who got four A’s were left out of universities while a less privileged Monaragala district student was admitted though he got only two A’s. Most independent political analysts believe this was one of the main reasons for the formation of revolutionary student movements mainly the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). This led to racial riots in 1983, and a 25-year civil war in which hundreds of thousands of security forces personnel, students and other citizens were killed or injured, hundreds of acres of property damaged with the economic cost being incalculable.
Therefore, the President and the divided Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) government need to give top priority to racial and religious unity in diversity, because there have been rumblings of trouble again after the 2019 April 21 Easter Sunday terror attacks, in which several churches and hotels were attacked. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) claimed responsibility, amid reports that VIPs were aware of the impending catastrophe, but they did not even call for a meeting of the National Security Council for reasons of their own. A Presidential Commission was appointed by former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, but it is alleged that several pages were left out of the Commission report, and Colombo’s Archbishop Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith has been insisting that the full report be published so that the people will know who did what and the reasons why.
Next month, the United Nations marks the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, with the theme focusing on the impetus to combat racism, 76 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). In a statement, the UN says in 1947, the international community agreed on a set of common values and acknowledged that rights are inherent to every single human being and not granted by the State. These rights are enshrined in the UDHR, a blueprint for international human rights norms.
The UDHR states that everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms, without distinction of any kind, such as race and colour, among others. However, racism and racial discrimination continue to affect people all over the world. The commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the adoption of the UDHR should give states an impetus to take prompt and robust steps, in law and in practice, to advance equality and combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.
The International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is observed annually on the day the Police at Sharpeville in South Africa, opened fire and killed 69 people at a peaceful demonstration against apartheid “pass laws” in 1960.
In 1979, the UN General Assembly adopted a programme of activities to be undertaken during the second half of the Decade for Action to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination. On that occasion, the UN General Assembly decided that a week of solidarity with the peoples struggling against racism and racial discrimination, beginning on March 21, would be organized annually in all states.
Since then, the apartheid system in South Africa has been dismantled. Racist laws and practices have been abolished in many countries, and we have built an international framework for fighting racism, guided by the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The Convention is now nearing universal ratification, yet still, in all regions, too many individuals, communities and societies suffer from the injustice and stigma that racism brings.
One of the world’s greatest Statesmen and South Africa’s former President Nelson Mandela has said the very fact that racism degrades both the perpetrator and the victim commands that, if we are true to our commitment to protect human dignity, we fight on until victory is achieved.