Po­lit­i­cal vul­tures and the car­cass of the ‘rain­bow rev­o­lu­tion’

Sunday Times (Sri Lanka) - - COMMENT -

Vul­tures are cir­cling high above in the skies as they watch what ap­pear to be the strug­gling death throes of the Sirisena-Wick­remesinghe unity al­liance with de­light.

Fury in Sri Lanka’s ham­lets

Former Pres­i­dent Mahinda Ra­japaksa hyp­o­crit­i­cally thun­ders on the twin dan­gers of the sale of na­tional as­sets and the be­trayal of na­tional war he­roes, go­ing on to in­sist that the fac­tion of the Sri Lanka Free­dom Party (SLFP) loyal to Pres­i­dent Maithri­pala Sirisena can join his group only on their terms. His nu­mer­ous hang­ers-on in the self-styled Joint Op­po­si­tion (JO) who com­pete with each other for the prize of be­ing the most un­pre­pos­sess­ing, cackle with un­abashed joy at the prospect of a set­tling of scores with their ri­vals and a quick re­turn to power.

To be fair, the beat­ing of the com­mu­nal drum by the JO has not been that ef­fec­tive in the vil­lages and prov­inces of Sri Lanka as even the cur­sory trav­eller will dis­cover. In other words, there is lit­tle pub­lic ac­cep­tance of the fa­vorite Ra­japaksa bo­gey that the coun­try is in the pin­cer grip of hos­tile in­ter­na­tional forces. More to the point, plainly and sim­ply, the prob­lem is the mon­u­men­tal in­ef­fi­ciency of this Gov­ern­ment and the soar­ing cost of liv­ing.

The des­per­ate plight of farm­ers hav­ing to cope al­ter­nately with pro­longed drought and then flood­ing with lit­tle of­fi­cial sup­port is just one ex­am­ple. This seem­ing in­abil­ity to en­force or­der is repli­cated in other in­stances; a na­tion-wide ex­am­ple be­ing the re­cent fuel short­age. But in the ru­ral ham­lets, the fury is even greater. Steeply in­creas­ing prices of sta­ples like co­conuts and rice have ag­gra­vated the predica­ment of the poor. The en­thu­si­asm for ‘ya­ha­palanaya gover­nance’ has waned among those who voted for a change.

An un­set­tling con­trast

The con­trast is un­set­tling; on the one hand, suited and black tied crooks get away with mil­lions in the sin­is­ter form sym­bol­ized by Ar­jun Aloy­sius of Per­pet­ual Trea­suries fame and on the other hand, help­less vil­lagers are caught in death traps of poverty, whose only re­course is sui­cide. In a re­cent ca­sual ex­change in Colombo, my con­ver­sa­tion­al­ist asked the in­cred­u­lous if not some­what pa­tron­iz­ing ques­tion; “are peo­ple in the vil­lages ac­tu­ally aware of the so-called Cen­tral Bank bond scam and shenanigans in high fi­nan­cial cir­cles?’ After re­cent vis­its to the Uva, Cen­tral and Eastern prov­inces, the an­swer to that query is in the pos­i­tive.

In that re­gard, it must be con­ceded that the com­mu­ni­ca­tions strat­egy of the Ra­japak­sas has been ef­fec­tive. And it has not helped that the much vaunted anti-cor­rup­tion strat­egy of this Gov­ern­ment against the crooks of the pre­vi­ous regime has failed mis­er­ably, part by de­sign and part by its own in­con­sis­tency. Han­dled badly from the out­set, this has now has be­come an em­bar­rass­ing fiasco apart from a few stel­lar con­vic­tions.

True, the Supreme Court is per­form­ing its con­sti­tu­tional role after a lapse of close to two decades, even though this is at­trib­ut­able pri­mar­ily to a few con­sci­en­tious judges. One ex­am­ple is the Court’s re­cent de­ci­sion declar­ing the ar­rest, de­ten­tion and sub­se­quent de­por­ta­tion of a Bri­tish tourist in 2014 car­ry­ing a tat­too on her arm of the Gau­tama Bud­dha seated on a lotus flower to be un­con­sti­tu­tional.

This case demon­strates a com­mon pat­tern of Rule of Law safe­guards be­ing vi­o­lated from the point of the tourist be­ing ‘com­pelled’ to go with a so-called ‘civil de­fence of­fi­cer’ and a taxi driver who had first ‘spot­ted’ the tat­too to the Katu­nayake po­lice sta­tion sub­se­quent to which she was pro­duced in the Ne­gombo Mag­is­trates’ Court, de­tained in the Ne­gombo prison and later, at the Mir­i­hana im­mi­gra­tion de­ten­tion camp. Writ­ing for the Court, Anil Goon­er­atne J. sum­mar­ily dis­missed ex­pla­na­tions of the po­lice of­fi­cers that the tat­too had been feared to bring about a ‘breach of the peace’, hold­ing that there was no rea­son­able ba­sis for the ar­rest. The man­ner in which the tourist was abused in lewd lan­guage by a prison guard and the con­stant de­mands for money made by the po­lice was ju­di­cially de­plored.

The priv­i­leged and the marginal­ized

De­spite these un­de­ni­able gains, the fact re­mains that this Gov­ern­ment has failed to strad­dle the city-ru­ral di­vide in a way that harmoniously in­ter­twines both. An ac­tive Supreme Court is a dis­tant lux­ury to a milk farmer strug­gling to sur­vive in the in­te­rior of the Am­para District. And vis­its by one del­e­ga­tion of the United Na­tions fol­lowed by an­other are of lit­tle com­fort to a mother in Trin­co­ma­lee de­spair­ingly strug­gling to as­cer­tain the fate of her dis­ap­peared son.

Death is the one re­lief to the pain of very dif­fer­ent vic­tims, united by their com­mon and des­per­ate hope­less­ness. It is that dis­junc­tive con­trast be­tween the priv­i­leged and the marginal­ized that the unity Gov­ern­ment (if it lurches on) must ad­dress with all its might and main with­out floun­der­ing in the ma­jor cities, lev­el­ing pot shots at each other.

In 2015, the mar­riage of the long talked of ‘tech­no­cratic vi­sion’ of the UNP’s Ranil Wick­remesinghe and the home­spun com­mon­sense of the SLFP’s Maithri­pala Sirisena was hailed. The Pres­i­dent and the Prime Min­is­ter were ex­pected to bring their re­spec­tive and very dif­fer­ent strengths to the unity al­liance. What has hap­pened since then is quite dif­fer­ent. The UNP has been al­most ir­re­versibly dam­aged by a gi­gan­tic fi­nan­cial scan­dal in con­nec­tion with the Cen­tral Bank and its own party while the Sirisena fac­tion of the SLFP has be­come in­ex­tri­ca­bly en­tan­gled with na­tion­al­is­ti­cally pop­ulist rhetoric.

Avoid­ing an await­ing tragedy

In that sense, both have failed to give en­light­ened lead­er­ship to the na­tional ef­fort to lift the coun­try out of the Ra­japaksa morass of com­mu­nal­ism and cor­rup­tion. To the co­cooned in Colombo, the glee that im­pla­ca­ble ri­vals of the Gov­ern­ment dis­play at its ea­gerly pre­dicted down­fall may seem pre­ma­ture. Per­haps there is noth­ing wrong in wist­fully (al­beit vainly) hop­ing for a turn of the tide. This be­comes even more ur­gent as the lo­cal gov­ern­ment elec­tions draws nigh amidst the fail­ure of asi­nine games of some to de­lay the polls.

Mea­sured even against the var­i­ous id­io­cies com­mit­ted by the flot­sam and jet­sam that cling to one or the other fac­tion in the unity al­liance with des­per­a­tion, who­ever thought of con­jur­ing a le­gal chal­lenge to the Gazette no­ti­fi­ca­tion per­tain­ing to the polls, de­serves a rude knock be­hind the ears for their mon­u­men­tal stu­pid­ity. Even if that chal­lenge has now been with­drawn, the bad taste that it left be­hind will linger even though it ap­peared to be an ill-ad­vised gam­ble only on the part of a few.

So as the in­evitable draws near and ab­sent a course correction even at the eleventh hour, the vul­tures will cer­tainly lose no time in swoop­ing down on the car­cass of what once promised to be a bright and beau­ti­ful change for Sri Lanka.

That will be the ul­ti­mate tragedy for this coun­try and the peo­ple. Cer­tainly it must be avoided at all costs.

GENEVA – On this year’s World AIDS Day, on De­cem­ber 1, we should re­mem­ber the 35 mil­lion peo­ple who have died of AIDS-re­lated ill­nesses, and the 76 mil­lion who have been in­fected with HIV since re­port­ing be­gan. And we can cel­e­brate the fact that nearly 21 mil­lion peo­ple liv­ing with HIV now have ac­cess to life-sav­ing treat­ment.

But we also must not lose sight of the fact that more than 15.8 mil­lion peo­ple are still await­ing treat­ment, while an es­ti­mated 11 mil­lion peo­ple do not even know they have the virus. In the time it takes to read this com­men­tary, three more young women will have con­tracted HIV. These fig­ures rep­re­sent an in­de­fen­si­ble in­jus­tice: mil­lions of peo­ple are be­ing de­nied their right to health.

The third United Na­tions Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment Goal ( SDG3) ad­dresses health. It aims to re­duce road ac­ci­dents; tackle non- com­mu­ni­ca­ble dis­eases; end AIDS, tu­ber­cu­lo­sis, malaria, and ne­glected trop­i­cal dis­eases; guar­an­tee uni­ver­sal health cov­er­age and ac­cess to sex­ual and re­pro­duc­tive health- care ser­vices; and sub­stan­tially re­duce deaths from en­vi­ron­men­tal pol­lu­tion – all by 2030.

Al­though coun­tries around the world have com­mit­ted to this goal, count­less peo­ple still in­hale dan­ger­ous lev­els of toxic par­ti­cles, and lack ac­cess to safe wa­ter and ad­e­quate san­i­ta­tion. Too many gov­ern­ments con­sis­tently fail to act on en­vi­ron­men­tal and other reg­u­la­tory issues, turn a blind eye to com­pa­nies that profit from sell­ing un­healthy and ad­dic­tive prod­ucts, and thus fail those whom they are sup­posed to pro­tect and serve.

Health is nei­ther a gift nor an act of char­ity. It is a fun­da­men­tal hu­man right, en­com­pass­ing both f reedoms and en­ti­tle­ments. Ev­ery­one is free to make de­ci­sions about their health, re­gard­less of who they are, where they live, what they be­lieve, or how they earn a liv­ing. And ev­ery­one is en­ti­tled to af­ford­able, qual­ity health ser­vices and free­dom from dis­crim­i­na­tion and co­er­cion. En­joy­ing the right to health means hav­ing one’s phys­i­cal and men­tal in­tegrity re­spected, and hav­ing the abil­ity to par­tic­i­pate and con­trib­ute to one’s com­mu­nity.

To­day, we call on world lead­ers to con­front health in­jus­tices wher­ever they see them, and to take ac­tion to re­spect, pro­tect, and up­hold the right to health for all peo­ple. The am­bi­tious SDG agenda for 2030 has af­forded all of us the op­por­tu­nity to shape poli­cies aimed at cre­at­ing and em­pow­er­ing the “global health cit­i­zen.”

Who is this cit­i­zen? She is an in­di­vid­ual who knows her rights and can voice her con­cerns, chal­lenge in­jus­tices, and hold de­ci­sion- mak­ers ac­count­able. He is an in­di­vid­ual who does not just ask for but de­mands ac­cess to doc­tors, treat­ments, or pre­ven­tive care. The global health cit­i­zen is one who be­comes a part of the so­lu­tion.

Em­pow­er­ing global health cit­i­zens will re­quire progress in at least three pol­icy ar­eas: pop­u­lar­is­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion, democratis­ing data, and elim­i­nat­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion. As to the first, we must open up health pro­grams and poli­cies to mean­ing­ful pub­lic en­gage­ment. In the 1990s, the dis­abil­ity- rights move­ment coined the phrase, “Noth­ing about us with­out us.” All global health cit­i­zens, and par­tic­u­larly health-care lead­ers, should adopt this mantra.

To be sure, pub­lic and pri­vate cor­rup­tion re­mains a sig­nif­i­cant ob­sta­cle to en­sur­ing the right to health for all peo­ple. In many coun­tries, health care is one of the most cor­rupt sec­tors. To ad­dress this, global health cit­i­zens will need both in­sti­tu­tional sup­port and bet­ter tools for de­mand­ing that their right to health be re­spected. They should start de­mand­ing more mea­sures to en­sure good gover­nance and trans­parency, im­prove “le­gal” lit­er­acy, fund civil- so­ci­ety or­gan­i­sa­tions, and re­in­force le­gal mech­a­nisms for hold­ing gov­ern­ments ac­count­able.

The sec­ond pol­icy area where progress is needed is ac­cess to data for every com­mu­nity. At UNAIDS, we fol­low the adage, “What gets mea­sured gets done.” Data anal­y­sis has proven to be one of the most po­tent tools in the fight against the HIV epi­demic, be­cause it en­ables us to raise aware­ness, iden­tify peo­ple be­ing left be­hind, guide in­vest­ment, and co­or­di­nate ac­tion.

We in the global health field have al­ways been good at es­ti­mat­ing mor­tal­ity and mor­bid­ity rates. But it is now time to look be­yond epi­demi­o­log­i­cal facts. Guar­an­tee­ing the right to health will re­quire us also to mon­i­tor the ef­fects of dis­crim­i­na­tion and stig­ma­ti­sa­tion, as well as laws and en­vi­ron­men­tal fac­tors that threaten peo­ple’s health and well­be­ing. Like­wise, con­duct­ing thor­ough as­sess­ments of the health im­pact of key poli­cies and in­vest­ments must be­come the norm, rather than the ex­cep­tion. The global health sec­tor needs far more in­de­pen­dent ad­vo­cacy and ac­count­abil­ity, which the UN and civil-so­ci­ety groups, in par­tic­u­lar, are in a strong po­si­tion to pro­vide.

The third pol­icy area – elim­i­nat­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion in health- care set­tings – must be­come an in­ter­na­tional pri­or­ity. The cen­tral prom­ise of the SDG agenda is to leave no one be­hind. Dis­crim­i­na­tion cre­ates de facto bar­ri­ers to uni­ver­sal health cov­er­age, and pre­vents many peo­ple from ac­cess­ing health ser­vices of any kind. For ex­am­ple, one in eight peo­ple re­spond­ing to the HIV Stigma In­dex say they have been de­nied health care as a re­sult of prej­u­dice.

It is clear that end­ing AIDS will re­quire so­cial – not just med­i­cal – break­throughs. Gov­ern­ments must re­dou­ble their ef­forts to pro­tect in­di­vid­u­als against dis­crim­i­na­tion, and cre­ate ef­fec­tive mech­a­nisms for peo­ple to seek re­dress when pri­vate or state ac­tors vi­o­late their right to health. We call on all health- care prac­ti­tion­ers and in­sti­tu­tions to re­sist dis­crim­i­na­tory laws, poli­cies, or prac­tices.

Safe­guard­ing the right to health pro­vides the foun­da­tion needed to en­able ev­ery­one to re­alise their po­ten­tial and their dreams. We should de­mand noth­ing less.

(Michel Sidibé is Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor of UNAIDS. Dainius Puras is United Na­tions Spe­cial Rap­por­teur on the right to phys­i­cal and men­tal health.)

Copy­right: Pro­ject Syn­di­cate, 2017. www.pro­ject-syn­di­cate.org

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