Political vultures and the carcass of the ‘rainbow revolution’
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