Human rights and wrongs
This week, the international community marked the 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This year is also the hundredth year of the end of World War I. Armistice Day just ended with elaborate celebrations in Paris. One times foes France and Germany are now firm friends and the event saw Western and Francophone leaders in harmonious attendance.
Thousands of soldiers from the colonies took part in the ‘ Great War’— Indian, Turks, Africans, Chinese, African-Americans, even some Ceylonese. Many were cannon fodder.
Then came World War II. And, as the colonies became free, there emerged a cry for human rights. To say that international human rights have their roots in Europe’s wars is true but the reasons were not that altruistic. The master-slave concept is also rooted in Europe and exported to the colonies in Asia, Africa and America.
Today, France and Germany are battling nationalism couched in patriotism. White supremacy is fanned by the likes of Donald Trump. There is racial profiling and the stigmatisation of entire races and religions. The refugee crisis has bred tension with Europe refusing to be “colour blind”.
Amidst all this, the employment of human rights as a political weapon has devalued the Universal Declaration. Sri Lanka, for instance, was selectively targeted. But the West continues to support Saudi Arabia which is behind the killings of hundreds of civilians in Yemen. If it wants to teach its one-time colonies the concept of human rights, it needs to turn the searchlight inwards now.
But introspection is not a monopoly of the West, although it might claim human rights is. Sri Lanka must do the same. And today, even as the country is plunged into a constitutional and political crisis, it is worth pointing out that, in such circumstances, the position of human rights is indeed fragile. In the glaring absence of respect for the supremacy of the Constitution and the rule of law, the protection of human rights becomes a whimsical concept.
Like everything else in Sri Lanka at present, the political caprices of a few are holding entire systems to ransom. Today, the country still has a functioning independent Human Rights Commission only because the 19th Amendment had made provision for members of the existing Commission to continue until the assumption of office by new members. The term of the current Commissioners ended on October 31.
When a country does not have a democratic dispensation, the Constitution along with the law and institutions become instruments of political agendas. Human rights protection becomes a luxury, if not a mere notion.
Many times in Sri Lanka’s history, serious instances of human rights violations have occurred in times of political upheaval. When such turbulence within Government is not resolved in a peaceful, legitimate manner, it gives rise—as it has done now—to fear of violence and abuses.