Friday, December 11, 2009

Seeking human rights in Sri Lanka is difficult

By Basil Fernando - The world Human Rights Day on Thursday passed in Sri Lanka without anything to celebrate in terms of positive achievements in the area of human rights. In fact, looking for human rights in Sri Lanka is becoming increasingly similar to finding water on the moon or in a desert.

Permissiveness of corruption that has begun to permeate all areas of life is virtually destroying all possibilities of achieving human rights, either in the field of civil and political rights or social, economic and cultural rights. It is also destroying all mechanisms of good governance. Naturally, groups that suffer the most are also the most vulnerable in society like women, children, elderly and ethnic minorities.

The system of executive presidency that exists in Sri Lanka is very similar to the system of absolute power of monarchies. This has undermined the parliamentary system and the judicial system, which had developed to some extent in the past.

In recent decades, admiration for dictatorships that developed within two major political parties, the United National Party and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party helped to promote the system of executive presidency. The president in Sri Lanka is above the law and there is nothing in the legal system, which can exercise any form of checks and balances to control the abuse of power by the president.

The development of any abuse of power encourages the forces of violence in society. Today, Sri Lanka is one of the most violent societies where there is great permissiveness of extrajudicial killings. In the recent decades, extrajudicial killings have taken the form of disappearances or various kinds of killings after arrest, in police or military custody.

Extrajudicial killings are accompanied by various possibilities for prolonged detention without any recourse to judicial remedies. Under emergency and anti terrorism laws, people have been kept in detention for many years without any possibility of obtaining meaningful redress from the courts. Intervention by the courts has been prevented by various suspensions of ordinary laws of criminal procedure and constitutional provisions.

In addition, heavy psychological pressures have been created under the name of nationalism to discourage any kind of sympathy for victims of human rights abuse. Judicial remedies such as habeas corpus and fundamental rights provisions have suffered greatly due to such pressures generated by nationalism. The discouragement of the legal profession from providing a vigorous service to citizens to defend rights has also contributed to the decline of human rights in Sri Lanka.

The use of torture is endemic in Sri Lanka’s policing system. Added to this is the use of torture in preventive detention under the prevention of terrorism laws and emergency regulations. All possibilities of finding redress against torture have been suppressed by deliberate denials of the investigative mechanisms into the complaints of torture and other human rights abuses.

The mechanism of investigation into complaints of human rights abuse through the legal provisions of the criminal procedure code has been suppressed by deliberate political manipulations, which virtually hands over the possibility of investigations to political authorities. The secretariat of the Ministry of Defense has developed a draconian system of controls on the security apparatus, which has the capacity of interfering in all investigations into human rights abuses.

This interference has been used for encouraging underground elements. It has also encouraged some sections of the security forces to engage in illegal activities towards those considered as unacceptable elements to the government. With this, an enormous psychology of fear and intimidation has been created in the country.

The abuse of civil rights has a direct impact on economic, social and cultural rights. The attacks on journalists have placed Sri Lanka among the worst countries for suppressing the freedom of expression. The assassination of journalists has also lead to the fleeing of journalists from the country. In addition, self-censorship has spread due to extreme forms of fear of repercussions.

By manipulating this situation, the government has geared up its propaganda mechanism for all state medias. The abuse of the media is one of the most visible factors in the country. Even use of language in the state media has degenerated and political attacks and abuse of individuals are broadcast daily through television and radio programs. The entire state media is being used for political purposes, particularly for manipulating the electoral system to the detriment of all opposition political parties.

Under these conditions, it is the poor people that suffer the most. The suppression of trade unions and organizations of farmers, students and others have taken many visible forms.

The general deterioration in living standards is the complaint of all people including the middle class. Skyrocketing prices of essential commodities, problems in transport systems, breakdown of the health system and the degeneration of the educational system are among the most frequently heard complaints. However, various forms of violence constantly perpetrated on the population suppress all organized forums of discussions on discontent.

Under these circumstances, the assertion of rights has become extremely difficult in Sri Lanka. It is no exaggeration to assert that seeking human rights in Sri Lanka is as difficult as looking for water on the moon or in the desert.

This situation exists in all parts of the country and is worse and unbearable in the north and east. People living there are victims of absolute impunity. Those who dare to make any complaint about their tormentors run a real risk to their lives, liberty and whatever is left of their properties. Displacement has become a normal affair in the homeland of the Tamil and Muslim populations.

(Basil Fernando is director of the Asian Human Rights Commission based in Hong Kong. He is a Sri Lankan lawyer who has also been a senior U.N. human rights officer in Cambodia. He has published several books and written extensively on human rights issues in Asia. His blog can be read at

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