5 March, 2024


A New Perspective On Human Rights & Democracy

By Sanja De Silva Jayatilleka

Sanja De Silva Jayatilleka

Professor Richard Falk’s inspiring and reflective article on Human Rights, Democracy and International Liberalism in ‘The Island’ of Dec 28th (originally titled ‘Democracy, Development, and Reputation: Vietnam, Turkey, and International Liberalism) re-thinks human rights in a way that potentially introduces a whole new paradigm which will resonate with many developing countries including Sri Lanka. That it was written by an internationally eminent Professor of Law who has been involved with issues of Human Rights for decades including as Special Rapporteur of the UN Human Rights Council, makes it all the more important.

For us Sri Lankans who have seen human rights extremism from Western countries as well as Western NGOs, this thoughtful and timely article comes as a relief. Instead of the hypocrisy that pervades Western hegemonic human rights discourse, Professor Falk questions the assumptions and the arrogance assumed by those who criticize non-Western regimes that have actually accomplished a great deal for the welfare of their people under difficult conditions.

The article observes that “it does raise serious questions about what is the real motivation for such excesses of criticism and calls attention to geopolitical considerations that may be more explanatory than a country’s human rights profile…In effect, bashing countries for their poor human rights records needs to be geopolitically decoded if it is ever to be properly understood.”

Professor Falk does not advocate human rights relativism but deals with the question of the right balance between collective human rights and individual rights and arrives at a possible resolution.

He critiques the prioritization of certain human rights in the current liberal discourse: “…the liberal insistence on privileging political and civil rights should be superseded by adopting a more cosmopolitan agenda of human rights that is attentive to the collective, material wellbeing of a national population, and especially its lower 50% and minorities. In other words, the liberal exclusion of collective rights should be partially rejected, and the tendency to gloss over the existence of poverty and gross inequality in capitalist societies should be subjected to critical scrutiny.”

He adds that “As well, the tendency of socialist or state-dominated societies to undervalue civil and political rights of individuals should be equally scrutinized.” This is important, and was certainly an issue here in Sri Lanka. However he also points out that “normative backsliding with respect to fundamental civil and political rights should not be the occasion for overlooking how well or badly a government behaves in other spheres of activity bearing on human wellbeing.”

This is a useful and timely intervention. Professor Falk draws attention to the fact that “rich countries in the West are at ease living with large pockets of extreme poverty in their own affluent societies as measured by homelessness and extreme poverty, including the absence of health care, educational opportunity, and even food and housing necessities.”

After Hurricane Katrina, I remember a Washington Post headline which humorously stated that in its aftermath, America had discovered a new species: ‘The Poor’. While Sri Lanka dealt swiftly with the devastating Tsunami to bring things back to normal, it took years for the US to rebuild the areas affected by its own hurricane.

Professor Falk says that “the three richest Americans—Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Warren Buffet—possess wealth that exceeds the earnings of the entire American working class.”

He explains: “What I am objecting to is the invisibility of the suffering of the very poor (as in America) along with the refusals to acknowledge the public achievement of their improved circumstances elsewhere (as in Turkey or Vietnam).” 

Prof Falk’s conceptual intervention helps to clarify many issues that have troubled Sri Lankans. A timely question he poses, especially for Sri Lankans facing a choice in the upcoming elections is “… the question as to whether the market-oriented constitutionalism of the Euro-American governmental template is the exclusive foundation of legitimate governance as was the claim of the triumphalist West in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet collapse. With the rise of China and other Asian countries, there is a growing reluctance around the world to claim too much for self-satisfied Western styles of governance.”

In some respects Professor Falk’s attention to collective rights coincides with the Beijing Declaration on Human Rights held earlier this month. On December 8th this year, at the first South-South Human Rights Forum held in Beijing, a text called the ‘Beijing Declaration’ on human rights was adopted. The Forum was attended by more than 300 delegates from 70 countries. 

In a welcome contribution to the discourse on human rights which has been dominated by the developed countries of the West, the South-South Forum offered an alternative view of human rights priorities. It declared that “The right to subsistence and the right to development are the primary basic human rights.” In Article 4 it introduced these rights together with the right to peace and the environment as “collective” rights: “The right to subsistence and the right to development, the right to peace, and the right to the environment are both important collective human rights and the prerequisite and basis for the realization of individual human rights.”

What is the solution to the question of the right balance? Professor Falk says “There is no clean solution, but an improved normative understanding can only arise by celebrating the cardinal principle of self-determination, which should allow ample national space for diversity, economic sovereignty, and political experimentation.”

He concludes that “national reputations of legitimacy should rest on a comprehensive assessment of material, ethical, and spiritual wellbeing of individuals and communities, and no longer be allowed to reflect geopolitical agendas and civilizational arrogance.”

Although the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review attempts an evaluation along similar lines, this is not the perspective adopted at the UNHRC regular sessions by some powerful countries and most NGOs, which apply human rights standards selectively. A more holistic approach which celebrates achievements in all the areas recommended by Professor Falk may encourage better commitment to human rights.

Referring to the popularity of President Erdoğan of Turkey, Richard Falk observes that “The response of AKP loyalists when asked why they vote for Erdoğan over and over again offer different lines of explanation: ‘Are we stupid?’ Some of these persons actually dislike, and even fear, the Islamic edge given by Erdoğan to Turkish government identity or think the Syrian policies were a huge mistake, but for what touches their lives most directly, the AKP remains for them far preferable to available alternatives in Turkey.”

These sentiments are certainly true of people’s loyalty to the previous regime here in Sri Lanka. They have however also seen some progressive decisions, resisted by elements in the previous regime, successfully attempted by the current one. The ideal option could be a combination of the best tendencies of the two sides, reflective of the balance sought in the realm of human rights, which is not altogether impossible following the upcoming elections. 

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Latest comments

  • 3

    YOU should have talked about What Jordan Prince Hussein Said. He did not like his 4 years and he is asking Sri lanka to study all the UNHCR resolution as there is a coup behind it. He says, UN is very corrupt, it is money and politics. ITis simply journalistic dishinesty when people write always about democracy and human rights when we very well understand that those words are political and nothing else. Itis just fooling the journalist itself and trying to fool readers.

    • 2

      Erdogan is an Islamic fanatic and a war monger. He is trying to emulate Ottoman empire by expanding Turkey rule in middle east. He has Turkey troops in Syria in Kurdish areas on the pretext of giving medical aid to injured people in Syrian war. he has increased troop level in Qatar which is having trouble with gulf countries. Recently he has signed an agreement with Sudan to lease out an island in red seat to establish military facilities for Turkey which is in a close missile range to Israel. He shot down a Russian plane but later surrendered to Russia when economic sanctions were imposed causing the economy to fall. If he tries his tricks with Israel by going to war, he will be taught a lesson

      • 0

        I heard that Rosy Senanayake and Hirunika have crossed the Red Sea several times. Can anyone enlighten me on that.
        I thought any woman was permitted only one go.Or am I just one of those male chauvinistic pigs? Iam sure Sankara can help here.

      • 0

        Who’s got a mulberry bush? And who’s running round it? Please explain.

      • 0

        I believe that Erdogan and El Sisi are both right wing power crazy military leaders who think they can surprises legitimate Muslim aspirations forever. Anwar Sadat who sold out to USA also thought on similar lines and came to an untimely end at the hands of his own forces. It is a matter of time before we read their obituaries. Death under similar circumstances. Mark my words!

  • 8

    Sanja De Silva Jayatilleka,

    Why go round and round the mulberry bush ……..with a wordy pseudo-intellectual piece?

    When you could have just simply said ………. forget the war crimes committed against our own citizens the Tamils …………….. (and the JVP) ……….. There will be no investigation. ……….. See how easy was that?

    because the government doesn’t have the balls to face the ire of the majority Sinhala-Buddhists by “betraying” the “Ranaveeruwas.” ………….. throw away all the cockamamie intellectual claptrap and just simply face it …………….isn’t that the truth?

    On one hand, you want the Tamils to be Sri Lankans and love their country and contribute to its development ………… and on the other hand you want to deny them their right for a credible investigation.

    if there are no crimes why be so afraid of an investigation? Wouldn’t a credible investigation prove that there were no crimes? ….. All these mega attempts to pre-empt an investigation would give an impartial observer the wrong impression that there is something to hide. Don’t you think? :))

    To hell with Castro, Lenin, Che, Palestinians …………….. you guys should be at the forefront leading the fight for the rights of our own citizens, irrespective of their race/ethnicity. ………If not one might think that you guys, at home, are betraying the “exemplary” qualities of your foreign heroes that you espouse here on a daily basis! …………Or are rights based on ethnicity/race? …….The primordial us vs. them? ……….Surely you guys are not primitives?

    • 0

      Nimal Fernando: Are you dumb NAtive Vedda: It is your kind of people who are not Tamils yet, wanted LTTE win the war for the benefit of your ideology. Read what Jordan Pricne Hussein says. Why you Tamils do not talk, that KP, KAruna and Pillayan are alive. Ananthi’s husband force recruiting children to LTTe. TNA was the LTTE proxie,. why govt is not prosecuting them. If not Sambanthan should be treeated like very old – NAzis in the jail.

      • 6

        “Are you dumb NAtive Vedda”

        Oh! No, No, …………… I’m Jim softy; the latest incarnation of Einstein …………the only Lankan to have escaped Amerasiri’s IQ79 fate ……………….

        BTW ……… Hope you’re not snowbound in Alberta …………they say it’s a pretty bad one this time.

        Shall be in Banff soon ………….care to join me? ………..as long as you don’t do a Sonny Bono ………..on me!

        In the spirit of the festive season ………. let me wish you a Very Happy Sinhala-Buddhist Christmas …………. why worry? ……….be happy!

  • 7

    Your role model last week was a Lord Naseby. This week it is selected chinthanaya of another.
    Human right is the right of a citizen to be treated as equal and afforded state protection irrespective of political or other affiliations. You are trying to say otherwise.
    You are telling a rape victim “If rape is inevitable lie back and enjoy it”. To the rapist you are saying “Rape is a primitive instinct. Actually the victim enjoys it”.
    You will continue to have bigoted followers.
    PS: A lemma off your article is: The genocide of Rohingyas by the Burmese Junta is OK because Rohingyas are not citizens of Myanmar.

    • 5

      It is very simple. Forget about western influenced human rights violation, war crimes. Do you think this country need a reliable, impartial justice system or not? Do you think that no one should be punished for the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunga or not?

      • 1

        Yes punishment to be meted out to Sarath Fonseka. IRanil said in Parliament that he has all the evidence.

  • 4

    Dear author, and all participants,
    Do you all believe Sri Lankan Academicians, Journalists, and all other concerned experienced professionals will be able to put Sri Lanka together again? From what Sri Lankans say and write are you not convinced most thoughts are not independent and are detrimental for the Country. Just like this article quoting Prof. Richard Folk and several other Countries’ talking of development and reputation is disappointing showing the author is not capable of seeing her own Countrymen eye to eye. When the whole world is watching Sri Lanka it is sad she is showing herself as an well read author but has no mercy for the war victims because she is not one of them! Lady, however much you read, Human Rights originate from Fundamental truths. Please know the Buddhists, the Christians, the Hindus, the Muslims the world over know to respect and treat others the same way you expect others to do unto yourself. You must do it without pretension and ulterior motive.

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