By Laksiri Fernando –
Let me begin by briefly overviewing the general status of Asia-Pacific on key issues of human rights. This region with 45 countries and territories is home to over 4.3 billion people, and is most complex in terms of ethnic, religious and cultural diversity. Therefore, any attempt to generalize is not an easy task. Depending on their priorities or the way they perceive human rights, different international human rights organizations appear to differ on their assessments. Among these organizations are Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the Freedom House. Let me first quote what the Freedom House has to say about the human rights situation for the past five years.
“Over the past five years, the Asia-Pacific region has been the only one to record steady gains in political rights and civil liberties as measured by Freedom House. Although it is home to China, where over half the world’s Not Free population lives, and North Korea, the least free country in the world, a number of Asia-Pacific countries have made impressive gains in the institutions of electoral democracy—elections, political parties, pluralism—and in freedom of association.”[i]
Whatever the weaknesses of the methodology or approach of the Freedom House, the above statement encapsulates the general situation in the region. It marks the ‘steady gains’ achieved, in general terms, which could be an encouragement for human rights defenders. In contrast, Amnesty International noted a ‘regressive trend’ in the region, particularly in 2014, in its ‘State of the World’s Human Rights (2015).’
As the Freedom House assessment emphasized, China still remains the most problematic, nearly 1.5 billion people live without political rights or civil liberties. North Korea is the most despicable, denial or suppression of both political/civil rights and basic economic/social necessities are quite conspicuous. The influence of China as an emerging political giant and a successful economic story could be considered unfavorable to human rights development in the region as many regimes seek its backing for their open or covert authoritarian policies. However in recent times, several countries and in particular Myanmar and Sri Lanka, have shown quite a resistance to these influences moving at least partially away from China’s political hegemony.
It is not the economic benefits or influence that have become detrimental to human rights, but the political influence or emulation of authoritarian structures and patterns taking China as an example.
If the human rights promoters or activists in the region, (say) in the coming 25 years, could pay more attention on this overall condition of human rights and thus make their best efforts on institution building on democracy with attendant aspects of good governance, rule of law, accountability, independence of the judiciary and justice, they could reap more practical results while not neglecting individual human rights whether in the political/civil sphere or economic/social sphere without also not neglecting cultural rights of the communities and individuals.
Among the major human rights debates in the region, in the past two and half decades, there were two major issues, one epitomized by ‘Asian values’ and the other emphasizing on the primacy of economic and social rights. Both have now melted into the background slowly though after the East Asian economic crisis in 1997-1998. This is not to say that those issues are not existent in the debates today, but their importance have dwindled. Even with their presence, it might be better to look at the human rights challenges in the region in a broader perspective in a holistic manner where activists or advocates in individual countries might be able to pick what is relevant to them from a broader catalogue or ‘shopping list’ of issues. The following statement by Tae-Ung Baik few years back may be useful in finding such a broader perspective.
“In short, there are many challenges in the implementation of human rights in Asia: the weakness of human rights norms, the existence of authoritarian regimes, the problems of poverty and economic-first policy, the colonial legacy and transitional justice issues, cultural hurdles, a weak civil society, and the limited influence of the international community.”[ii]
Advantages of Democracy Approach
The above statement is a comprehensive catalogue of human rights challenges in the region. The weaknesses of human rights norms highlight the ‘awareness building’ and ‘educational tasks’ that human rights promoters need to undertake. The existence of the authoritarian regimes undoubtedly is the major obstacle. The problems of poverty legitimizes the ‘economic-first policy,’ and allows the authoritarian regimes to easily undermine political rights and civil liberties. There are accumulation of transitional justice issues due to past and continuing societal conflicts (i.e. Sri Lanka) and even to address them there are cultural hurdles to overcome. At the bottom is the weak or weakened civil society by state action. It is an obvious fact to say that today the international concern or support for human rights is very much weaker compared to say the decade of 1990s. This is the ‘limited influence of the international community’ that the above author was talking about.
All these challenges show that the promotion of human rights in the Asia-Pacific is not an easy task and concerted and well-balanced efforts are necessary under the circumstances. Simply said, what might be proposed in this article is to undertake the human rights campaigning within the rubric of democracy and good governance. That may also be the lesson that Sri Lanka shows in recent times. It is possible to highlight six advantages in doing so as follows.
- Democracy is the base of all human rights and many of the individual human rights particularly in the political and civil spheres could best be advocated under democracy.
- The concept or cause of democracy is less controversial in the region.
- Democracy or good governance may resonate well with the traditional values of Dharma in many parts of the region.
- Obviously no human right could be promoted without democracy.
- When democracy is promoted human rights follow naturally.
- Democracy approach is more diplomatic instead of direct advocacy of human rights.
There are of course dangers and liabilities in adopting such an approach, if it is adopted instead of human rights or in direct disadvantage to human rights. A major danger is dilution or compromise. Moreover, many democracy advocates often overlook specific and local (regional) issues of human rights within countries. This is evident even in the case of Sri Lankan today. The constitutional reform issues have taken a priority while minority rights issues have taken a backstage.
However, if the democracy approach is adopted for strategic or even tactical reasons, the purpose and effects would be enhanced instead of damaging or retarding. It is not suggested here to drop or postpone human rights but to forefront them with the ‘vanguard of democracy.’ This is not a suggestion on the spur of the moment. The reasoning is well established in human rights theory as well.
Referring to EU’s approach to human rights, Elena Fierro once said,
“Whether the human rights clauses refer to democracy or to democratic principles, the condition is always quoted first, before the necessity of respecting human rights.”[iii]
There are many other authors who have conceptualized the connection between democracy and human rights or ‘human rights and democracy.’ Introducing Democracy: 80 Questions and Answers in 1996 by David Beetham and Kevin Boyle was a good start.[iv] The 2005 World Summit (New York) spoke of the connection of ‘development and democracy’ as ‘interdependent and mutually reinforcing.’ There are many other conceptualizations that the human rights promoters could benefit out of. However, we should be aware of the possible downsides as well, as mentioned before.
While it is true that the struggle for democracy can be the vanguard for the promotion of human rights in any country, the opposite is also true to say that without the ‘rearguard,’ or more correctly, the centrality of human rights, democracy as a mere structure is meaningless. This is particularly true in countries, including Sri Lanka, where democracies could easily be hijacked by majoritarianism. Jack Donnelly has put forward a strong argument in this respect. As he has argued, ‘human rights are integrally required to modulate and tame both majoritarianism in democracy and social injustices in the market.’
The Case of Sri Lanka
Samuel P. Huntington in his initial studies characterized Ceylon (later Sri Lanka) as a democratic country in the Third Wave. This was mainly the same characterization that the Australian author James Jupp (Sri Lanka: Third World Democracy, 1978) gave with an insightful qualification. The reasons were quite obvious. Sri Lanka or Ceylon was a ‘model’ British colony with several of its democratic experimentations. Universal franchise was introduced in 1931, for the first time in Asia. The country achieved independence in 1948 peacefully without severing constitutional links with Britain which was considered helpful for the maintenance of democracy at that time. Sri Lanka achieved a two party system with alternating governments by 1960. The country became a Republic in 1972 nevertheless remained within the Commonwealth of Nations.
How did Sri Lanka become deviated from democratic norms is another story. Some reasons can be given briefly without going into details. Unprecedented population explosion, among other factors, gave rise to the first youth insurrection in 1971. Even before this time, the majoritarian politics based on ethnic dominance of the majority Sinhalese community made serious dents in the democratic norms and social justice issues. It was related to these conditions that gross human rights violations started to emerge. What became revealed was the deficiency of democracy without human rights which was a common condition in many newly democratic countries. The country took an authoritarian turn in 1978 when a presidential system was inaugurated without checks and balances and human rights became further eroded. Since 1983, the country has been engulfed in a serious internal war situation based on the ethnic conflict.
This war ended in May 2009 primarily and rather unavoidably through military means. However the opportunity was not taken to enhance democracy or reconcile the ethnic conflict, but to create an unmitigated authoritarian regime for the purposes of remaining in power for a closely knit (new) political elite led by a ruling family. That is how a ‘Free’ country became a ‘Partly Free’ country according to the Freedom House assessments.[v] Both political rights and civil liberties deteriorated. If we take the issues of individual human rights violations before or even after the end of the war in 2009, it is a long list. Although the constitution provided human rights redress through judicial process and through the National Human Rights Commission, those were not effective under the circumstances.
Since early 1970s there have been a growing number of human rights organizations who were doing exemplary work in areas of protection, promotion and education. These activities also became stifled due to the deterioration of democracy. Formal human rights work generally assumes the existence of democracy and attempts to correct deviations within it. Therefore, in the absence of democracy, the key issue of human rights obviously is democracy itself. Joshua Cohen strongly expounded this argument. He tried to conceptualize democracy itself as a ‘mega human right.’ Perhaps the human rights activists in Sri Lankan came to this realization by default or through experience.
How Does Human Rights Develop?
This is not an easy question to answer. However, through theoretical reasoning or trial and error it is not difficult to develop certain propositions. Richard P. Claude developed what he called “The Classical Model of Human Rights Development” in explaining how they developed during the initial periods in Western societies. He gave much emphasis on stages of development, and different social classes as catalysts in these developments at different stages. However, the conceptualization was placed primarily within a national context as that was the way human rights evolved in those societies prior to the formation of the UN, universalization of human rights (i.e. UDHR and international conventions) and globalization of communication and interrelationships. However today, human rights by nature are internationalized.
I had occasion to visualize a different or a contemporary model taking the international factor or the influence into primary concern. Yet, the main dynamics of the development does not come from the external but the internal forces, most usefully influenced or assisted by the international. As it was said in 2002:
“I have been of the opinion for some years that three main political processes shape and condition human rights circumstances in our countries, to mean the underdeveloped and Asian countries, for good or for bad. These processes are namely: 1. internal political mobilizations by civil society organizations; 2. state-making by political leaders; and 3. International influence by multi-national organizations and Western countries.”[vi]
Therefore, what the human rights promoters or the activists have to do, if this is at least broadly correct, is to work on the ‘synergies or meeting points between these processes’ in order to bring and develop human rights in a particular country. This is of course easily said than done.
In addition, what I didn’t realize at that time was the importance of ‘democracy as the main vanguard’ of struggles for human rights in our countries. This realization came later primarily through looking back at 25 years’ experience of Diplomacy Training Program (for human rights) and trying also to understand what Jose Ramos-Horta, Nobel Peace Laureate and former President tried to achieve in Timor Leste through different and arduous struggles.
Now this is confirmed by the experience in Sri Lanka both positively and negatively – democracy as the main vanguard of human rights struggles or development.
Sri Lanka’s Experience
A major breakthrough came in Sri Lanka, not immediately but eventually, when the ‘autocratic’ regime decided to go beyond its limits. That was the 18th Amendment to the Constitution in September 2010 which removed the conventional two term-limit to the presidency and suppressed the independent commissions, including the Human Rights Commission, except by name. The amendment was passed hurriedly through Parliament with the required two- thirds majority, but three political parties who voted in favor later declared it was a mistake. There was a crack. Democracy or human rights campaigners should always look for these types of ‘windows of opportunity.’
After the end of the war in 2009, although opportunities were there to relax the ‘military rule’ in the northern parts of Sri Lanka, where the Tamil community was predominantly living, it was not done. Elections to the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) was not held until October 2013. There were limitations to wage democracy campaigns on these issues internally given the past extremist movements associated with the militarily defeated LTTE. What became useful in addressing these issues were international persuasion or pressure by the Western governments. If not for that international factor, the NPC elections would not have been held even in 2013.
The regimes meddling with the judiciary was a major impetus for internal democratic mobilizations led by lawyers and lawyers’ associations. On the 18th Amendment, the Chief Justice succumbed, but on a similar issue later, she resisted in 2012. The consequence was an unlawful impeachment against her, which was strongly resisted by the judiciary. This was a clear turning point in the country. For the first time, judicial officers opted to stop work in protest and the lawyers’ associations took to the streets.
By this time resistance had also emerged from other quarters. Student protests were a frequent feature in the country for a long time with both pros and cons. They were not particularly helpful for a democracy movement. However, a change came from the academics who became united against political interference in university administration and academic matters. Their demands or slogans were much broader appealing to the people. In a context of funding cuts to education, they demanded 6% GDP allocation to education. For the first time, university professors and lecturers were marching on the streets.
A ‘mini uprising’ took place in August 2013, when security forces were employed to suppress a local protest of village dwellers who were protesting against ground water pollution due to industrial waste in Weliweriya, north of Colombo. As an issue of environment protection, the protest attracted many activists involved in environmental issues. The high handed security force involvement ended up in three persons killed and many wounded which created a national issue (See picture).
After Tamils, the Muslim community was at the receiving end of many atrocities of increasingly bigoted policies of an intolerant government. There was a direct connection between the extremist nationalist/religious groups and the security establishment in the country. After several mosque attacks, a major onslaught took place in Aluthgama in June 2014, in a residential and business area of the Muslims in the South. Small scale random attacks had already taken place against many Christian missionary establishments throughout the country after the end of the war as if to keep all minority communities under the majority yoke. The minority disaffection and even resistance was a major impetus for the democracy movement in the country that turned out to be a decisive political change in January 2015.
The above is not a complete record of events or developments but only some highlights. A major merit of these movements were their complete non-violent and legitimate character particularly when they were compared to Arab-Spring movements.
The whole world today knows that a preliminary change came in Sri Lanka in January 2015. The former President was defeated and a new President was appointed quite dramatically. The latter was a common candidate of the opposition who broke away from the previous regime at the last moment. Although a strong electoral support came from the formal opposition in Parliament, the main dynamic for change originated from outside and from the civil society.
The movement that brought up the change was catalyzed by a civil society elite. The crystallization of the movement took barely three years nevertheless based on a long and arduous work undertaken by a host of NGOs and other civil society organizations. Sri Lanka is home to over 15,000 civil society organizations out of which nearly 100 with international affiliations. This is apart from trade unions or religious organizations and for a population of 21 million people. A great majority of these organizations usually work in the spheres of community and welfare, and others who were involved in human rights or democracy related issues were largely subdued due to the repressive atmosphere for the last few decades.
The catalyst for change did not come spontaneously from the grassroots or the voters, although they finally voted against the autocratic President. It came from a civil society and a professional elite. The media and journalists also played a major role, some working from outside the country. The Colombo Telegraph, Sri Lanka Guardian and Lanka e News were three media outlets working outside the country. If I were to mention two professional organizations which were on the democratic forefront, the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) and the Federation of University Teachers Associations (FUTA) can be named. A long standing NGO, the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), played a role of a think-tank and also was involved in DTP type diplomacy with foreign embassies and governments.
The most pivotal was the formation of the National Movement for Just Society (NMJS) led by a radical Buddhist monk, Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha, supported and assisted by similarly radical academics and lawyers. The NMJS was based on a 15 point manifesto for constitutional reform and good governance. Call for human rights and ethnic reconciliation was an integral part of the program. The role of the former President, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga (CBK), also was important. Any such support from past statesmen/women or politicians would be an advantage in any country. During the elections, newly politicized youth involved in the democracy movement in a great measure under different ad hoc organizations. One such organization was the Democratic National Movement. Face Book and social media played a major role in awareness building and protest.
To end the Sri Lanka story, it is important at this stage to highlight and generalize three major steps or interactions through which a spiral of democracy movement or ‘internal political mobilization’ became unleashed. This dynamic of an ‘elite-mass interaction’ might be important for any country.
- First was a strong realization among a group of civil society/professional elite that the situation should be changed and it can be changed. Many seminars and discussions were held, and articles/missives were written. Most of the opposition political party leaders, however, were still far behind this realization. It was not easy to motivate them directly.
- Second was the steps taken to take up the democracy issue to the masses. The NMJS and others played a major role in an effort to spark public interest on reform and change. It was a success. The protest against the unlawful impeachment was a major event led by the BASL.
- At the third stage, the public pressure forced the reluctant political leaders in the opposition to accept the reform agenda and move forward. The former President worked behind the scenes. What they learnt in the process was the limitations of purely a reform agenda. Broad economic and social issues that the general public was interested in were brought into the picture. The situation also made cracks within the existing regime and the common candidate finally was a defector from the regime.
My principle argument in this article is the importance of ‘democracy as a vanguard’ in promoting and protecting human rights in the region, without neglecting the individual human rights in the process. Democracy is the bearer and the base of human rights. The advantages of democracy as an approach also was highlighted (6 points) while cautioning particularly on ‘majoritarianism.’ Synergy between human rights and democracy might be the necessity.
The advocacy of ‘democracy approach’ does not deny the approach of ‘human rights diplomacy.’ However, the golden age of it might be over. I have not seen its effective use in recent times like in the case of East Timor or by Jose Ramos-Horta. Also as Tae-Ung has noted, the ‘limited influence of the international community’ in recent times itself is a setback in the region. Therefore, the democratic governments like in Australia should pay more attention on the predicament with more endowments etc. One reason for the situation might be the counter influence of China. What could offset the situation might be the promotion of democracy in the region and in China itself. Those governments not democratically elected by the people, and not accountable to them properly, cannot be of any worth in the 21st Century.
The present article gave more space for Sri Lanka than for any other issue. The purpose was to demonstrate, as requested, how democratic change actually could come about through ‘elite-mass interaction.’ It might be too early, however, to consider Sri Lanka as a model for others. It is still a long way to go. The January ‘silent revolution’ is only a first step with certain subsequent setbacks. The crucial role of the civil society, if and when, inspired by a socially committed elite, is nevertheless amply demonstrated by that example. The role of the DTP in the coming 25 years in the region could well be to inspire and train such an elite extensively on human rights, as it has been doing in the past, nevertheless at a higher level in promoting and protecting democracy and human rights. What might be emphasized finally is the ‘elite-mass interaction’ as a catalyst for democratic and human rights change not only for initial advancement but also for its continuity and sustainability.
*This article is an adapted version, without many references, of what was published in the ‘DTP Newsletter,’ No. 50 (July 2015) at the University of New South Wales. Dr Laksiri Fernando was a former Executive Director of the Diplomacy Training Program (DTP) started in 1990 by Jose Ramos-Horta and Professor Garth Nettheim.
[ii] Tae-Ung Baik, Emerging Regional Human Rights in Asia, Cambridge, 2012, p. 272.
[iii] Elena Fierro, European Union’s Approach to Human Rights Conditionality in Practice, Martin Nijhoff, 2003.
[iv] The present author translated the 2010 edition of this book into Sinhalese (Marga, 2011) also suggesting its translation into Tamil in Sri Lanka.
[v] For a comprehensive assessment of all countries see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_in_the_World
[vi] Laksiri Fernando, Human Rights, Politics and States: Burma, Cambodia and Sri Lanka, SSA, 2002, p. i.