Colombo Telegraph

The Crisis Within The Human Rights Movement Today

By Sajeeva Samaranayake –

Sajeeva Samaranayake

Most of us are working for human rights – on different themes, in different work settings and in different countries. But we would like to think we have a common objective, and it would be good if this were so. The reality is that we are at cross purposes and sometimes working against our stated objectives.

Deep down there seem to be two things that drive us.

We have this faith in ideals and concepts – fortified by the already massive and ever growing edifice of human rights conventions, rules and guidelines. This seems to have every answer to every human problem. Coupled with this is a desire to control external situations and bring them into conformity with our ideals.

This mindset is legitimised to such an extent that the human rights lobby today has no qualms about using the International Criminal Court at global level and local criminal courts at national level to respond to human rights violations. This is the global panacea for all evil today.

It is true that the criminal law has an established interface with human rights in two areas:

The criminal process itself – with its long delays and miscarriages of justice is among the prime violators of human rights all over the world

This violator is cleverly disguised as our saviour when it comes to human rights violations – and institutions like the ICC it is assumed will be immune from the usual political power dynamics that plague criminal justice nationally

There is no doubt that the criminal law has a role and place in any society. But within crisis ridden divided 3rd world societies its potential value seems to be grossly exaggerated.

The current seamless connectivity between human rights and the criminal law has brought some human rights activists into a collision course with intransigent governments that violate human rights in several trouble spots around the world. This can go on, but it should not be the centre of our attention.

Other human rights activists who are not so enamoured with the criminal process and who seek a deeper, spiritual, cultural and social approach which seeks to transform attitudes that lie at the root of all problems are becoming increasingly marginalized from this new battlefield as a neo Victorian morality play is being staged with great passion by the protagonists on either side – the accusers and defenders.

Is this new paradigm which also seems to deny human rights a broader role outside the criminal court simply a perpetuation of old categorizations that imprison us? Should we offer help for tomorrow rather than punishment for yesterday? Or do we think, in the idealistic, comprehensive and fence sitting manner of the typical UN official that we can have both? Most importantly what should our role and position be as moderate but committed and concerned citizens?

* Sajeeva Samaranayake :Attorney at Law, LLB (Hons), LLM (Family Justice Studies – Merit) East Anglia; State Counsel 1994 – 2003; Child Protection Specialist – unicef Sri Lanka 2003 – 2008; Independent Consultant on Law and Child Protection 2009 onwards.

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