Colombo Telegraph

The UN Human Rights System And Its Relevance To Us

By R.M.B Senanayake – 

R.M.B. Senanayake

The recent violence against the Muslims in Alutgama and Beruwala are being discussed in civil society and in the Opposition political party. Discussions are mainly on what happened and who is to blame. Most people end up blaming both communities. But different communities will always have differences of opinion. But resorting to violence is not an option for any community to resolve such differences. Don’t we have a government which was elected on the Sinhala Buddhist vote? Surely if any Buddhist monk or group of Buddhist monks have a complaint against any other community shouldn’t he or they take up the issue with the Government? Have they done so? Can anybody in society including Buddhist monks resort to violence?

In July 1983 the government of President J.R Jayawardene failed to protect the Tamils who were subject to violent attacks by mobs. He failed to maintain the Rule of Law by declaring Emergency and calling out the Forces. It is true that the incident was sparked off by the killing of 13 soldiers. Would the Army have refused to obey the orders of the President? If so what was his option? Rumor has it that some Buddhist monks prevented the President from declaring Emergency. But some say the President wanted to teach the Tamils a lesson.  Whatever it was , it was the failure to protect the unarmed civilians that led to the intervention of the Indian government in the ethnic issue in our country.

The view of Mr. Mangala Samaraweera as well as several others is that the violence itself was contrived by the Government. Whether this is so or not will be difficult to prove or disprove. But that is not the most relevant issue. They say President MR has to create a new enemy of the Sinhala Buddhists to win their votes at the next Presidential election. He won earlier because he was the champion of the Sinhala Buddhists against the LTTE. He needs another enemy they say to win the votes of the Sinhala Buddhists who number 70% of the population. So these people say that it is necessary to create a new enemy and the Muslims and the Christians have been earmarked for the exercise. It is necessary to demonize them first. This is being done. But that is not enough. The Muslims must be provoked so that they will resort to counter attacks. So the richer Muslims particularly the shopkeepers have been targeted. It is very necessary that there should be counter violence by the Muslims for this plan to succeed. Some Muslims like the Jews believe in ‘eye for an eye’ or a tooth for a tooth”. But to do so would be a great mistake and will be playing into the hands of the provocateurs.

The United Nations (UN) has created a global structure for protecting human rights, based largely on its Charter, aimed at advancing democracy and human rights throughout the world. Our government has not realized that there is a world body in place which is above the nation state and that this world body has adopted a code of conduct for States. Sri Lanka has subscribed to the UN Declaration on Human Rights and our Government is legally and morally bound to obey the UN Charter. Our Parliament cannot refuse the right of its citizens to invoke the UNO.  If the State violates human rights of people, then the people have a right if not a duty to invoke the aid of the UNO. Minister Rauf Hakim was right to bring the violation of the human rights by the Government to the notice of the UN HRC.

One of the most difficult decisions faced by people is what to do when a state is perpetrating gross human rights violations against its own peoples or sections of its own peoples, causing a humanitarian catastrophe to unfold. Would it be unpatriotic for a people to report the matter of the violations of their human rights to the UNO? This is based on a false concept of patriotism. It doesn’t mean to support my country right or wrong and equating the country with the Government.  If the right to strike back is curtailed as it is in the UN Charter except in self defense, then the victims must have some other course of action when the State fails to protect them from violence by other communities.

The human rights discourse has gathered significant pace over the past sixty years and it is now widely accepted by the international community that sovereign states have an obligation to protect their peoples from gross human rights violations and consequently to refrain from perpetrating such violations or permitting them to take place without protecting the victims.  The notion of state sovereignty is no longer an absolutist conception where the state is the sole master of its internal affairs. It is now predicated upon the effective undertaking of responsibilities expected of a state, as determined by the international community, including the protection of the fundamental human rights of ALL its peoples.  If a State fails to do so it cannot affirm that its sovereignty is being violated. Its sovereignty carries the obligation to uphold the human rights of ALL its subjects. So if the State fails to protect the human rights of the Muslims they would have a legal right to appeal to the UNO. There is convincing evidence, generally accepted by the international community as a whole, of extreme humanitarian distress on a large scale, requiring immediate and urgent relief. Such relief can take various forms but the ultimate remedy if all else fails is the use of force if lives are to be saved. This is called humanitarian intervention.

The first catastrophe that led to the call for humanitarian intervention was the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. In the space of approximately 100 days, over half a million Tutsis were killed by the Hutu government and a further two million sought refuge in neighboring countries.

Where a state fails to discharge its responsibilities the international community is required to react and take the necessary steps, which may ultimately include the use of military force, to prevent gross human rights violations occurring in that State. Of course humanitarian intervention may require the approval of the Security Council where two Powers -Russia and China may veto any such military intervention as in the case of Syria. But individual States can take actions against such a State. So let not the Government repeat the mistake of J.R.

Back to Home page