By Mangala Saraweera –
Today is International Human Rights Day. And as in the past, Sri Lanka will join the countries of the world in commemorating this important even. But this year, Sri Lanka’s commemorations will not only be symbolic – they will also be substantive. So I am very pleased to announce that Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the UN will be signing the International Convention on Enforced Disappearances later today in New York.
Sixty-seven years ago, in 1948, as the world was still recovering from the unspeakable horrors of the Second World War, delegates from around the world convened to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, affirming every person’s right to liberty, equality, and justice under the law.
In commemorating that event, 10th December, is celebrated internationally as ‘Human Rights Day’.
This year’s Human Rights Day, internationally, will be marked by the launch of a year-long campaign to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the two International Covenants on Human Rights: the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which were adopted by the UN General Assembly on 16 December 1966.
The campaign titled “Our Rights. Our Freedoms. Always.”, revolves around the theme of rights and freedoms – freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.
Today is a special day for us in Sri Lanka as well. It is the first Human Rights Day since the January 8th Presidential election and the launch of an era of consensus-based politics under the leadership of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
During the last decade or so, in Sri Lanka, human rights were spoken of as an alien concept, the universal values of democracy, human rights, rule of law were made out to be alien concepts or western values infringing on our country’s sovereignity.
On the 8th of January, the people of this country, upholding the best traditions of democracy, used the power of the ballot to vote for change. The people of Sri Lanka acknowledged that each and every human being, not only in this country but all over the world, irrespective of race, creed, gender or income level – are bound by common and inalienable rights that we share as human beings. By just this singular act alone, Sri Lanka took the world by surprise and captured the attention of the international community. By repeating this feat on the 17th of August, the people of this country, together with the Government, have undertaken to travel on the path of establishing good governance, rule of law, and human rights, including taking steps for reconciliation, and non-recurrence – essential ingredients to achieve durable peace, security, sustainable development and prosperity for all.
Just last night, the Cabinet of Ministers, in keeping with the mandate and vision of the Government to promote and protect the human rights of all citizens and ensure non-recurrence, took a decisive step to immediately sign the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, which demonstrates the seriousness with which the Government considers this issue. In keeping with this decision taken last night, Sri Lanka’s Permanent Mission in New York will today, 10th December, sign the Convention. The Cabinet of Ministers also authorised the Legal Draftsman to undertake the drafting of necessary legislation to give effect to the provisions of the Convention, and the ratification of the Convention once enabling legislation is passed by Parliament early next year.
It is now the duty of the officials concerned to expedite the drafting of the necessary legislation; the duty of Members of Parliament to enact legislation, and guarantee operationalisation and implementation of its provisions to ensure that such crimes do not take place in this country ever again.
We all know that this is an issue that has plagued and pained our nation for long years. All, irrespective of race, religion, language or geographic location, have been affected by this crime for several decades, even in situations that are unrelated to conflict or unrest. The criminalization of enforced disappearance will provide protection to each and every citizen of this country from this crime and will help ensure that the terror of the White Van culture does not reign in our society ever again.
We must also remember that the alleged opposition between security and human rights is a false one. The right to life, the right to live without fear, the right to seek the protection of the law are all human rights. But so is the right to freedom, the right to non-discrimination and the right of self-expressions. These rights, for the most part, complement rather than contradict each other. And where there is a tension the rights need to be balanced to ensure that each and every citizen can live a flourishing life.
As a Government, we are dedicated to strengthen the human rights of all, strengthen the rule of law and the national Human Rights Commission.
We all know that there can be no lasting peace, no prosperity in our land unless all enjoy freedom and justice as equals. Therefore, we must, as a nation, dedicate ourselves, to not resort, as in the past, to defending the human rights ‘records’ of our Governments but to instead stand up always to defend human rights as a mature and responsible nation. Stand up, speak and act at all times in defence of the human rights of all our citizens. This is in our own interest as a nation. There is no need to be defensive about granting to our people, the rights which are due to them. There is no need to fear having a frank and honest dialogue with human rights defenders and UN Special Procedures or our bilateral partners. Engagement makes us stronger. President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have shown us the way. This is not a partisan issue. Strengthening human rights must receive the support of all, including all in Parliament. Related legislation must not mistakenly be viewed as partisan. Human rights is something that must be considered at a supranational level. Upholding rights, putting in place due legislation, strengthening the rule of law, establishing the independence of related institutions including the judiciary will benefit all, each and every individual, beyond party politics, beyond race, religion or creed.
Upholding human rights at home also enables us to credibly point towards injustice and oppression in the world. In fact, Sri Lanka was once a country that was able to call on the world’s conscience – raising issues that affected the populations of the entire developing world on the world stage. If we are to regain that position and act a voice and inspiration for others around the world, we must ensure that human rights at home are protected and secure.
Our experience, and the experience of all humanity, tells us that our rights will remain without their real substance unless there are real improvements in the lives of our people. Therefore, all of us, not only Governments, but also citizens must play an important role in ensuring that this fact must be borne in mind in crafting policies and programmes for national development.
The leaders of all political parties need to guard with vigilance the precious peace that they have promoted by working together, lest enemies of progress plunge communities into insecurity again in order to achieve their own selfish interest.
One more issue is that the Government or the people cannot and must not rest content with having our rights written into our constitution or into legislation. We must constantly strive to make them a living reality and ensure that provisions of our Constitution and legislation are enforced and implemented.
Above all, for all of us truly to enjoy our rights, we need to achieve a lot more progress in reconstruction and development; in growing our economy; in taking action against criminals and rooting out corruption; in entrenching our democracy and making our public service more efficient.
These are government’s priorities and we need the help of all to achieve them.