By Chamindry Saparamadu –
SLPP Presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa officially launched his election manifesto at a colorful event held at the Nelum Pouna, Mahinda Rajapakse theatre last Friday in the presence of the religious clergy, political allies, the diplomatic corps, professionals and other party loyalists. Soon thereafter, I observed various references made to the manifesto by various individuals / groups in both media and social media platforms. One such reference that captured my fancy was a comment made to the effect that ‘the manifesto only confirms your worst fears. Not a single word on human rights’. The fallacies of this observation become evident when looking at both the process of the manifesto formulation and its content.
A people centered process
One of the most ‘humanly’ right facts about the manifesto is the process through which it was formulated.
In the formulation process, people’s views and ideas were first obtained through a series of inclusive and interactive dialogues conducted in 25,000 villages through which problems of the villages were identified and matters pertaining to future development were discussed. The dialogues took the form of consultations and included two elements: a comprehensive assessment of the geographical settings, historical factors, demographic information, and socio- economic and educational status of the village as well as the households and the individuals Thereafter, proposals were obtained from the participants to augment the village conditions, by increasing the revenue sources and bases, economic activity in various sectors , social networks as well as the human resource and skills base, environment conservation, common amenities’ and public service delivery as well as to enable and promote collective decision making.
Thereafter, people’s proposals were analyzed and considered by committees constituted of people’s representatives, technical experts and subject specialists in various sectors , along with other proposals submitted by religious leaders, political parties, experts, professional and community based organizations. The above provided the foundation and the substance of the national policy formulation process culminating in the manifesto.
The Manifesto sets the framework for development policies and programmes of a future SLPP government and it is appreciable that the average citizen had an opportunity to inform such policies and programmes. Significantly, this process is in line with the contemporary global approaches to development. With the adoption of the Declaration on the Right to Development by the United Nations General Assembly in 1986, the world encountered a paradigm shift in the way in which development is understood and approached in the global world. Development is no longer conceived as a charitable or humanitarian end to be achieved but rather a human rights objective to be realized. As the Declaration spells out development is a comprehensive economic, social, cultural, and political process, which aims at the constant improvement of the well-being of the entire population and of the individual on the basis of their active, free and meaningful participation in development and in the fair distribution of benefits resulting there from’
This puts people at the center stage of development giving them an opportunity to define and design their development trajectory and become the owners of their development. No longer are people considered passive recipients of the benefits of development interventions formulated by few others.
Similar trends have been observed with regard to approaches and strategies to poverty reduction as well. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has issued Guidelines for a Human Rights Approach to Poverty Reduction Strategies aiming at assisting countries, international agencies and development practitioners in translating human rights norms, standards and principles into pro-poor policies and strategies. The Guidelines set out how the processes of formulating, implementing and monitoring a poverty reduction strategy need to be informed by human rights principles. This means not only a convergence of the ends that both human rights and poverty reduction seek to achieve but also the policies and programmes for poverty reduction are formulated based on human rights standards with the active and full participation of the people.
In this sense, the broader process followed by the SLPP in formulating its first ever election manifesto is an exemplary beginning from a human rights perspective.
‘Human Rights’ are often spoken of in abstraction and approached as legal/ institutional problems. Whilst laws and institutions are important, in human rights discourse, rarely do we find the analytical focus shifting to society, the people as the holders of such rights, or their empowerment. In most international agency backed human rights interventions, reference or engagement of people have been to the extent of beneficiary awareness raising exercises. Needless to say that the empowerment of claimants go beyond that of awareness; knowing but not being able to claim rights due to lack of economic, social and human capital leads to frustration and disillusionment. Additionally, as we have witnessed in the past, laws and institutions have generated their own forms of marginalization and exclusion of various categories of persons. On the other hand, various technological and other advancements, rarely seen and discussed as human rights interventions, have enabled the realization of human rights. A classic example is the social media revolution which has democratized freedom of expression to a great extent.
The SLPP proposals contain the right balance between legal and institutional reforms, system and process changes and social empowerment and provide a comprehensive framework in which human rights can be realized. It is important to highlight the focus that is placed on the society and the various sub-categories such as the family, the women, the children, the youth, the elderly, the disabled and the holistic and comprehensive menu of interventions proposed for their empowerment. These include removing various barriers, political, economic and social that hinders their advancement as well as specific interventions enabling their access to education, health, public services, social security, formal labor market as well as interventions that enable their composite well-being such as family life, nutritious food and healthy living. These would not only ensure the realization of economic, social and cultural rights of the person but also would be a sine-quo-non for accessing civil and political rights. Proposals for sustainable environment management and policy making would ensure that the rights of the future generations are also safeguarded. Furthermore, the people-centric economic policies place the people at the center of the proposed economic development process.
Much emphasis has also been placed on the communities in the North and East and the Estate sector in consideration of their specific vulnerabilities due to decades of civil war, social neglect and other forms of marginalization. Specific economic, social, administrative and other forms of interventions are required to create a level playing field which would ensure their full access to all types of rights and entitlements. The equality provisions of our Constitutions warrant taking special measures to advance the conditions of specific groups of persons such as women, children etc so that each person is similarly circumstanced to enjoy the right to equality and equal protection of the law.
Alongside these interventions are several proposals to broaden the democratic foundations of the state such as eradicating political and public sector corruption through institutional and legal reforms but also introducing technology for digital -governance and e-procurement systems that would minimize opportunities for bribery and corruption, legal reforms aimed at better and more effective law enforcement, crime control etc. and strengthening democratic governance and rights protection through electoral reforms, judicial reforms etc. In addition, the adherence to human rights and protection of minority rights as the cornerstone of any constitutional and legal reform process further reinforces the commitment to human rights.
In a nutshell, ‘humanism’ permeates through the entire manifesto placing a strong human rights focus in both its formulation and content. While this may not be the hitherto conventional approaches to human rights, to claim that there is ‘no reference to human rights’ in the manifesto is a gross misrepresentation of facts and the reality.
*The author Chamindry Saparamadu is a lawyer, an international development consultant and a political analyst based in Colombo