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Keynote address at the celebration of Human Rights Day in Jaffna, on December 11th 2009.
Let me begin by thanking all of you for being present here today, and in particular the Government Agent for arranging this gathering. I am sorry too that this event takes place one day late, but I had to be in Vavuniya yesterday to celebrate the day there. That seemed particularly important, given that many discussions of Human Rights this year had centred on the situation in Vavuniya. However I am aware that in Jaffna too this issue is of particular importance, which is why I thought it desirable to get here, checking on my way on the situation of those who have now been resettled in parts of the Wanni that had suffered so much in recent years.
Both because of what I saw, and because of the opportunity for new beginnings that has now been offered us, I thought I should address the issue of rights conceptually here, and begin by suggesting that discourse on human rights has suffered in Sri Lanka in recent years by being both too selective and too confrontational. I will explain what I mean by selective later, but first let me urge a more collaborative approach in the future to human rights, so that we can better fulfil our common aim of ensuring all rights for everyone as best possible in the future.
Moving from Conrad to Henry James, the other writer of the same period whom Leavis fitted into the Great Tradition, is a leap into another world. The two writers would seem to have little in common except for their concern with subtle moral choices. One deals with the work and duty, the other with conversations. Conrad has the world as his canvas, James the drawing rooms of Anglo-Saxons. In Conrad choices can lead to death, in James they result in sex or its denial.
And yet, despite all this, James is undoubtedly one of the greatest of novelists, telling us about the ways in which people relate to each other, how power balances in relationships shift and adjust, how individuals use each other and allow themselves to be used. Sexuality is obviously an important element in the whole gamut of personal relations, and James wrote at the time when women were coming into their own as social authorities too, owners of property, receiving what might be termed adult education in every sense.
James is often described as giving centre stage in his novels to young ladies learning about the world, showing us ideal innocence coping through experience with social hypocrisy. ‘Daisy Miller’, his finest short story, or novella (the form of the long short story or short novel that James made peculiarly his own), deals with a lively American girl who does not allow herself to be constrained by convention. She is accordingly ostracized by European society for being too free with her tour guide in Italy, a penalty she would not mind too much, were it not that the young American she rather likes, Winterbourne, takes up a similar position – which almost literally breaks her heart.
Two sources abroad have now brought to my attention a recent report on Sri Lanka produced by an organization called ‘Country of Origin Research and Information’. Unfortunately both told me this was a report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. This is not the case, and indeed the UNHCR Representative in Sri Lanka knew nothing of the report when I called him on April 26th. He then looked further into the matter and sent me a note about such reports on the 27th, which repeated what the front page of the Report itself says, that the views in it ‘are those of the author and are not necessarily those of UNHCR’.
It was kind of him to respond so soon, and I certainly do not think he should be blamed for the type of reporting that goes on. But it would be desirable for Sri Lanka, as a member state of the United Nations, to look into a situation that allows selective reporting about a country, reporting that seems deficient in accuracy, sensitivity and relevance. The UN should not spend enormous amounts of time and money on regurgitating prejudice that is not germane to its job.
A couple of weeks back I wrote a piece about the International Centre for Ethnic Studies, and its effort to set up Sri Lanka as a country that had to be ‘Protected’ by those who considered themselves wiser and better than us. I was questioned then about bringing up old matters and, though I believe that we need to learn from the past so as to save ourselves in the future, I did wonder whether I was being paranoid in fearing threats from that particular quarter. Still, with Bradman Weerakoon back openly at the helm of ICES, it did no harm to be careful.
And then, just a week or so later, I was sent an account of a parliamentary committee in Canada that suggested constant vigilance was not just desirable, it was essential. The report also suggested I had been right to see more behind Radhika’s plaintive cry that all was disaster when Sri Lanka, in accordance with Dayan Jayatilleke’s expert interactions with the bulk of the diplomatic community in Geneva, defeated wholesale the efforts of some Western countries to put us in the dock after our victory over terrorism.
I was fascinated by Radhika Coomaraswamy’s long essay on the ‘Responsibility to Protect’, which is I believe her first public attempt to defend her conduct in the whole sorry Rama Mani episode. Characteristically, there is no discussion of what she did then, she has instead engaged in a discussion of the R2P doctrine, which in itself is unexceptionable, as originally agreed by the United Nations.
That however was not the point of the Rama Mani episode, which occurred at a time when, as Gareth Evans himself has granted, he was trying to extend its application beyond what was agreed by the UN General Assembly. Understandably enough Radhika has completely glided over her own conduct at the time, though I suppose now that I have ample justification for going into that in detail. Meanwhile, as will be clear from recent information received about the manoeuvers of some individuals involved in ICES international partnerships, information that I had incorporated in a parallel article that deals with continuing threats to our Sovereignty, there is need of continuing vigilance.
Keynote address at the celebration of Human Rights Day in Vavuniya, on December 10th 2009
In welcoming you all here today, and thanking the Government Agent for arranging this gathering, I should explain why the Ministry decided to celebrate Human Rights Day so specially in Vavuniya this year. Our work I should note is ongoing, with this month seeing the second draft of the National Action Plan on Human Rights, and the first draft of the Bill of Rights that we commissioned from a group of independent experts in accordance with the pledge in the Mahinda Chintanaya. However, we also have a practice of some sort of special event, and this year we thought we should do this nationwide.
My Minister is currently at a meeting of the Human Rights Commission in Kandy, while this afternoon he will present prizes to the students who took part in our debate between the Law Faculties of Colombo and Jaffna and the Open University. In addition, several local authorities, selected on the basis of successful projects they conducted over the year with regard to mainstreaming Human Rights into development activities, will be conducting awareness programmes for students and public officials.
Text of a keynote address given at an Aide et Action Workshop, Jaipur, November 3rd 2009.
I am honoured to be with you here at this workshop in Jaipur, nearly forty years after I was first in this beautiful pink city. I was a schoolboy then, traveling around India on a shoestring budget, and my mind went back to the attitudes and approaches that seemed so natural then, seeing poverty and deprivation and also enjoying the marvelous hospitality of so many from all walks of life.
I was full of egalitarian ideals then, and I remember being told by those older and wiser than I was that it would be unnatural not to be some sort of a Marxist in one’s youth, just as it would be quite unnatural to continue a Marxist twenty years later, when one had grown up. In actual fact, when the world had grown older, twenty years later, it seemed that Marxism had been proved conclusively wrong, and the thrust for equality was entirely wrong-headed, and could lead only to increasing deprivation for all.
There was much speculation some months back about the provenance of the meeting of minority parties in Zurich. The usual suspects were thought to be behind the event, with the usual suspicions. My own view was that the move was to be welcomed, because unlike in the past the balance of power at such meetings could no longer be held by the Tigers. Given the strength of mind displayed in resisting them by a host of others in the past, even while their backs were to the wall, I felt that the outcome could only help in promoting a united Sri Lanka. The initiative seemed designed to promote discussion as a method of reform, rather than violence, and it seemed that the forum would get this message through to those who had been forced into acquiescence with terrorism and efforts to subvert democracy.
I still think this positive approach may not prove mistaken, but I must admit to some worry when I saw the name Peter Bowling amongst those who had facilitated exchanges. We have unfortunately been here before. He was one of the leading instigators just over a year ago of the petition sent to the UN Secretary General that accused the government of all sorts of crimes in its efforts to suppress the LTTE in Sri Lanka.
I had long wondered about the motives of a few media outlets which had engaged in constant disinformation about Sri Lanka while we were engaged in our struggle against terrorism. This has been extremely hurtful, not only in itself, but because it had hardened attitudes amongst some decision makers in Sri Lanka about opening up areas in the North to journalists.
I had myself felt that, whilst security had to be a paramount consideration, more good than harm would be accomplished by allowing journalists to report on the enormous work the government was doing for the displaced in Vavuniya. Around March 2009, I think it was, this position seemed to gain wider acceptance, and many journalists were taken up to see the actual situation.
By and large I believe optimism was justified, and most journalists reported fairly on the facts. Though some negative aspects were noticed, most maintained a balance with regard to these, and generally asked government to comment on what they thought amiss. The result was a better impression, certainly in India, about what was going on, and I think we need to record our appreciation of the objective reports that did much to assuage feelings which the Tigers and their allies had stirred up through misrepresentation of the Welfare Centres.
The effort by Gareth Evans to focus attention on Sri Lanka as a situation ripe for invocation of the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect was not an isolated phenomenon. To paraphrase Lakshman Kadirgamar, if this particular frosting on the cake was prepared in London or in Brussels, from where the International Crisis Group functions, the cake was one that had been baked at home.
The guiding spirit behind the exercise was Rama Mani, who had been virtually imposed by Radhika Coomaraswamy as Director of the International Centre for Ethnic Studies. Radhika’s contradictory pronouncements about the suitability of capable Sri Lankan researchers at ICES, such as Pradeep Jeganathan, suggested a determination to keep ICES functioning in terms of her own vision even after she had resigned to take up her current influential position at the United Nations.