Perils to walking the human rights talk

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“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

The above quoted statement from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations exemplifies how every human being is considered equal and thus should be given equal chances to live according to their will, as long as it does not trouble the other. Therefore the significance of Human Rights is apparent and the whole world is paying much attention to Human Rights presently.

While the global context remains as such, Sri Lankans still demonstrate some hesitancy to accept the importance of Human Rights due to several factors and thus the topic prevails as a controversy yet. Sri Lankans’ ignorance and hesitance towards the subject of Human Rights has been jeopardising them throughout history. Even those who talk against the violation of Human Rights are being attacked, suppressed or frowned upon by society.

Within this context, the Centre for Policy Alternatives and the Free Media Movement have collaboratively launched the project ‘Promoting Human Rights and Democratic Values in Sri Lanka,’ catering to today’s need of reinforcing the freedom of media, access to information and freedom of expression. The group has carried out research regarding threats to journalists, human rights defenders and civil society, in four provinces i.e. the Northern Province, Southern Province, Eastern Province and Central Province. The research paper containing cases, identified challenges and recommendations with a series of articles written by national level and provincial level journalists around the country in this regard, Human Rights and Democracy in Sri Lanka – Threats to Journalists, Human Rights Defenders and Civil Society: A Brief Overview of the Challenges and Proposed Reforms, was published recently at Hotel Janaki, Colombo 05, with the participation of Media Policy Researcher Wijayananda Jayaweera, Former Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, Attorney-at-Law Ermiza Tegel, Dr. Paikiasothy  Saravanamuttu and Senior Lecturer M.T.M. Mahees.

The violation of the freedom of speech and expression and the right to access information within the Sri Lankan context was emphasised by almost all the speakers there, especially regarding the incident in Mirihana and ongoing anti-Government protests. The repression of journalists by the Police and other military forces was highly criticised. At that point the gravity of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) was brought forth. The PTA allows the authorities to carry out arrests without warrant for unspecified “unlawful activities,” and even permits detention for up to 18 months without producing the suspect before a court.
Dr. Saravanamuttu highlighted how the PTA was enacted in 1979 as a temporary measure but is being used even today, violating Human Rights on a massive scale. Further, Wijayananda Jayaweera, analysing the Human Rights controversy in Sri Lanka, stated that the ignorance and the stereotypical resistance towards Human Rights in the local community has paved the way to violation of Human Rights. Thus he elaborated on the need to revise the school syllabuses in order to include a deeper and an updated insight into Human Rights. This idea was further established by M.T.M Mahees as he pointed out the fact that the discourse on Human rights is only limited to the upper social strata and emphasised on the need of a different approach for this discourse to reach the ground level of society.

Apart from the publication of the research paper, the project team also launched a new mobile application for journalists and social activists. The application is designed to securely collate and convey increased targetting and repression of journalists, human rights defenders, and civil society activists both physically and online in Sri Lanka, aiming to ensure the freedom of speech and expression of the above mentioned groups.

(Pix by Dumindu Wanigasekara)

By Induwara Athapattu and Shanuka Kadupitiyage