Human Rights

'Insensitivity to atrocities reflects our moral decline' - Ruki Fernando

Ruki Fernando had served as the Head of Human Rights in Conflict Program (April 2007- March 2012), at Law and Society Trust (LST) - an organization involved in  human rights documentation, legal research and advocacy work in Colombo. Before taking over his post at LST, he coordinated the Human Rights Defenders Program at the Asian Forum for Human Rights & Development (FORUM-ASIA) in Bangkok and also served as the Coordinator of the National Peace Program of Caritas Sri Lanka (SEDEC). In 2009 he received the prestigious Justice and Peace Award from Bishop Tji Hak Soon Foundation in Korea for his outstanding commitment to the defence of human rights.

As a tireless rights defender who has been instrumental in exposing gross rights violations taking place in the country, he sounds less convinced about the over-inflated sense of "post war success'.

'Nothing much has changed' says Ruki,  'except that the flag waving patriotic street shows have died down.'

For him, less guarantees of human rights means less hopes for civilization.  "People keep talking about Black January's1 and Black July's and so on. But as far as justice and human rights are concerned, every month is black and every month brings memories of grave injustices and atrocities which we all are being forced to live with."

Excerpts from the interview follow:

JDS : As a prominent human rights defender in the country, how do you describe the current state of human rights in Sri Lanka?

Ruki Fernando: First and foremost, what we need to understand is the fact that the duty to protect human rights  primarily falls  upon the state. The State largely bears the responsibility for the protection of the rights of their citizens - which is  an obligation laid down by the international human rights law. But in Sri Lanka, the state has always been the biggest violator of human rights and each and every government has repeatedly failed to meet their obligations in this regard. Whenever there is sufficient evidence to link the human rights violators to the state, the state - especially the executive -  always seemed keen on ignoring the evidence by providing impunity to the perpetrator, rather than ensuring justice to the victims.

Having said that, I would like to point out two important aspects of the rights violations occurring in the country.

The first, is the violation of the individual and collective rights of the Tamil people. This needs to be considered as the most serious issue which is an obvious result of deliberate policies of the Sri Lankan state. Apart from those discriminatory practices in the past, much more horrendous acts have been committed during the final stage of the war. This is in addition to mass displacement, arrests, abductions, torture, mass graves and all sorts of sufferings that the Tamils had to undergo. Now in a military sense, the war has come to an end. We all know that the war itself was a result of continuous rights violations of the Tamils people in the past. But the end of the war has not brought an end to all such rights violations happened during the war time. This is a serious matter that needs to be dealt with.

The second aspect is the human rights violations against the other communities living in the other areas of the island. The criticism against the government is not tolerated any more and the dissent is seen as a crime. During the past couple of years, we have seen how the journalists, legal professionals, civil society activists, moderate minded religious people, students, workers, farmers and fisher folks and many others were forced to take the brunt of the state repression, simply for voicing their concerns. Journalists and media workers murdered and forced into exile, lawyers and judges threatened, civil society activists targeted and abused through state sponsored hate campaigns, workers and fisher folks shot to death while protesting, students arrested and so on. All these evidence reflects the true state of human rights in the island.

JDS : Many in the south seemed quite convinced that curtailing fundamental freedoms is inevitable at a time of war and questioning any such measure equals treason. We have seen that this sort of thinking has further enhanced the repressive capacity of the state and increased the level of impunity. Do you think that the people in the south have realized the real dangers posed by such thinking?

RF: Well, it depends on whom we are talking about. This false belief was not spontaneous, but cultivated through well calculated state propaganda campaigns. A state does not have any divine right to decide and define the limits of fundamental freedoms and human rights of the  citizens. On the contrary, the state is obliged to safe guard the rights of every single citizen to the maximum, especially during a time of war. The executive or any other powerful individual or institution should not have any absolute power to override the law of the land. But our experience proves otherwise.

The state violates the rights of one section of the population by directly waging a war on them while using the same 'war' as a patriotic excuse to slash the rights of  of the other section of the population. Here, the underlying logic is outrageous and criminal:  We, who live in the south were asked to hold back any action or demand concerning our own fundamental rights because 'our government is fighting  a war' to crush the rights of our neighbours! The simple and the obvious truth is that this sort of an argument is like a double edged sword. Once you set the repressive laws in motion by expressing your consent to violate other people's rights, there is no way you could secure your own rights being violated. If a society falls prey to arguments of a repressive government and justifies gross human rights violations of the other, thinking such violations are necessary for its' own collective existence, such a society is doomed to fail.

But people who can foresee this, get condemned as traitors.

JDS: Why do you think that this is relevant to understand the current state of human rights in the country?

RF: I think the reason is pretty clear. This is how our society used to behave and think during the war. There were hardly any concern in the south about the Tamil victims when horrendous things were happening, because people simply wanted to believe the version put forward by the government. That made things easier for the government to not only to suppress the people in the north-east, but even to suppress any dissent in the south. In a society, when no one cares about the plight of others, everyone becomes vulnerable and everyone's rights will be at risk. Three years after the war, many in the south are not willing even to consider that abducting Tamils and torturing them in detention or making them disappear as colossal crimes and that exposes the level of degeneration of our ethical values and standards. Our insensitivity to such atrocities and our willingness to turn a blind eye to such crimes reflect the erosion of our moral sensibility.

Many in the south show serious concern when their own fundamental rights get threatened. When such violations are openly committed against us, we think it is unacceptable and should be opposed by everyone.That is only when we become victims and when we are forced to stand at the receiving end. I know this as a fact through my own experience. Some who used to condemn us as traitors - simply because we tried to raise international concerns about the plight of the war victims - later contacted us asking for support once they fell victim to the same state brutality. Some people who didn't like any international rights groups or diplomatic missions expressing worries about the state of human rights, later even asked me whether any support can be mobilized to highlight their own plight. Such behaviour is not simply ironic, but sad.

JDS: Have the conditions of the Tamils improved in the aftermath of the war?

RF: I don't think so. The truth of the matter is that the Tamils are subjected to oppression because they share a distinct identity as Tamils and that very fact made the war inevitable in the past. Unless we are able to see the primacy of this ethnic aspect of the problem, we cannot grasp the underlying politics which bounds all of us together. The plight of the Tamils is not simply reducible to a class issue or collapse of the rule of law. By saying that, I don't intend to deny the validity of raising issues related to class inequality and rule of law. But in a country where supremacist racial thinking is playing a dominant role at every policy making level, the distinct national identity of the Tamil people becomes a primary reason for their victimhood. When someone really wants to know whether the things have changed, he or she should deeply examine this particular aspect to check whether the ethnic based discriminatory policies have ended. Unfortunately, I cannot see any such change.

Three years since the war ended, the surviving young Tamils are being indefinitely detained without due process. As a result when they become desperate, they get beaten up, tortured and murdered. No one cares and none of these things get reported as sensational news stories. Why? Because the victims are Tamils. This is exactly what happened two decade before and even after 20 years, it's still happening.

JDS: The recent developments have showed an increasing tendency of hampering judicial independence by executive interference. Any comments on this trend?

RF: When rights are violated, the judiciary becomes the last institutional refuge to challenge the injustices. But when the executive and legislative branches start interfering into judicial process, it shatters and weakens the entire system. As a result, more and more victims have become desperate and frustrated over winning some sort of justice. For example, the reason for many people deciding to file writs of Habeas Corpus to find the missing relatives is because that any other legal action gets dragged on for an indefinite time period.

One of the most disturbing trends we have been witnessing recently is the repeated attempts made by the police in several instances to obtain court orders against peaceful demonstrations. When the media activists organized the 'Black January' protest, the police got it blocked. The same method was applied when a meeting was convened to mobilize support for the Catholic Bishop of Mannar as well as during the protest organized by the medical doctors in Jaffna. This trend gets worst when the police manage to get court rulings even against the funeral processions of the victims of state brutality. We have seen such actions when a fisherman was gunned down in Chilaw and also when a Free Trade Zone worker was killed in Katunayake. This trend is a politically motivated one and has nothing to do with normal judiciary process.

With the 18th Amendment to the constitution, the power bestowed upon the executive has reached unprecedented levels, making things far worst that anyone imagined. The executive can decide who should head the judiciary and who should be appointed to every single commission. The best example is to look at the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka. When the wife of journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda went to make a complaint to the commission about her husband's disappearance, it was turned down and a lawyer had to intervene to get it accepted. Similarly, few months ago I read a news item in one of the websites, which revealed that - Lalith and Kugan - the two political activists who were abducted in Jaffna are being held inside a building in Colombo. I rang up the commission just before midnight and requested them to search the premises without informing the police in advance. But they responded by saying that they don't have sufficient resources to carry out any such action. This simply means the mere existence of such bodies cannot be seen as positive and effective mechanisms that has the ability to avert human rights violations.

Photo courtesy: Janikissima | Flickr

[1] 'Black January' protest was called by media rights activists to mark the string of anti-press attacks in recent Januaries.

© JDS