Columns - FOCUS On Rights

The Bludgeoning and Battering of Rights Protections

By Kishali Pinto Jayawardene

A decade back, when deciding to write a column on human rights protections for The Sunday Times, I would never have envisaged that 'human rights' itself would have become such a contested term as the years progressed.

This was, of course, to be woefully (if not inexcusably) naïve in regard to the extreme politicization of language and terminology. However, in exculpation of many of us who fell into this same bracket, it must be said that despite the darkness of that period, (during which thousands had been killed or disappeared), there was a defiant faith remaining in legal and political institutions. To a certain extent and spurred on by the fact that the Supreme Court itself was becoming increasingly active in its interventions, there was euphoria regarding the protection of rights. Sri Lanka was pulling itself up, painfully albeit determinedly, by its bootstraps, we had a new President in on an electoral mandate based on a collective desire for peace and there was vibrant discussion of constitutional reform and even the expansion of existing rights.

Cynicism and rights

Now however, matters are demonstrably different after years of continued conflict, excruciatingly bad governance and worse opposition along with the almost total deterioration of hard won freedoms 'Human rights' is blamed for most of our ills along with its assorted accompaniments of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international interventions. Bludgeoned, buffeted and battered on all sides, advocates of rights protections have indeed, little refuge.

No doubt, much of this negativity is due to the admirably slick propaganda of government spin doctors, buoyed as they are by the territorial gains won by the military in recent months. However, there is indeed, a second level to these discussions which emerges from the manner in which current debates on human rights protections take place.

For example, critics commonly question as to the absence of an outcry from human rights groups and activists, when a barbaric attack of the nature that took place in Akuressa a few days back, occur. Theoretically, the distinctions between responses to such attacks and responses to, (let us say), a government shelling of a hospital in the conflict zone, may be justified on the familiar explanation that the State owed a far greater duty of care to its citizens irrespective of ethnic or other distinctions, as opposed to a terrorist entity. However, theory only goes so far and no further. The distinctions therein are fluid to great many people, (and not all of them unconditionally support the government), whose level of extreme cynicism in regard to 'human rights' then increases exponentially. In the end result, the credibility or the legitimacy of interventions in regard to human rights protections decreases commensurately. This is indeed a reality that must be acknowledged.

'Human rights' activism elsewhere

These are not, of course, trials and tribulations limited to Sri Lanka. Aruna Roy's Right to Information movement, working from villages and from the homes of ordinary people as opposed to plush offices in the exclusive parts of India's grand cities is another example. She did so as part of a deliberate strategy to disassociate her movement from the elite policy based organizations that she felt were not actually reaching the people who were most affected by the lack of information, from farmers whose quota of government subsidies were getting swindled by corrupt local government officials to housewives whose children were not getting their daily ration of milk from the schools. Indeed, the very term 'activism' has been one of the most hotly debated words in India. One of that country's most remarkable legal brains, Upendra Baxi loved to refer to himself as an "activist academic" to the annoyance of some of his more conservative colleagues.

The level of justice at the international plane

Yet, now terms such as 'activism' and 'human rights' are vested with pejorative undertones that are deeply troubling. And when these discussions are taken from the national level to the international level, there is yet further dysfunction. The extreme hypocrisy of the community of nations in response to, (let us say) the merciless Israeli shelling of the Gaza or indeed its marked silence to the disgraces that were Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib will suffice as examples.

The much trumpeted warrant reportedly issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC) against Sudan's President, Omar Hassan Al-Bashir this week is also posited within these debates; why only Sudan, one may be inclined to question? Why not the many, many other heads of states who are equally culpable? And if one extends this argument to previous heads of state and key policy figures, one may even go as far as asking as to why this level of activism is not directed towards those who dictated a reversal of the United States' administration's policy towards the absolute prohibition of torture as a means of interrogation during the administration of the junior George Bush?

These are, at one level, easily answered questions given the realpolitik of the international human rights order. However, when measured against the beautifully appealing ideals exemplified by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, (as an example), the arguments do tend to sound deafeningly insincere.
Sudan's case meanwhile offers interesting illustrations for countries undergoing extreme internal conflict such as Sri Lanka.

Reports say that the warrants reportedly issued this week by the ICC against Sudan's President Al-Bashir include counts of crimes against humanity as well as murder. Some reports are to the effect that the count in regard to genocide is apparently less well established though it has been argued that Al-Bashir had the intent to commit genocide in a conflict where some 300,000 people (this number is refuted by Sudan which puts the count at 10,000) were killed and 2.7 million displaced.

The reference to the ICC against Sudan's president was given greater impetus by a United Nations tribunal concluding that the country's judiciary was not able or not willing to hear and determine the abuses. In eerily familiar reasoning, Sudan has blamed the ICC for being "pro-Western." What now transpires remains to be seen.

Raging against the dying of the light

The inequities in the turning of the wheels of international justice will undoubtedly remain stark, as indeed, will our acerbic conflicts as to the meaning of 'human rights' or of 'activism' in today's national discourse. Despite the cynicism however, insisting on the basics for the legal protection of the human rights of all persons without distinction, even in today's embattled culture of the gun and against the governments' skilled propagandists, is the minimum in which we can yet rage against the dying of the light. There is really very little alternative.

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