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Sri Lanka Talks Big on Human Rights Day

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The Pulse

Sri Lanka Talks Big on Human Rights Day

The foreign minister’s remarks aren’t as bold as they may at first appear.

Sri Lanka Talks Big on Human Rights Day
Credit: Flickr/Narendra Modi

Given that December 10 is Human Rights Day, Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister, Mangala Samaraweera, spoke about the subject. At the beginning of his prepared statement, Samaraweera announced that Sri Lanka will sign the International Convention on Enforced Disappearances, officially known as the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.

Generally speaking, Samaraweera is not one to shy away from soaring rhetoric.

Here’s part of his prepared remarks:

And today is a special day for us in Sri Lanka as well. It is the first Human Rights Day since the January 8th Presidential election and Rainbow Revolution and the launch of an era of consensus-based politics under the leadership of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

As you know, during the last decade or so, in Sri Lanka, human rights were always spoken as an alien concept. The universal values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law were made out to be alien concepts or western values as the previous government called it and they used to say it’s western values and infringing on our country’s sovereignty.

But, on the 8th of January, we changed all that. The people of this country, upholding the best traditions of democracy, used the power of the ballot to vote for change and through that ballot, t he people of Sri Lanka acknowledged that each and every human being, not only in this country, but all over the world, irrespective of race, creed, gender or income level – are bound by common and inalienable rights that we all share as human beings.  By just this singular act alone, Sri Lanka took the world by surprise and captured the attention of the world community. By repeating this feat on the 17th of August again, the people of this country, together with the Government, have undertaken to travel on the path of establishing good governance, rule of law, and human rights, including taking steps for reconciliation, and non-recurrence – which we believe are essential ingredients if Sri Lanka is to achieve durable peace, security, sustainable development and prosperity for all.

Sri Lanka’s two big elections this year illustrated peoples’ desire for improved governance, reduced corruption and a break with the heightened authoritarianism of Mahinda Rajapaksa. Furthermore, enforced disappearances have long been a problem in Sri Lanka. According to the 2015 annual report by the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID), Sri Lanka has 5,750 outstanding cases of disappearances – the second highest number in the world.

But how much does the government’s decision to sign the International Convention on Enforced Disappearances really matter? Ruki Fernando, a human rights activist, says that the government’s decision to sign the convention “indicates interest…nothing more.” Fernando also mentions that, on other occasions, the Sri Lankan government “has ratified treaties and then brought in enabling legislation.” Sri Lanka still hasn’t criminalized enforced disappearances.

Samaraweera expressed hope that parliament will pass the pertinent legislation in January, although his December 10 remarks are likely to be met with some skepticism. Sri Lanka’s new government has made many promises about reform and change – many of which have not been kept. To cite just one example, Fernando mentions that the foreign minister had given assurances that the government would make public all reports from previous commissions of inquiry by September 30, and yet that still hasn’t happened. “So why should we trust him if he can’t keep a simple promise?” Fernando asks.