Home » 75 Years On, UDHR’s Relevance in Sri Lanka and Beyond

75 Years On, UDHR’s Relevance in Sri Lanka and Beyond


Photo courtesy of  France 24

Today is Human Rights Day

On December 10, 1948 the UN General Assembly adopted a Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Drawing on grim experience of how misuse of power caused massive destruction and suffering and reflecting diverse traditions, this included social, economic and cultural as well as civil and political rights, which are often intertwined. Three quarters of a century later, the plight of many people in Sri Lanka and beyond reflects both how relevant the UDHR remains and the challenges of making sure it is put into practice.

Across the country a wide variety of people continue to be deprived of rights in ways that cause physical and emotional harm and deepen divisions. Huge swathes of the population are struggling with debt and cannot afford basic amenities such as electricity while the powerful who plunged the country into economic chaos continue, for the most part, to prosper. Ethnic and religious minorities are reminded of their marginal position, and people of all communities of how easily they can be seized, held, mistreated or even murdered by state forces or with its complicity.

After an outcry over the death last month, following alleged torture, of a young Tamil man, Nagarasa Alex, who had been detained after claims he was a burglar, several police were arrested. But mistreatment in custody and even killing by those meant to protect the public goes largely unchecked. The regime had earlier tried to make out that it would stop using the notorious Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and replace it with new legislation in line with basic human rights standards but the pretence has worn thin. Recently nine Tamils were detained under the PTA for commemorating people who died in the civil war, giving rise to concern internationally as well as in Sri Lanka.

In October UN experts had made clear their disappointment that the government’s proposed counter terrorism bill, meant to replace the PTA, fell so far short of basic human rights standards. “For many years, UN experts and multilateral organisations have consistently said that the current Prevention of Terrorism legislation in Sri Lanka is in violation of international law with its vague terminology, its lack of protection for fundamental human rights, and a lack of independent oversight,” the special rapporteurs and other specialists stated. “It is deeply regrettable that the proposed legislation does not remedy any of these defects.”

Peaceful protesters against ongoing pastureland encroachment in Batticaloa were physically attacked by police. Later, near the parliament roundabout, police turned water cannon on women connected with National People’s Power (NPP), who were protesting non-violently against the rising cost of living and other matters.

The CIVICUS Monitor, which tracks civic space around the world, has downgraded its assessment of that in Sri Lanka in 2023 to repressed. Civic space covers respect in law, policy and practice for freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression and the extent to which the state protects these fundamental rights.

Abuses by the regime mean that Sri Lanka is failing to meet obligations linked to the European Union’s GSP+ Scheme, intensifying economic risks. The  scheme grants tariff-free access for many goods to the EU market so long as core human rights and labour rights standards are met.

Many people experience intersecting types of disadvantage and discrimination, such as women plantation workers. Workers facing unacceptable conditions as well as inadequate pay, disabled people, those who are lesbian, gay bisexual or transgender, people facing caste discrimination and multiple others continue to have their full human rights denied. This may result not only in material harm but also in emotional distress and sometimes even internalising a sense that one lacks worth, as well as undermining justice and compassion in how people relate to their neighbours.

Historically, there have been horrific abuses with little redress for victims. At the same time, Sri Lankans are, and have been, among the world’s most thoughtful, determined and courageous defenders of human rights.

This tension between championing and disregarding human rights dates back to the early years of independence for what was then Ceylon and even before, the era when the UDHR was developed. A glimpse of history underscores how violations affecting any section of the population ultimately leave others less protected. It may also be helpful in addressing some common criticisms: that the rights framework is deeply flawed because it seeks to impose Western and/or secular values internationally; that applying it is unfair because this is often inconsistent; and, more justly, that UDHR principles are not enough to secure a more humane world.

Fresh beginnings and challenges

“The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was crafted with lessons drawn from two global wars, the Holocaust, atomic destruction, profound economic devastation, and generations of colonial exploitation, oppression, injustice and bloodshed. It was conceived as a roadmap to a more stable, more just world,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk on December 6. He continued:

“Human rights are inherent to every human being… Leaders who ignore this truth imperil the people they are meant to serve… Unfortunately, leaders in many parts of the world have done just this. As a result, we are seeing violent conflict increase and intensify across the globe.”

He drew attention to the situation in Palestine and Israel and elsewhere and to the need “to take stock of where we are, how we got here, and what we can do to craft a better future for all human beings, no matter who, no matter where.”

Undoubtedly any framework has limitations. But the claim sometimes made that UDHR principles reflect exclusively Western values and culture or a narrow belief system is at odds with history. The declaration emerged amid experiences of suffering and injustice and resistance to these across much of the globe and was shaped by people from many nations and backgrounds amid much reflection and negotiation.

In 1955, a range of Asian and African states gathered at the invitation of the prime ministers of Burma, Ceylon, India, Indonesia and Pakistan in what became known as the Bandung conference. As well as promoting economic and cultural cooperation as a balance to the dominance, and sometimes dangerous rivalry, of a handful of powerful nations, the conference “took note of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations”. It also upheld the principle of self-determination, rejected racial segregation and discrimination (a gross violation of human rights) and colonialism and affirmed “that the subjection of peoples to alien subjugation, domination and exploitation constitutes a denial of fundamental human rights.” So human rights were viewed as integral to a more free and equal world.

Yet in what would become Sri Lanka, despite major strides in economic and social rights for large swathes of the population along with considerable civic and political freedoms, all was not well. For instance the marginalisation of indigenous peoples, amid a model of development which did not fully appreciate the connectedness of living beings, was damaging. And most notably the appalling betrayal of the hill country Malaiyaha Tamils, refused even basic rights despite their contribution to the economy, paved the way not only for ongoing hardship for that community but also for the shakiness of democracy, equality and rights more generally.

Later periods in the country’s history again underlined how apparently isolated attacks on the rights of some part of the population, which might seem to leave others untouched or indeed improve their status by contrast, left the majority vulnerable too. It is also noticeable that both government forces and non-state armed groups which have committed violations end up harming large numbers of people in those communities they were supposedly championing.

Elsewhere in the world too, the powerful and super rich or those who aspired to join their ranks or benefit from their patronage often resisted the roll out of rights beyond a certain point. This was perhaps especially so when there were huge profits or lavish lifestyles at stake. Even those with high ideals sometimes found it difficult to apply these in all cases, amid the cut and thrust of politics. During the Cold War or later jockeying for position, governments were often selective about their criticism although a number of human rights organisations and defenders were far more consistent, managing to irritate a wide range of leaders who were acting oppressively.

This has been another ground for criticism of challenges to violations of UDHR principles: states often do this selectively while at other times disregarding or even engaging in abuses themselves. For instance, before and after Hamas’ murderous attack in Israel, the US government has been complicit in human rights abuses in Gaza, now reaching a horrific scale, with thousands dead and far more displaced, injured or traumatised.

In early November President Ranil Wickremesinghe mentioned that “the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which we have all respected and will continue to respect.  But it requires every country to adhere to it… ok let’s say the US is handling the Gaza issue, when we go next year, to the UN Human Rights Council, we will be judged by this,” he said. “There is one law for us, one standard for the others… Next September come with clean hands and we will also answer you. If you haven’t got clean hands, why should we answer you?”

However the impetus for acting on human rights violations by the state has come not from a particular government but from people and organisations advocating for victims locally and internationally, including UN officials and bodies which have been even more critical of the Israeli regime. In turn the UN has come under sustained verbal attack and many staff providing humanitarian support in Gaza have been killed.

Some of the states which are most vocal in condemning the onslaught on Palestinians have very poor human rights records themselves including Russia and Iran. President Wickremesinghe’s logic might suggest that because of the moral failings of such critics of Israel’s rulers, they should not be held accountable whatever horrors they inflict and Palestinian children be left to pay with their lives for the flaws of others. This is hardly humane or reasonable.

Certainly governments across the world should be urged to be consistent in respecting and promoting human rights and meanwhile these should be upheld for everyone, everywhere while those committing violations should be held to account.

It is however fair to point out that the UDHR and subsequent conventions and declarations based on its principles, important as these are, are not enough to secure human rights for all. While people might recognise the value of such rights when applied to themselves or those they care for or admire, often they might be persuaded that it is unrealistic or risky to apply these to everyone, especially to those who tend to be viewed as outsiders or a threat in the circles in which they move. And at times it can be tricky to get the right balance, for instance on what might count as hate speech which should be restricted without undermining basic freedom of expression.

Sharing knowledge, building empathy and raising awareness of both psychological and systemic forces which might get in the way of rights for all may be helpful. This may include searching questions about how and for whose benefit economies and societies are run. As well as grappling with what is sometimes sad or grim, and which may bring up feelings of helplessness or guilt, celebrating and learning from successes and mutual support and care can be important.

In the run up to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the years since then, Sri Lankans have made a valuable contribution to striving to human rights globally. In meeting the challenges which lie ahead, it is important too to appreciate and build on those advances that have been made.

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