International Human Rights Day, Sri Lanka

I arrived back from Sri Lanka on Monday.

There now, it is already International Human Rights Day.

Why today, of all days of the year, are we asked to pay particular attention to human rights?

On December 10th, 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Declaration in Sinhala
Declaration in

The Declaration asserts what it claims are people’s highest aspirations “…in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want…”.

Do they have freedom of speech, today, in Sri Lanka?

At least eight media workers have been killed in the past year. Beatings and detentions are not uncommon. Nor are attacks on those who are critical of armed groups – for example the principal of a college spoke out against conscription of child soldiers, and he was shot. Printers and distributors of newspapers have also been targeted or threatened, and newspapers have been burned to prevent their distribution.

Surely this situation has to be seen as a direct violation of Article 19 of the Declaration, which reads:

  • Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Do they have freedom from fear?

Some do. Perhaps most do go about their daily lives without feeling afraid.

But not enough.

Perhaps not many in the north or east of the country, where most of the fighting is happening. They fear for their children’s futures, where some schools are shut down. They may fear that their children will be taken to be soldiers. They fear for their lives, not just when they hear artillery fire, or when they must run with their children to bunkers in the middle of the night. They fear about the lack of food, and INGOs driving near are asked if they have any rice or milk powder they can find. They fear about skyrocketing costs of basic things, because supplies are more difficult to come by. They fear for their livelihoods, the paddy farmers often unable to farm because of the fighting. Colombo papers have referred to a number of the farmers having to become home guards so they can feed their families, the job providing just 14 days of conflict training.

They fear for their futures, in the ‘internally-displaced persons’ camps.

Human rights activists and civil society leaders know that their lives may be at risk, if history serves. In this country now, aligning oneself with ‘peace’ can be dangerous, because if one is for peace one is understood to be for compromise, and if one is for compromise one is thought to be pro-Tamil, and if pro-Tamil then pro-LTTE, for a divided country, and a traitor to the country.

Some fear the white vans. An astonishing 450 people have disappeared this year, abducted usually by men in a white van. When this happens in Colombo, it’s puzzling how these vehicles, with their weapons, are able to bypass all the police checkpoints.

Those who work with NGOs, or non-government organizations, may be nervous. The media often heavily criticize NGOs in the country, in part perceived to have squandered tsunami donations intended for projects not yet set up, in part because NGOs speak for peace and so are viewed as pro-Tamil. Donors are said to be shifting. When you say you work with an NGO there, it’s hard not to feel apprehensive about the response.

Perhaps most in this country do have freedom from fear. But not enough do.

Do they have freedom from want?

In the north and east, they seem very much to be wanting food and human security.

Another Article, 19 in the Declaration, doesn’t seem to be met under current conditions in the country:

  • No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

The new emergency regulations (Emergency (Prevention and Prohibition of Terrorism and Specified Terrorist Activities) Regulations) enacted on 6th December 2006 may make this uncertain. I don’t know if taking that action is right or wrong. Right vs. wrong are still argued over Trudeau’s decision to invoke the War Measures Act during the FLQ crisis.

Sri Lanka is at heart a peaceful country, they are a peaceful people, and that’s why it’s so tragic that the violence continues to escalate.

It seems that those in power on all sides would read this Declaration and see their own ‘side’ as the human rights victims, and it seems that they would argue that they must fight, that war is necessary, because it is the rights of their people being violated or being threatened.

There is a feeling among some in Sri Lanka that the world does not care about their situation, or about the human rights violations they feel are taking place there. Aside from the almost-daily international news headlines announcing latest shootings or bombings and number of dead, that the context and analysis and world angst about a solution for the country is just not present.

I don’t have any solution to suggest, or even a recommendation for individual action to be taken for those around the globe that are distressed by the situation and have the motivation and will to act, but feel helpless because they don’t know what they can do.

So all I’m doing is offering one voice.

One voice, on December 10th, pointing to excerpts in the Declaration, pointing to this teardrop-shaped country in the Indian Ocean, and asking the world to pay more attention.

Disclaimer: This is all the perspective of just one person. Just me. Representing no one or no organization other than me. One person who has seen but one relatively brief view in what is a very complex country with many layers re-framing each issue.

And I could be wrong.

I welcome comments or corrections, and will include them here as long as there is no ‘hate speech’ from any side.

photo: Stephen Rainer

Update: In December 2008, Time Magazine writes that Sri Lanka’s conflict is the third of the top ten under-reported stories in the world. Story here.


  1. LOL same question here. any chance i use this AMAZING picture for my forthcoming album?
    im not earning money with my music yet but nevertheless the picture reflects my heart.
    looking at it is like seeing destiny.

    deeply grateful

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