The politicisation of human rights – An interview with Kalyanada Tiranagama
Posted on October 31st, 2015

Courtesy Island

In this interview, Kalyananda Tiranagama the head of Lawyers for Human Rights and Development speaks to C.A.Chandraprema about the politicisation of human rights both locally and internationally. Among the matters discussed are several contentious operative paragraphs of the recent American sponsored UNHRC resolution against Sri Lanka.


Q. You have been a pioneering human rights activist in this country. To what extent are you really satisfied about the work you do? We see human rights being used not as a way of bettering the lot of the ordinary man but as a political tool both at the local as well as the international levels.

A. Yes I too am of that view. As for me, I am doing things that nobody else wants to do. Though we tend to find fault with politicians all the time, the law is openly flouted by lawyers and even judges. They do not do their duty and they are not concerned about the plight of their clients. The only concern seems to be about earning money. We have situations where jail sentences are imposed on people which are not justified and which they cannot legally impose. The Attorney General’s Department instead of taking steps to rectify these things, remain indifferent. One example is the enforcement of concurrent sentences as consecutive sentences. When a judge hands down three year sentences for each count, he assumes that these sentences will run concurrently. But when you go to prison you have to spend each jail term consecutively. This is because of a wrong interpretation given by the Attorney General’s Department that is being followed in the prisons. I have been trying to get this rectified from 2010 but I have not yet succeeded. There are a large number of prisoners undergoing this injustice.

Q. What you just mentioned can be categorised as a genuine human rights issue relating to the functioning of the legal system. But what we see happening in this country most of the time is the use and manipulation of human rights for political purposes even by local NGOs. When you talk of human rights, it’s supposed to be something noble. But very often, human rights issues both real and imagined are manipulated in a cynical manner, applied selectively, used shamelessly as a political tool. When you look at the international human rights scenario, what is your opinion of the UN Human Rights Council?

A. They are using it as a political tool supporting the Western powers. They do not inquire into any violations of human rights bordering on Genocide committed by these powers. As a result of the sanctions imposed on Iraq, nearly half a million women children and elderly people died due to the non-availability of medicinal drugs. That clearly qualifies as an act of genocide. But nobody seems to be concerned.

Q. After the end of the second world war, there was a genuine concern about human rights in the world both at the level of individuals and at the level of governments because of all the atrocities that had occurred during the conflict. At some point did the Western powers begin using this as a political tool?

A. This was used as an instrument of the cold war. They used this as a tool to bring down the communist system in Soviet Russia. The Western countries were portrayed as democracies and the communist camp comprising of Russia, China, North Korea, Vietnam and Cuba as dictatorships. No doubt the campaign about human rights issues in Soviet Russia was carried out by people genuinely concerned about human rights. But they did not realise that they were being used as a tool by some interested agencies.

Q. There is no question about the fact that there are people genuinely interested in human rights. But this whole industry has earned a bad name due to politicisation. However, we don’t see real human rights activists doing anything about it.

A. It may be that they have not realised the gravity of the situation, To a certain extent they are also helpless at the individual level.

Q. Is it also the case that even the genuine human rights activists are dependent on their funding and their survival on the very countries that are using human rights as a political tool?

A. Yes, to a great extent because other wealthy countries are not interested in taking up these issues. China is not taking up this issue. Maybe they have their own reasons for not wanting to do so because they don’t want to undermine or change the political system in other countries. But the Western countries do have an interest in that kind of thing.

Q. So essentially, the genuine human rights activists and the countries that want to cynically use human rights as a political tool are on the same continuum?

A. Not always. In India, there are large number of organisations like the People’s Union for Civil Liberties which is a huge organisation. I have met its general secretary who is a Professor in the Delhi university. He still uses a manual typewriter and has no staff. He told me that on many occasions western countries had wanted to assist him but he had turned down such offers saying that they want to maintain their independence. India, there is another factor because the flow of funds to NGOs is strictly monitored by the government.

Q. Do you feel that the field of human rights in this country is tainted with Western money?

A. To a great extent yes. If you look at the issues they take up, you’ll see that they are almost always political matters. They are not concerned about real human suffering.

Q. In other words, talking about the rights of prisoners and that kind of thing does not bring in big money but political issues are more lucrative?

A. Yes.

Q. When that kind of thing happens, everybody gets tainted. If you ask the man on the street today what he thinks of a Non Governmental Organisation, they think these are people who’ll do anything for foreign money.

A. I agree. I personally know that. In my case, I don’t dabble in politics. I take up matters like the rights of people in custody, illegal arrests and instances of gross abuse of human rights. There is for example a case that I have taken up where a man has been sentenced to a 72 year illegal sentence. He has now been in custody illegally since May 2010. I have brought this to the attention of all the concerned institutions in the country, the Attorney General, the Human Rights Commission, the Supreme Court but nothing has happened yet.

Q. There is obviously a need for that kind of human rights activism. But when the man on the street hears the term ‘human rights activist’, the image that comes to his mind may well be that of someone who speaks against Sri Lanka in the UN Human Rights Council. That kind of image can’t be very helpful to people in your line of work can it?

A. I have never gone to Geneva myself. My own opinion is that there are enough local mechanisms to deal with any situation. If you have to make use of the existing tools you can go a long way. Another thing I know is that some of these people are propagating deliberate lies. There was a report submitted around 2010 to the Human Rights Council which said that that lesbian, gay and transgender individuals are not given treatment in government hospitals! That is an absolute lie.

Q. They actually said that?

A. Yes! And not only that but such people do not have access to the education system as well. They had also said that in the plantation areas, women are being forced to undergo abortions. It’s not just one organisation doing this but many. I have nothing to do with such organisations.

Q. Obviously, the bigger the horror story, the more the money coming in?

A. Finally, that is what it is.

Q. From 1948, the human rights body in the UN was the Human Rights Commission. Then that became dysfunctional because complaints began to multiply to the effect that human rights was being used as a political tool, that cases were being taken up selectively, and that some countries were being targeted so on. Then they formed the Human Rights Council to rectify those shortcomings. The criticisms of UN members about the way the earlier Human Rights Commission functioned was specifically mentioned in UN General Assembly resolution that instituted the UN Human Rights Council. In your view, have things improved after the Human Rights Council was set up to replace the Human Rights Commission?

A. I don’t think so. Now it has become worse in my opinion. Human rights are now being even more forcefully used against selected countries. As regard the resolutions that were passed against Sri Lanka in the UNHRC, our government should have replied to them both theoretically as well as practically. There are many lapses on our part. When those five youths disappeared in Trincomalee, the government should have immediately taken action. They didn’t do that. They waited until this issue was raised in various other countries. These lapses are being used for various political agendas.

Q. If you take the latest resolution passed against Sri Lanka in the UNHRC, operative paragraph 8 of the resolution requires that the government should remove through an administrative process any member the armed forces suspected of having violated human rights even if there isn’t enough evidence to take him before a court of law.

A. How can you do that? That is against all basic norms of human rights.

Q. But this was demanded not just in the UNHRC resolution but by the UH Human Rights Commissioner personally in his speech to the 30th Session of the UNHRC.

A. Our government should have responded immediately. This is a violation of the Human Rights Charter itself. What happens most often is that the people sent from Sri Lanka to attend these fora end up agreeing to their unfair and unjust demands. Then they say your representative has agreed to this so implement it! I have heard it being said that rape has been used as a weapon of war. That too is a deliberate lie. If that was happening, it would have been taken up at that time by Tamil NGOs and the embassies and other such agencies.

Q. Haven’t any such instances come to the notice of your organisation?

A. No. There was one case in Mannar but was dealt with by the police and the perpetrator has been arrested.

Q. Operative paragraph 4 of the American sponsored resolution welcomes the decision already made by the government of Sri Lanka to allow all the proposed mechanisms including the judicial mechanisms to obtain funds from the Western countries. How do you view that proposal?

A. That will affect the independence of those institutions. They will have to please the Western powers in order to survive. That is a very dangerous thing.

Q. Operative paragraph 6 says that a separate judicial set up has to be formed to try war crimes and foreign judges, prosecutors, investigators and lawyers have to be a part of this mechanism. What do you think about this proposal?

A. I am totally opposed to it. Our institutions are capable of handling any justice related issue if they are allowed a free hand. Our police can solve any crime if it is assigned to the right officers. Our judges already function as members of foreign judicial bodies. Some officers of the Attorney General’s Department have served as prosecutors even in the Hague. Judges of the court of appeal and supreme court have experience in working in foreign judicial systems. So there are people in Sri Lanka who can handle any issue of that nature.

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