SRI LANKA: Who bullies who?

Sri Lanka’s Deputy Solicitor General Savindra Fernando has been quoted in the local press as stating that Sri Lanka has often been bullied into signing United Nations (UN) conventions. He was speaking during celebrations of the 30th anniversary of the adoption of the Additional Protocol to the Geneva Convention. Such international instruments on human rights and humanitarian law establish international laws and standards and result from consensus by the members of the UN.

Mr. Fernando’s statement is surprising in that it implies that if Sri Lanka has been bullied into ratifying conventions and protocols, it has therefore been bullied into respecting the rights of its citizens. For example, the Convention against Torture stipulates that State-parties must take all steps necessary to eliminate the practice of torture, thus providing protection to the citizens of these States. If the country has a law that already provides such protection, then international conventions only reaffirm the efforts already being made by the State. It is only when a State is failing to provide adequate protection to its citizens through domestic efforts that international conventions are helpful in requiring further action to be taken by the State to correct this. Mr. Fernando is therefore not only admitting that the State is not adequately protecting its citizens’ rights, but that it is unwilling to and needs to be coerced into doing so.

It must be recalled that Sri Lanka is a member of the UN’s Human Rights Council (HRC) and that in the pledge made by the government to the international community as part of its election bid to the body (, Sri Lanka uses the fact that it is “Party to all seven major human rights instruments” and several additional protocols as justification for its selection. Furthermore, the government pledges to “play and advocacy role to broad base the adherence to all seven major human rights instruments with a view to promoting human rights of all sections of society worldwide.” The government is therefore claiming that it is credible not only because it is a voluntary party to all international human rights instruments, but also because it will work to ensure that other States also ratify these instruments. There is a deep contradiction between what the government has told the world and what Mr. Fernando is now claiming.

At the heart of every human rights violation is an act of bullying. From violations of labour rights, to unfair trials, to torture; all result from abuses of powers by individuals that have powers conferred upon them by various authorities, against individuals that have no such protection.

All authoritarian States throughout history and the world have bullied their own people and deprived them of their rights. It is unfortunate if not unpredictable for the Deputy Solicitor General, who comes from the country’s chief legal office, the Attorney General’s Department, to take the position that international efforts to ensure the protection and promotion of the rights of all, including Sri Lankans, should be branded as bullying, rather than branding the undeniable violations of the rights that have and continue to take place there as such. In Sri Lanka’s past, particularly in 1971, the State’s ability to bully its people with the support of the heads of various departments, including the Attorney General’s Department, has been strongly asserted. Sri Lanka has been ruled through emergency regulations and anti-terrorism laws for the most part since then, with Sri Lankans’ basic rights having been suspended and regulations having even been authorised concerning the summary disposal of large numbers of bodies. Tens of thousands of persons have been killed following arrest. Torture remains endemic to date. The State is clearly not doing enough to protect its people and the need is clear for the use of international legal instruments to regulate the State by obligating it to refrain from committing such acts. Should a bully be allowed to continue bullying without interference? Does humanitarian interference, which is non-violent in nature and designed to prevent mass murder, disappearances and torture, amount to bullying? Is it easier to accept that one is a bully or to blame others for one’s own faults?

Sovereignty is frequently used as an excuse by repressive States to shield themselves from external criticism. Nationalism is used to attack international norms and standards and to justify the State’s lack of accountability for any actions it may undertake against its own people. If such justification is accepted, the strong will always be allowed to bully the weak and society will revert to one which is ruled only by the law of the jungle. The degeneration of thought and expression concerning the respect for human rights is plummeting to unbelievable depths in Sri Lanka.

The Deputy Solicitor General’s comments on the country being bullied into signing international instruments coincide with the branding of the UN Humanitarian Coordinator as a terrorist. Anything goes these days. Persons in positions of authority, representing the government, make statements that, if condemned, are labelled as being ‘personal comments’ by the government. Does the Deputy Solicitor General’s statement represent the position of the Attorney General’s Department? Representatives of the Attorney General’s Department speaking in international fora such as the Human Rights Council, the UN Committee against Torture and suchlike, repeatedly declare their adherence to the protection and promotion of international norms and standards. However, never have they claimed that they are being bullied into making such statements. The Deputy Solicitor General is therefore undermining the positions that the Sri Lankan State has taken before the international community. He presents Sri Lanka as being a coward that has given into the bullying of the powerful. Is Sri Lanka a member of the Human Rights Council as a result of being bullied into that position? As a member of the UN Human Rights Council does Sri Lanka not hold an obligation to uphold and promote the norms and standards enshrined in the international human rights instruments? If Sri Lanka is a member of the Human Rights Council as a result of being bullied, should it not resign from this body?

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-200-2007
Countries : Sri Lanka,
Issues : International human rights mechanisms, Judicial system,