Thirty-eight persons from ten Asian countries gathered together at Wattala, Sri Lanka, from November 14 to 24, 2003, for the annual Human Rights School Session jointly organised by the Religious Groups for Human Rights and Human Rights Correspondence School programmes of the Asian Human Rights Commission.
During the session, the organisers aimed to bring the victims of human rights violations into close contact with the participants. This aim was achieved. The close contact was enlightening and profound. At times participants were in tears, listening to fellow human beings telling about unimaginable cruelties done to them by the guardians of law and order. The poverty of victims, their remoteness from urban areas, and perhaps low education were no barriers. The participants came to understand and respect the victims through common sense and insight into their real conditions.
The participants discovered that acts of gross human rights abuses remain fresh in the minds and hearts of victims after, in some cases, even more than a decade. The victims expressed satisfaction that after a long period of neglect they had the first opportunity to express themselves freely and narrate their ordeals. One father whose son was forcibly disappeared around thirteen years ago said that even up to this date no one has come and apologised for what happened. Such comments brought out a sense of how some terrible wrongs have not yet been addressed. The participants realised that while they had heard and known of some things, they had not grasped them in depth. Many said that they hope to be more involved and more effective in offering support for the victims.
Throughout the session, participants discussed the need to build protective umbrellas through tight relationships with other support groups, linked by modern technology and closely connected to the victims. Without a protective umbrella the victims cannot fight for justice. Without strong support groups, victims have to keep their grievances inside themselves, or share them only within the privacy of the family and intimate friends. To make their complaints public they need to be assured of security. When it is the state agents who stand against their security, only civil society organisations can offer protection. Often, however, civil society groups forget this and concentrate on activities that fail to build real connections with the victims. When activists are disconnected and emotionally alienated from victims, they are unable to offer genuine support. If these persons are to promote and protect human rights effectively, they must overcome this condition. They can do this only by close contact with victims. There is a vast difference between symbolic links and token gestures and having a real connection with the victims.
In coming into close contact with victims, it is essential to realise that they are in a daily battle against those who have caused them grave injuries. The victims know their rights through the experience of their denial. They are well aware of what has been denied them. This awareness is much deeper and sharper than the human rights groups awareness of rights based on intellectual knowledge. Recognising the primacy of the victims consciousness of rights should be the starting point for any effective support. As it is the victims themselves who must take the steps necessary to solve the problems they face, without being aware of their profound sentiments a support group can do nothing. Support groups have to place themselves in relation to the victims. Where the defence of rights is characterised by a lack of respect for victims and their situation, it will result in superficial and meaningless responses. This school session proved that it is possible to abandon superficiality and engage with victims to seek the proper implementation of human rights. Throughout it, the victims were a source of inspiration and hope for the participants. Via close emotional and intellectual contact, the participants realised that the victims have not abandoned their complaints or grievances.
The need to combine action with knowledge about human rights was also discussed during the session. However, the actions described were not those of human rights groups undertaken simply as a part of their own programmes or projects. They were initiated with a deep understanding of the victims, and were aimed at strengthening them by providing support and protection through widespread contacts. The participants realised how effectively modern technology can be used when human rights work arises from close personal contacts with victims.
Victims and participants alike expressed their concern over the collapse of institutions for the rule of law. Police institutions are commonly held to be a major cause of this breakdown. Torture, extrajudicial killings, disappearances, and illegal arrests and detentions are not random isolated violations, but indicators of an institutional crisis. The participants concluded that without addressing the collapse in policing throughout the region, human rights and democracy are unattainable. However, governments and public opinion have to date been unresponsive. They blame the actions of a few bad individuals, not substantive institutional problems, for rights violations. The participants felt that for their work to have any meaning, they must build movements that will challenge this false representation. The gross abuses of rights narrated to them by the victims were not merely the actions of a few bad officers, but the result of a massive institutional failure. Bad officers are not exceptions; they are the products of bad systems. Anyone seeking to ensure human rights in the region must address this situation. The participants discussed ways to do this.
The crisis in policing is closely related to defective prosecution systems. While prosecutors pay lip service to human rights, accountability and transparency, they in fact guarantee impunity to perpetrators of rights violations. Anyone today seeking to ensure the rule of law cannot avoid the need to undertake effective independent monitoring of prosecution systems. The participants again felt that governments in the region do not wish to address this problem with any seriousness, lest it upset their authority. It is left to those concerned for the victims, democracy and social stability to bring this issue into sharp focus and push for reforms. The same applies to the judiciary.
The victims and participants felt that human rights violations continue because institutions do not exist to protect them. While several national bodies have come up, they have been unable to seriously challenge the institutional roots of human rights abuses in their respective countries. The participants expressed serious concern about the national human rights commissions in the region. In some instances, officers of these commissions are now blatantly cooperating with the perpetrators of human rights abuses. Most commissions do not have speedy avenues for dealing with such officers. If the credibility of national institutions is to be maintained, they must develop internal systems for accountability. The participants felt that they should take a leading role in provoking critical discussion about these commissions among the public.
This school session raises the question of what is meant by human rights education? Vast resources have been spent on human rights instruction sessions without any real connection to the victims. These programmes are themselves alienating experiences for the learners. Unfortunately, this is what human rights education means to many persons. This school session was completely different. It demonstrated that if deliberate attempts are taken to have close contact with victims, progress is not difficult. In fact, the victims are in search of real support groups, and society is in need of effective action that can lead to changes. Human rights education can produce change, even within a short time, if deliberate attempts are made to change how it is done.
There was an overwhelming sense of hope and optimism during this session. The victims were themselves largely responsible for this feeling. The participants benefited from the deeper sense of human rights violations that the victims brought with them. There was agreement to take this approach to countries in the region and hold regular school sessions in the future.
– Asian Human Rights Commission