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Concerns over civil society engagement with government

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By Jehan Perera

The 48th session of the UN Human Rights Council that started this week in Geneva will not be having any new UN resolutions with regard to Sri Lanka. This session will only see the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, make her report. But that report can set the direction for what will follow, with an EU assessment of the GSP Plus tariff privilege set for November. Sri Lanka is one of a handful of countries singled out for special attention as a follow up to the UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka passed in March this year. This was not the scenario anticipated by the government last year in March when it withdrew from UNHRC Resolution 30/1 that was co-sponsored by its predecessor in October 2015. Despite the withdrawal, Sri Lanka has fallen into an unfavourable spotlight due to the new UNHRC Resolution 46/1 which was passed earlier this year over its objections by means of a vote.

There is a possibility of change again. For the first time since the change of government in 2019 the government will be going to Geneva to discuss issues of human rights within the parameters set by the UN system and without seeking to reject them. With newly appointed Foreign Minister Prof G L Peiris at the helm, the government has prepared a 13-page report which engages with the major issues of concern to the international community that has an interest in human rights issues. It deals with the accusations of non-implementation of key elements in the resolution and seeks to point out that some of the main undertakings are either being implemented or nearing completion. It takes considerable pains to explain its progress in many of the areas highlighted in recent UN reports.

One of the areas highlighted in the more recent UN reports has been the shrinking space for civil society. Since the Easter Sunday bombing during the period of the last government, the surveillance and monitoring of NGOs throughout the country, but particularly in the North and East, has got more intense. With the advent of the new government later in 2019, this increased further to the extent that NGO workers in the East have complained privately that they were being considered akin to terrorists. Other NGO workers from far districts have been asked to come to Colombo along with their office files to be questioned by intelligence operatives from different branches of the security forces. NGO leaders in Colombo have been visited in their homes by persons in plainclothes, claiming to be from the intelligence branches of the police.

LIMITED SUCCESS

The government’s decision in 2020 to withdraw from UNHRC Resolution 30/1 and from the internationally mandated reconciliation process that it mandated initially led some government agencies to take a particularly hostile position vis a vis civil society organisations that are involved in peace, human rights and governance work rather than in economic development work. They were portrayed as being anti-national and their work was openly criticised in public gatherings summoned by them. Efforts by NGOs to engage with the government or to even obtain meetings with them were rebuffed or ignored. The Covid pandemic, however, presented a window of opportunity which the CSO Collective for Covid Relief utilised to engage with the government and obtain its facilitation for the provision of humanitarian relief.

The looming catastrophe of a withdrawal of GSP Plus tariff privileges by the European Union has provided another opportunity for engagement with the government by civil society organisations. The government needs to demonstrate its commitment to human rights, and one of these is to facilitate the work of civil society. The grant of the GSP Plus tariff privilege is dependent solely on the government’s fulfilling of its human rights obligations. Sri Lanka lost the GSP Plus once before in 2010 under similar circumstances. The EU identified significant shortcomings in respect of Sri Lanka’s implementation of three UN human rights conventions relevant for benefits under the scheme and imposed a temporary suspension which lasted seven years. The economic and social cost of losing this benefit was high as it led to hundreds of factories and businesses having to close down putting tens of thousands out of jobs. At the present juncture with the Covid pandemic wrecking the economy it is incumbent upon the government to do its utmost to save the GSP Plus.

In its 13-page report to the UN Human Rights Commissioner the government has mentioned that “For decades civil society has been an important partner for Sri Lanka’s progress in matters related to social and human development as well as human rights issues. We have maintained an active interaction with civil society on our international human rights reporting obligations. In further, the President has held a consultation with a broad range of civil society (Sri Lankan Collective for Consensus) on 3 August 2021 and received their concerns with regard to ongoing issues.” In the past two months, this same group has met with several high ranking members of the government. At each of these meetings they have presented the issues that they see as standing in the way of national reconciliation. The problem with the government’s presentation of its relationship with civil society is that the issues they present need resolution and implementation on the ground or at least a start being made to implement them.

HIGH STAKES

The issues that the SLCC brought to the attention of the government include the misuse of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the postponement of provincial council elections for more than three years, the continuing anguish of families of missing persons from the war days, the harassment and surveillance of NGOs and the targeting of minorities for unfavourable treatment. The willingness of the government leaders to accept the memorandums that were submitted to them and to listen to the critiques of their conduct is a new phenomenon. It suggests a change of approach if not of heart. However, there is presently a great deal of skepticism within civil society of the genuineness of the government’s dialogue with the SLCC and the prospects of the changes sought being made manifest on the ground.

At their last meeting with Foreign Minister Prof G L Peiris, the members of the SLCC group brought up the issue of regressive actions on the ground. These include continuing detentions under the PTA even though the government has pledged to bring this law into conformity with international standards. But this has not allayed concerns that the present engagement with individuals from civil society will undermine the efforts to hold the government accountable. It is feared that this is merely a government strategy to get off the hook at a time when the international community is getting ready to act against the government with a heavy hand. Whether such punitive action by the international community will serve any positive purpose is open to question.

The price of civil society engagement with the government can be high. There is the possibility of retaliation if the process of engagement should break down. So far the civil society engagement with the government has been based on the premise that these are the first steps in a sincere attempt at a mutual search for reconciliation. This will be borne out by the real changes that take place on the ground. Those in civil society who engage with the government do so recognising that the government has the democratic legitimacy that comes from having won elections. It also has a sufficient majority in Parliament to take the country on a path to inter-community justice and reconciliation that has long eluded the country. This is the latest opportunity in a string of lost opportunities. Civil society cannot give up trying to get the government do what it should, like the task that Sisyphus, of pushing the boulder up the mountain with the hope that this time he will succeed.



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Dangerous rail travel by tourists: Why not create an opportunity?

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Coiling Dragon Cliff skywalk, Zhangjiajie, China

Before the Covid Pandemic hit Sri Lanka, there was some debate and concern voiced about tourists standing at the door ways of trains and even hanging out, while the train is moving. Some pictures of a young couple hanging out of an upcountry train, while clutching on to the side rails, went viral, on social media, with debates of the ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ reaching fever pitch. While certainly this is a dangerous practice, not to be condoned, If we ‘think out of the box’ could there be a way to make this seemingly popular, though dangerous pastime among some tourists, into an opportunity to be exploited. This paper aims to explore these options pragmatically.

By Srilal Miththapala

Social media, and even some of the more conventional media, were all a-buzz before the CoVid crisis, when some pictures of a young tourist couple appeared, hanging out of a Sri Lankan upcountry train in gay abandon, savouring the exciting moment. There were hot debates about this form of ‘promotion of Sri Lanka’, with many people talking about the dangers of such a practice, and that it would bring negative publicity for Sri Lanka if something dangerous were to happen. This part of the train ride, along the upcountry route, is arguably one of the most scenic train routes in the world.

And quite rightly so, I guess. I myself was one who joined the chorus who vehemently spoke against this.

However thinking out of the box, I got thinking – Can we create an opportunity here ?

The ‘new’, experience and thrill seeking tourist of today

There is no doubt that there is a new segment of discerning, younger, experience and adventure seeking tourists, emerging and travelling all over the world. They are very internet and social media savvy, seeking more adventurous and exciting experiences, and are usually very environmentally conscious. They are most often seen exploring ‘off-the-beaten-track’ holidays, planned out individually according to their needs and wants.

Through the ages, mankind has been pushing the limits of exploration: We have conquered land, sea and space. We have discovered many hitherto unknown wonders of our planet with our unabated thirst for knowledge.

Tourists are no different. To get away from their daily stressful life, they seek something different, even venturing into hostile or dangerous places to experience the excitement of discovery and the feeling of adventure. No longer is a clean hotel room with a range of facilities, good food and some sunshine good enough to a tourist.

According to booking.com, the yearning for experiences, over material possessions, continues to drive travellers’ desire for more incredible and memorable trips: 45% of travellers have a bucket list in mind. Most likely to appear on a bucket list are thrill seekers wanting to visit a world famous theme park, travellers looking to go on an epic rail journey or visiting a remote or challenging location. ()

Drive-reduction theory in psychology postulates that one is never in a state of complete fulfilment, and thus, there are always drives that need to be satisfied. Humans and other animals voluntarily increase tension by exploring their unknown environments, self-inducing stress and moving out of their comfort zones. This gives them a sense of achievement and self-satisfaction. ()

Therefore, unknown thrills, adventures and the ‘adrenaline rush’ does attract travellers.

What have other countries done ?

As mentioned many countries are developing unique , memorable and thrilling experiences into their product offering.

A few are described below

Walk along Sydney Harbour Bridge

Walk along Sydney Harbour Bridge

Small groups are taken on a walk along the massive, arched steel structured Sydney Harbour Bridge . The dramatic 360 deg. view from the bridge, 135 meters above ground, of the harbour, and the nearby Sydney Opera house, while being completely exposed to the elements, is, indeed, a rare and thrilling experience.

Coiling Dragon Cliff skywalk, Zhangjiajie, China

In the northwest of China’s Hunan province, visitors can take a leisurely stroll along the walkway attached to Tianmen Mountain — 4,700 feet above the ground.

The glass-bottomed walkway is more than 300 feet long and only about five feet wide, providing an experience that is said to be exhilarating and frightening .

The CN tower Edge walk, Canada

The tallest attraction in Toronto lets people stand right at the edge of the CN tower and lean over. It is the world’s highest full circle, hands-free walk on a 1.5 m wide ledge encircling the top of the Tower’s main pod, 356m , 116 storeys above the ground. EdgeWalk is a Canadian Signature Experience and an Ontario Signature Experience.

A variety of unique trekking opportunities, in Rwanda and Uganda, allow you trek into the jungle to gaze into the eyes of the Gorillas in their natural habitat. It’s a completely unique African safari experience. This moment leaves a lasting and unforgettable impression, coming so close to this majestic wild animal.

These are just a few. So there are already a range of unique, visitor attractions that thrill tourists the world over.

The CN tower Edge walk, Canada

Safety – the one overriding condition

All these thrill seeking, and seemingly dangerous tourist attractions have one common denominator that is never ever compromised – Safety.

Safety is of paramount importance in all these activities and are subject to stringent checks and review, periodically. All personnel who guide and instruct these thrill seeking tourists are well trained and disciplined.

Any equipment that is used for safety, such as harnesses and safety belts, are designed to the highest standards and are periodically tested. Nothing is left to chance and if there is the slightest semblance of danger, due to any unforeseen environmental conditions, the attraction is closed down temporarily. ( e.g when there are strong winds the Sydney Harbour bridge walk is suspended).

Such safety measures are an imperative necessity, because any unforeseen accident can lead to serious and grave consequences of litigation and even closing down of the attraction.

Suggested railings

So what about our train ride ?

The attraction of the Sri Lankan upcountry train ride (most often between Nanu Oya and Ella – the most scenic section) is the fact that a tourist can stand ‘on the footboard’ of the open train carriageway door, and feel the cool breeze against their faces while absorbing the beautiful hill country and tea plantations. This is something most western tourists cannot do back home, where all train carriageway doors are automatically shut when the train starts moving.

In fact I am told that some Tour Agents in Australia are specifically asked by tourists to arrange this ‘experience’ for them, when booking their tour.

So why not be creative and make a proper attraction out of this ?

Cannot we modify one carriage to have an open ‘balcony’ along the side where a person can stand ‘outside’ and ‘feel the open environment’? It could be fitted with proper safety rails and each person can be anchored to the carriage with a harness (like what is used in other attractions where the interaction is open to the elements). A special charge can be levied for this experience.

One factor that favours the safety aspect is that during traversing this stretch, due to the steep gradient, the train travels at a ‘snail’s pace’, unlike in foreign countries where speeds could reach 80-100 kms per hour.

This attraction could be used as an income generator for the Railway Department as tourists wanting to experience this ‘thrill’ can be charged a fee, for a specific time period that they could use the facility.

Conclusion

Although this may seem simplistic, in reality there may be several logistical issues that need to be addressed.

But, if there is a will, and the different departments involved can all see the opportunity, and get on to the same ‘wavelength’, cutting through the inordinate bureaucracy that usually prevails, then surely it would not be at all difficult.

But the overall point in this entire treatise, is that we have to ‘think out of the box’ and grasp at all possible opportunities that are available, especially as we gradually open up for tourists after the pandemic. We are quite used to ranting and raving about all the shortfalls that prevail.. But there’s so much that still can be done if there are a few motivated and dedicated people who can get together.

Tourism after all is really ‘show businesses’ and without creativity, panache, actors and showmanship, what is show business?

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Remebering Prophet Muhammad’s legacy – ECOLOGICAL WELFARE

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By Dr M Haris Deen

COVID-19 came and as yet remains, at the same time the world is plagued with another serious issue, that of global warming and other ecological disturbances. While remembering the birth of Prophet Muhammad (Peace and Blessings of Allah be upon him) let us recall the contributions he made towards the applying Islamic principles of Islamic welfare towards protection of the environment.

The Prophet of Islam (May peace be upon him) advocated during his lifetime the stringent application of Islamic principles in respect of ecological welfare. Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him) taught his followers to live on less, neither to be extravagant nor to be miserly and to protect animal and plant life and to worship the Creator by being merciful to His creations. He forbade the killing of any animal unless out of necessity to feed the people. Al Albani reports that the Prophet (on whom be peace) said “If the Hou r (meaning the day of Resurrection) is about to be established and one of you was holding a palm shoot, let him take advantage of even one second before the Hour is established to plant it”. Imam Bukhari reported the Prophet (Peace be on him) as having said that “if a Muslim plants a tree or sows seeds, and then a bird, or a person or an animal eats from it, it is regarded as a charitable gift (sadaqah) for him”. It is also reported in Ibn Majah that once the Prophet (peace be upon him) happened to pass by his companion Sa’ad (May God be pleased with him) and found him performing ablution (wudu) next to a river and questioned him “Sa;ad what is this squandering? And when Sa’ad asked in return “can there be an idea if squandering (israf) in ablution?’ the Prophet replied “yes, even if you are by the side of a flowing river”.

In another Hadith narrated by Ibn Majah, the Prophet (on whom be peace) said “Beware of the three acts that cause you to be cursed: (1) relieving yourself in shaded places (that people utilise), in a walkway or in a watering place”.

The Qur’an in chapter 56 verses 68 to 70 states “consider the water which you drink. Was it you that brought it down from the rain cloud or We? If We had pleased, We could make it bitter”.

Prophet’s companion Abu Dhar Al Ghaffari (May Allah be pleased with him) reported the Prophet (on whom be peace) said “Removing harmful things from the road is an act of charity” and in another Hadith authenticated by Albani, the Prophet (on whom be peace) said “the believer is not he who eats his fill while his neighbour is hungry”. The Prophet further cautioned as reported by Tirmadhi and Ibn Majah that “Nothing is worst than a person who fills his stomach. It should be enough for the son of Adam to have a few bites to satisfy his hunger. If he wishes more, it should be : one third for his food, one third for his liquids and one third for his breath”.

Imam Bukhari reported an amazing story narrated by the Prophet (on whom be peace) that “A man felt very thirsty while he was on the way, there he came across a well. He went down the well, quenched his thirst and came out. Meanwhile, he saw a dog panting and licking mud because of excessive thirst. He said to himself. “This dog is suffering from thirst as I did, “So, he went down the well again, filled his shoe with water, held it in his mouth and watered the dog. Allah appreciated him for that deed and forgave him”. The companions inquired, “O Allah’s Messenger, is there a reward for us in serving the animals?” He replied: “There is a reward for saving any living being”.

Animals have a huge role in the ecological welfare system. The tenets of the Shariah Law towards animal rights make it obligatory for any individual to take care of crippled animals, to rescue strays and to guard birds’ nests of eggs’.

Sal Allahu Ala Muhammad Sal Allahu Alaihi wa Sallam. May Allah Shower His Choicest Blessings on the Soul of Prophet Muhammad.

Email: deenmohamed835@gmail.com

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Gypsies…to continue

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The original Gypsies, with Sunil (centre)

Of course, I know for sure fans of the Gypsies, and music lovers, in general, not only in Sri Lanka but around the world, as well, would be thrilled to know that this awesome outfit hasn’t called it a day.

After the demise of the legendary Sunil Perera, everyone thought that the Gypsies would disband.

Perhaps that would have been in the minds of even the members, themselves, as Sunil was not only their leader, and frontline vocalist, but also an icon in the music scene – he was special in every way.

Many, if not all, thought that the Gypsies, without Sunil, would find the going tough and that is because they all associated the Gypsies with Sunil Perera.

Sunil receiving The Island Music Award for ‘Showbiz Personality of the Year’ 1990

It generally happens, with certain outfits, where the rest of the members go unnoticed and the spotlight is only on one particular member – the leader of the group.

Some of the names that come to mind are Gabo and The Breakaways (Gabo) Misty (Rajitha), Darktan (Alston Koch), Upekkha (Manilal), Jetliners (Mignonne), Sohan & The X-Periments (Sohan), and the list is quite lengthy….

Yes, the Gypsies will continue, says Piyal Perera, and he mapped out to us what he has in mind.

They will take on a new look, he said, adding that in no way would they try to recreate the era of the Gypsies with Sunil Perera..

“That era is completely gone and we will never ever look to bringing that era into our scene again.

“My brother was a very special individual and his place in the band can never ever be replaced.”

Will Sunil join this scene…at Madame Tussauds!

Piyal went to say that the Gypsies will return to the showbiz scene, in a different setting.

“In all probability, we may have a female vocalist, in the vocal spotlight, and our repertoire will not be the songs generally associated with Sunil and the Gypsies.

“It will be a totally new approach by the new look Gypsies,” said Piyal.

In the meanwhile, Piyal also mentioned that they are working on the possibility of having an image of the late Sunil Perera at the Madame Tussauds wax museum, in London.

He says they have been asked, by the authorities concerned, to submit a PowerPoint presentation of Sunil’s achievements, and that they are working on it.

It’s, indeed, a wonderful way to keep Sunil’s image alive.

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