By Neville Ladduwahetty
Resolution A/HRC/46/L.Rev.1 dated 16 March 2021 has been adopted by the UN Human Rights Council based on procedures and practices adopted by Committees of the General Assembly. Of the 47 Members in the Council, 22 Member States cast an affirmative vote, 11 members opposed it, and 14 abstained. The procedure adopted does not recognize the number of votes that abstained. Therefore, adoption of the Resolution was based on 22 affirmative votes, which is less than half the 47-members in the Council. This outcome should be a cause to fault the Council for adopting a procedure that permits a Resolution to be adopted even when more than half of its members decided not to support it for whatever reason.
However, other agencies of the UN adopt other procedures. For instance, the 15-member Security Council requires nine affirmative votes for a decision to be adopted. Others who see a moral obligation to the institution they represent require half plus one for a decision to be adopted. Simple majorities in most Parliaments require half plus one of its elected members for a Bill to become Law. Therefore, there is nothing comical if perceived from another perspective, that the resolution did not secure a majority of the 47 Member Human Rights Council and furthermore, that 25 Members did not affirmatively support the Resolution. The lesson, in particular for the Human Rights Council, is that the basis for adopting a Resolution should be revisited, because the current practice allows Resolutions to be adopted by less than half the number in the Council. This is not good enough a threshold for a UN institution as vital as the Human Rights Council where much is at stake for all States.
Notwithstanding all of the above, the hard reality is that the Resolution was adopted. Another hard reality that is of serious consequence is that the adoption of the Resolution comes at a great cost to the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter. In fact, having stated at the very outset that the Resolution is “Guided by the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations …” the Resolution goes on to violate Article 1(2) and Article 2(7) of the Charter. In addition, it recalls co-sponsored Resolutions of 2015, 2017, and 2019, despite withdrawal from co-sponsorship because they violate Sri Lanka’s Constitution; a right granted under the Vienna Convention and furthermore, violates the mandate granted to the Human Rights Council under General Assembly Resolution 60/251. Under these circumstances, such a flawed Resolution should not be adopted, particularly with votes less than half the membership in the Council.
Article 1(2) states: “To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect of the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples…”. AND Article 2(7) states: “Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state…”.
Article 1(2): Right of Self-Determination
The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights AND the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights state in Article 1 of their respective Covenants:
“All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development”.
In view of the people’s right to freely determine its political status, the Resolution of the Core-Group states: “…to ensure that all provincial councils, including the northern and eastern provincial councils, are able to operate effectively, in accordance with the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka” (Preamble to the Resolution)
COMMENT: This is a violation of the right of self-determination of a people to freely administer and govern themselves because it binds the people of Sri Lanka to a particular form of internal Government, and denies them the opportunity to self-determine a form of Local Government that best serves them. Therefore. this provision amounts to a denial of the fundamental freedom of a Peoples to govern themselves under a form of Government of their choosing. For the Human Rights Council to impose restrictions on how a Member State should govern itself is a denial of their fundamental right to self-determination.
The Preamble states: “Noting the enactment of the twentieth amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka, while stressing the importance of democratic governance and independent oversight of key institutions”.
COMMENT: The need to remind the people of Sri Lanka the “importance of democratic governance and oversight key institutions” is an insult in view of the fact that the amendment is a product the people of Sri Lanka have determined in keeping with their right of self-determination. Furthermore, Sri Lanka is not the only country to function under a Presidential system of government under provisions of separation of power and the internal arrangements in each are different as they are with the systems of governance in each state that supported the Resolution. Under the circumstances, the need to draw special attention to arrangements in Sri Lanka is a slur on what Sri Lanka has rightfully determined for itself.
It is indeed comical for the U.K. as the sponsor of the Resolution to “stress the importance of democratic governance”, when three-fourths (¾) of U.K. Parliament was for staying in the European Union whereas the majority of the people of U.K. wanted to leave the EU, thus laying bare the U.K.’s deficit in democratic governance.
Article 2(7): Domestic Jurisdiction
Section 2 of the Resolution states: “…implement the recommendations made by the Office and to give due consideration to the recommendations made by the special procedures ….”
Section 7 of the Resolution ‘expresses serious concern at the trends emerging over the past year, which represent a clear early warning sign of a deteriorating situation of human rights in Sri Lanka, including the accelerating militarization of civilian government functions; the erosion of the independence of the judiciary and key institutions; ongoing impunity and political obstruction; policies that adversely affect the right to freedom of religion or belief; increased marginalization of persons belonging to the Tamil and Muslim communities; surveillance and intimidation of civil society; restrictions on media; freedom, and shrinking democratic space; arbitrary detentions; alleged torture and sexual and gender-based violence’.
COMMENT: Section 7 of the Resolution is influenced by the Report of the Office of the High Commissioner. It contains comments and observations that violate provisions of Article 2(7) of the UN Charter in respect of issues that are “essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state” cited above.
Unlike under normal circumstances, the literal interpretation of Article 2(7) that prohibits UN from intervening in issues domestic as enunciated by Professor Kelsen and others of similar view, is justified under the extremely extraordinary background that Sri Lanka and the rest of mankind had to face due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This view was underscored by the UN when it decided NOT to intervene in issues domestic relating to how member states coped with the COVI-19 pandemic. What the Resolution addressed instead was the situation that prevailed in Sri Lanka in the background of a terrorist attack by Muslim extremists in 2019, and the measures adopted to cope with the pandemic in the absence of international guidelines that the UN should have spearheaded.
The extraordinary circumstances referred to above started with a new President being elected in November 2019. A bare two months later, starting January 2020, Sri Lanka encountered its first COVID-19 patient. Until August 2020 when a new Parliament was elected, it was the Executive that had to deal with the unprecedented challenges of COVID-19 pandemic.
In fact, most countries were at a loss as to what strategies to adopt to deal with the pandemic. Furthermore, a fact that should not be overlooked is that during the period of review by the Council, the Legislative and Executive Branches of the government in Sri Lanka had existed only for four months.
At the end of the day, governments have to make hard choices. In the background of a raging pandemic the choice is whether to implement strict controls by deploying personnel known for their ability to ensure strict adherence to health guidelines, or to relax them. Those countries that have decided to leave it to individuals as a matter of individual choice have experienced far more deaths than countries such as Sri Lanka that decided otherwise. Are they guilty of fratricide? To fault elected representatives for the choices they made in the fulfillment of their responsibilities to their people, is to place individual choice at a premium over state-initiated guidelines to contain a global crisis. Not to recognize the positive results in terms of lives saved because of the measures adopted by the government is not to recognize the most fundamental of all human rights which is right to life.
The impression conveyed upon perusing the list of societal shortcomings cited in Section 7 is that they are unique to Sri Lanka. On the other hand, over the span of one year there would be instances of societal shortcomings similar to those cited in Section 7, in every country. For instance, in other countries too, policies exist that affect freedom of religion or belief; marginalization of persons or groups; restrictions on media freedom; shrinking democratic space; sexual and gender-based violence etc. Such shortcomings exist, albeit to different degrees, in all of the 22 countries that supported the Resolution despite the existence of independent institutions, or how liberal and democratic their policies are. Therefore, what is so special or unique about Sri Lanka for it to deserve special attention?
Mandate of the Human Rights Council
Section 6 of the Resolution states: “Recognizes the importance of preserving and analyzing evidence relating to violations and abuses of human rights and related crimes in Sri Lanka…and to develop possible strategies for future accountability processes for gross violations of human rights or serious violations of international humanitarian law…and to support relevant judicial proceedings in Member States with competent jurisdiction”.
COMMENT: The Human Rights Council has NO MANDATE nor the COMPETENCE to collect evidence relating to international humanitarian law or to support judicial proceedings in Member States. The Council is expected to function within the mandate stated in UN Resolution 60/251. The relevant provisions are:
3. Decides also that the Council should address situations of violations of human rights, including gross and systematic violations, and make recommendations thereon. It should also promote the effective coordination and the mainstreaming of human rights within the United Nations system;
4. Decides further that the work of the Council shall be guided by the principles of universality, impartiality, objectivity and non-selectivity, constructive international dialogue and cooperation, with a view to enhancing the promotion and protection of all human rights, civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to development…”.
The mandate of the Council does not authorize it to share its findings with other Member states for them to engage in judicial proceedings because it violates the “principle of equal sovereignty” (Article 1(1) of the Charter. If they do, what about the evidence sequestered for thirty years? Instead, what the Council is supposed to do, is to make recommendations to the states concerned. By focusing on Sri Lanka, the Council is being selective, thus violating the principles it is supposed to follow as stated in Paragraph 4 cited above.
A fact that should be borne in mind is that no investigations that could lead to a prosecution would be possible, using any evidence gathered for the purpose of future accountability exercises because access to victims and witnesses would not be possible due to Paragraph 25 of the OISL Report relating to confidentiality in the OISL Report.
Resolution A/HRC/46/L.Rev.1 dated 16 March 2021 has been adopted by the UN Human Rights Council based on the procedures and practices adopted by Committees of the General Assembly. Since the procedure adopted does not take into account the 14 abstained votes, the 22 members who supported the resolution prevailed over the 11 that opposed. Consequently, the procedure adopted enabled the Council to adopt the Resolutions based on votes that were less than half of the 47-member Council.
While the procedure adopted by the Council is acceptable for Committees of the General Assembly, the Human Rights Council is in a league by itself. Since its decisions impact on nearly every aspect of human life, the procedures and practices it adopts should be unique and stand alone. Another Council of similar standing is the Security Council. The procedure adopted by them is that out of its fifteen members at least nine should vote affirmatively for a decision to be adopted. Democratic Parliaments require half plus one of its members for a Bill or decision to have any legitimacy. Therefore, Sri Lanka should take the initiative to table a Resolution in the General Assembly calling on the Human Rights Council to take a fresh approach in the adoption of Resolutions. The outcome of such an approach should as a minimum be that even if the abstaining votes are not recognized, no Resolution should be adopted without half plus one of its members casting an affirmative vote for it to have any legitimacy i.e., more than 24 affirmative votes.
Having stated at the very outset that the resolution is “Guided by the purposes and principles of the Charter”, the Resolution goes on to violate Article 1(2) and 2(7) of the Charter, right of a State to withdraw from an undertaking if it is in conflict with the “internal law of fundamental importance” to the State based on a right granted under Article 46 of the Vienna Convention, and violates the mandate granted to the Human Rights Council. If a Resolution violates the stated purposes and principles of the UN Charter, the General Assembly should take note and declare such a Resolution unadoptable.
The call on the Sri Lankan government to hold Provincial Council elections and to ensure that all Provincial Councils operate effectively in accordance with the 13th Amendment is a violation of Article 1(2) because it denies the right of self-determination to institute local government arrangements that suit them best and to bind the people of Sri Lanka to internal arrangements of governance set by external entities.
Article 2(7) does not “authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state…”. In keeping with this provision the UN did NOT intervene in the decisions taken by member states to handle the enormous challenges arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. Having stayed in the sidelines they have decided to single out Sri Lanka to document what the Council determines as shortcomings in the manner Sri Lanka coped with the crisis presented by the COVI-19 pandemic in a background of a Muslim terrorist attack that denied the fundamental right to life of hundreds.
The resolution is not binding on Sri Lanka. Furthermore, as stated above it violates certain provisions of the UN Charter and holds Sri Lanka to commitments it withdrew from on legitimate grounds. What Sri Lanka could do is table a Resolution in the General Assembly highlighting the issues at stake and seek redress. In addition, such a Resolution should propose a revision on the lines suggested above to the procedures adopted by the Human Rights Council in respect of how it decides to adopt Resolutions since current procedures are totally inappropriate for an all-important institution as the Human Rights Council.
Isn’t cleansing hearts a political issue?
In his policy statement during the inauguration of the 5th session of the 9th parliament, President Ranil Wickremesinghe insists that the solution to the economic crisis lies in economic and scientific measures, not political ones. However, he draws inspiration from Confucius and urges citizens to introspect and cleanse their hearts, which can be seen as a political measure beyond being framed as moral or ethical. In the meantime, he has asserted that his government has achieved a significant transformation and provided a concise progress report, highlighting the remarkable recovery of the economy. President Wickremesinghe has emphasised that the economy, once in dire straits and requiring intensive care, has successfully emerged from its critical condition, exhibiting a robust V-shaped recovery. (See Table 1)
President Wickremesinghe claimed that this record-breaking breakthrough achievement in a brief span is truly a world record; he compared similar situations such as Greece, which took almost a decade to recover. Refuting allegations that he is engaging in secret agreements to conceal the true situation from the public, he has emphasised that every step taken was transparent, offering opportunities for discussion and debate both within and outside Parliament, with nothing hidden. The accuracy of this statement has to be verified by the concerned parties.
Going by confidence that people will eventually recognise and appreciate his decision-making, driven by the country’s growth rather than political gain, the President does not seem to have learnt from the defeat he experienced in the past including the last presidential election. Despite implementing relatively better governance with initiatives like increasing tax revenue and anti-corruption measures, the electorate prioritised different concerns, such as the “inna ratak” outcry. Consequently, they not only failed to acknowledge or appreciate these efforts but rejected the regime altogether, leading to the election of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa in 2019.
The President appears aware of the risk of truth manipulation, deceiving both the nation and its people, yet he seems to take insufficient action to effectively prevent such occurrences.
Facing opposition from major media institutions, the President should proactively direct his media unit to implement a robust awareness program. Relying solely on the passage of time for people to become aware of his administration’s achievements is not sufficient. To effectively communicate the positive initiatives, the President and his government must engage in proactive efforts to counter the negative narrative. Failing to take assertive action may lead to a repetition of mistakes, as people are less likely to recognise and appreciate the purported “good” work without an active and strategic communication strategy.
· Recognition from international institutions.
· “Urumaya” program for land rights to over two million people.
· “Asvasuma” program improving living standards for 2.4 million poor individuals.
· 130% increase in tax network (from 437,547 to 1,000,029 registered taxpayers).
· Successful debt restructuring.
· Establishment of an economic commission.
· Eradication of corruption.
· Simplification of the investment process by eliminating bureaucratic hurdles and corruption risks.
· Social modernization.
· Target of attracting 5 million tourists annually.
· Emphasis on technological advancement, renewable energy, and establishing the International Climate Change University in Sri Lanka.
· Increase productivity of agricultural land in the dry zone (double or triple).
· Restructuring of foreign relations with non-aligned policies.
· Pursuit of free trade agreements with China, Bangladesh, and Indonesia (Singapore agreement already in full operation).
· Intent to join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).
· Diversification of economic activities away from the Western Province to cities like Jaffna, Trincomalee, Bingiriya, Hambantota, and Kandy.
· Plan to complete over 50,000 houses for low-income urban residents.
· Positioning the country as a service center and economic hub in the Indian Ocean by developing three new ports.
· Collaboration with India to develop Trincomalee as an economic hub.
Some of these objectives appear contradictory and need clarification. For instance, the goal of constructing 50,000 houses in urban areas, mainly in Colombo, seems to contradict the broader plan of expanding activities away from the Western Province. Additionally, there is a seeming contradiction in developing Trincomalee as an economic hub while simultaneously positioning the entire country as a service centre and an economic hub in the Indian Ocean.
The President has said that merely condemning and blaming the crisis without delving into its root causes is ineffective. However, this stance apparently runs counter to his plans for eradicating corruption and promoting social modernisation. The question is how he can conclude that addressing the economic crisis is solely dependent on economic solutions, and dismiss the relevance of political remedies. Many analysts argue that a political solution is primary, with economic solutions being secondary. Historical observations indicate that political changes, such as a regime change, precede the implementation of economic solutions by new political leaders. Without political change, the emergence of these economic solutions is challenging, if not impossible. These statements raise concerns about the possibility of individuals responsible for the crisis being absolved, despite the Supreme Court’s determination and punishment of those accountable and identification of root causes.
He has acknowledged the importance of addressing these issues but has not explicitly deemed them necessary. Perhaps, his emphasis on these matters is an attempt to garner support from the SLPP for his presidential campaign. However, it is crucial to note that he repeatedly emphasises the need to address root causes and hold those responsible accountable.
Finally, the President poses a series of questions: Why is it challenging to embrace an open perspective? Despite our diverse ideas, ethnic backgrounds, languages, provincial residencies, faiths, beliefs, and political affiliations, why can’t we unite in a shared vision for the country’s well-being and the future? Why can’t we collectively understand the benefits for our nation’s youth and join hands to reach great heights? The answers, for many, are not ambiguous. The rise to power by ultra-nationalists and corrupt politicians is often facilitated by divisive tactics. Many politicians faced imminent convictions, and without regime change, including Gotabaya Rajapaksa, several could have ended up in jail. We clearly witnessed manipulation of emotions to set different communities against each other as a route to political power. To counter such tactics, he should advocate for the implementation of strong laws and systems to prevent the propagation of manipulation through mass media.
In conclusion, vital statistics illustrate a remarkable turnaround in key economic indicators, signaling progress under his administration. However, certain contradictions and concerns arise, particularly regarding the alignment of various objectives and the perceived emphasis on economic solutions over political remedies.
The President’s call for heart cleansing and unity, inspired by Confucian principles, highlights the importance of fostering a shared vision for the nation’s well-being. Despite the accomplishments outlined, challenges remain in navigating political complexities, addressing root causes, and maintaining transparency to win public trust.
The proposed initiatives, including eradicating corruption, social modernization, and economic diversification, reflect the administration’s ambitious agenda. However, the potential contradictions warrant clarification.
The assertion that the economic crisis resolution lies predominantly in economic and scientific solutions contradicts the notion that political remedies are secondary. Analysts argue for a holistic approach where political and economic solutions complement each other, emphasizing the need for effective governance and accountability.
The President’s reluctance to name the people, who are responsible for the crisis, raises concerns. This ambiguity may stem from political considerations or an attempt to garner support from the SLPP.
The reference to manipulation of emotions for political gain highlights the need for strong laws and systems to counter divisive tactics through mass media.
Hence, the President should address the underlying political forces that contribute to the root causes of the crisis. Cleansing hearts is not an economic solution; it is fundamentally a political issue.
(The writer, a senior Chartered Accountant and professional banker, is Professor at SLIIT University, Malabe. He is also the author of the “Doing Social Research and Publishing Results”, a Springer publication (Singapore), and “Samaja Gaveshakaya (in Sinhala). The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the institution he works for. He can be contacted at email@example.com and www.researcher.com)
President needs to take up challenge of leaving a legacy
By Jehan Perera
Even as the date for the presidential elections approaches, there are increased speculations regarding those elections, not only who might win but also whether those elections will be held at all. There is also a debate being generated whether the presidential elections ought to be held at all. There are many who feel that President Ranil Wickremesinghe needs to be given more time to take the country to development. United States Assistant Secretary of State for South & Central Asian Affairs, Donald Lu, might be one such. He has described Sri Lanka’s economic recovery as one of the greatest comeback stories in the part of the world he deals with. On the other hand, there are others who argue in favour of abolishing the presidency as soon as possible. This would also do away with the need for a presidential election to be held.
There is indeed a strong case for the abolishing of the presidency which is generally believed in the country to be an institution that is over-powerful and prone to abuse by those who are elected to it. This argument has been made into an election campaign theme by some of the past presidential candidates at past presidential elections. But after they won the elections those who promised to abolish the presidency failed to do so, and instead made strenuous efforts to stay on as long as they could, which explains why the presidency continues to this day. There being little faith that those who win the presidency will wish to abolish it, there is an opinion being formed that the presidency should be abolished before the presidential elections. The fact that the presidential form of government led the country to economic disaster is another reason for the hurry. There is, however, a question as to the practicability of this proposition.
The present system of government is called the executive presidential system on account of the central role in the constitution given to the presidency. It can be imagined that cutting out this central institution will be like a fatal wound caused to the prevailing structure of governance. It may be argued that through skillful constitutional engineering that the hole caused by the excision of the presidency can be filled. But the speed at which these reforms can be enacted is questionable in the absence of a political consensus that includes both government and opposition on the issue which is presently not to be seen. If there is to be an abolition of the executive presidency, it is very necessary for there to be consultation with the population and political parties about the new system that will replace the executive presidency. It must be one that meets the expectations and aspirations of the ethnic and religious minorities as well. There is no such consensus at the present time.
There have been deliberations on a new constitution and on constitutional reform on many occasions. However, constitutional schemes from the past cannot substitute for the need to consult people and political parties at this time, when circumstances have changed so drastically, having experienced the Aragayala protests and economic bankruptcy. There is also need for recognition that where there is no consensus, as on the solution to the ethnic conflict and the inclusion of ethnic and religious minorities into governance, change proceeds painfully slowly. This can be seen in the change of the electoral system to the provincial councils that commenced in 2017 and has still not been completed with the result that provincial council elections are overdue five years. It is also noteworthy that 36 years after being made part of the constitution, the provincial councils are in abeyance and there is a proposal pending to eliminate their police powers which, in any event, was never implemented. Fast tracking constitutional change does not seem to be an option especially when all eyes are focused on elections.
Public opinion polls are repeatedly showing that the opposition candidates are ahead in the presidential race by significant margins. If these poll results are anywhere close to reality it can be surmised that the vast majority of people are looking for an election. They would see that it is an election more than anything else that could dislodge the government which is entrenched in power under the leadership of President Wickremesinghe. Two years ago the weakness of the government was such that its leading members dared not come into the public as they feared the wrath of the mob. Some even faced heckling at weddings where people who had come for the happy occasion started hooting those whom they accused of bankrupting the country. Now they are able to attend public functions without fear and with reasonable confidence that their security personnel can handle any eventuality.
The prospect of losing power is never a pleasing one to political leaders with their sights on power. Even advanced countries such as the United States have faced this situation. At the presidential election held in 2020, incumbent president Donald Trump refused to accept defeat and claimed the election was rigged. The desire of those in power in developing countries would be as strong, perhaps even stronger, as losing power could make the incumbent vulnerable to revenge in which the system of checks and balances fails to protect them. The prospect of facing an unknown future in the aftermath of electoral defeat would also be unnerving to those in government, especially if the new government is composed of those with a very different political ideology.
The present government is for the most part a continuation of the government that had to face down the protest movement in which tens of thousands of people from all parts of the country participated. During those halcyon days, protestors young and old from far and near came on foot, on motorcycles, tractor trailers and improvised lorries to be part of a historic revolution they thought was near. The vision of a “system change” that motivated them to make big sacrifices to come to the various protest sites still lives within them, as indeed it must within all who want to see Sri Lanka politically awaken and rise to its full economic potential which is still a distance away. The main beneficiaries of the elections to come will be those who best hold out the hope of system change that will eradicate corruption and ensure a fairer distribution of the costs of getting out of bankruptcy.
The opportunity to effect governmental change will come in October when the constitutionally mandated presidential election falls due. Those in the government would prefer if those elections do not take place or are postponed for as long as possible. In March 2022, the government ensured that local government elections were not held by denying the Election Commission the money to hold them. The government’s determination not to hold those elections was high. It even disregarded the Supreme Court order to make the money available to the Election Commission to conduct the elections. This was a highhanded act that undermines the principles of democracy itself. There is concern that the presidential election will similarly be postponed on some ground or the other.
However, on this occasion, the President’s media unit has stated that the presidential election will be held within the mandated period and according to the current timeline. It added that the general election will be held next year and financial provisions will be provided for in the 2025 budget. The government has also stated that the Election Commission is responsible for conducting the elections and the government will be communicating with the Commission as and when required. President Ranil Wickremesinghe has also reiterated to a group of MPs who met him recently that the presidential election would be held on time and there would be no abolition of the presidency. Speaking in a statesmanlike mode, the president said, “I have clearly stated several times that I have no intention to put off the presidential elections. Funds for that purpose are there. The talks about attempts to abolish the executive presidency were circulated by the main opposition.”
The president is also reported to have said that “People of this country know better than the opposition that the abolition of the executive presidency cannot be done in a hurry. There is a procedure to do that. We should not fall into their trap. Do not waste your time on this. You speak of the economic revival programme that we are carrying out.” Likewise, President Wickremesinghe can also seek to address the country’s most intractable problem, the ethnic conflict by ordering the full implementation of the 13th Amendment which would make it easier for the victor at the next election to find a mutually acceptable solution. Whether he succeeds or not he could feel contentment that he did what he had agreed and undertaken to do.
Silence in the classroom: Confronting the dynamics of ‘deficiency’
by Ruth Surenthiraraj
I remember, with unusually vivid clarity, the first time I really noticed the presence of silence in the classroom. One of the lecturers, who was taking our undergraduate class, had assigned us reading to be done ahead of time, parts of which were quite tedious and had to be read twice/thrice over to be grasped. In true happy-go-lucky undergrad spirit, my classmates and I turned up having ‘skimmed’ the articles and nurturing the fervent hope that someone else would pick up the discussion in the event that any questions were raised. As you would imagine, it went horribly wrong. The lecturer posed a question that required some thinking, and we suddenly and silently went into panic-mode in a bid to offer something akin to an answer. A few of us tried to start things off by giving noncommittal responses in the general direction of the question and were kindly asked to explain ourselves further – at which point we fell silent once more because we felt that we hadn’t thought things through. The lecturer, instead of berating us for not reading adequately or making us feel like we were bad students, simply invited us to embrace the silence so that we could get our thoughts in order.
In recalling this incident, I remember the strong sense of discomfort that we felt as learners. It wasn’t, however, something that stemmed from the lecturer or their handling of what must have been a frustrating situation. Instead, I now read that feeling as the acute discomfort of learners who had been trained to view silence in the classroom as something negative. That incident – apart from giving me impetus to never turn up to my classes without completing my assigned reading – also invited me to begin exploring the role of silence and its presence (or absence) in our undergraduate classrooms.
Although silence in teaching and learning is still fairly under-researched and is rarely a nuanced consideration in mainstream conversations around the dynamics of a classroom, there are still broad arguments that have attempted to imbue silence with meaning. For one, our multiple religious traditions seem to have strong tendencies towards silence as a form of retreat to assist deeper reflection even though these traditions often sit in direct contrast with current trends to be constantly producing and documenting aspects of life. Conversely, there is often a ‘culture of silence’ (much bemoaned by Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire) that surrounds those who are socially, economically, and culturally vulnerable – a way in which socialisation teaches people to not interrogate their realities. Linguistically speaking, silence often assists us in distinguishing speech units (i.e., the silence that marks a pause in or completion of an idea/thought), but it can be further categorised as playing various functions in establishing relationships between participants in conversations. The possibilities of interpreting silence are myriad.
In the classroom, however, I think we are often limited to viewing silence as a negative indicator. As educators working with undergraduates, we assume that learners’ silence signals a disinterestedness or a disengagement from the critical approaches that should ideally frame undergraduate classroom discussions. At an even more basic level, we often consider silence to signify a lack of knowledge and we then attempt to fill that assumed void with speech that appears to address this lack of knowledge. As a result, we educators often view silence as a thing to be disliked at best and dreaded at worst. But what could silence really mean in a classroom of learners attempting to engage with new knowledge?
Firstly, it is very likely that the learners in our classrooms are expressing a deep-seated, culturally taught fear: the fear of giving the ‘wrong’ response. Sad as it is, it is still common to find educators who berate students for giving unacceptable answers. Instead of engaging with why the answer might not best reflect the desired response, we often shut students down when they don’t meet our (sometimes undefined) expectations. We rarely realise in the moment, though, that learning is a process in which ‘mistakes’ are as important as so-called successes. In fact, mistakes and errors often pave the way for deeper understanding of how what works and why. When learners begin to internalise the message that they don’t know enough to answer, they will simply opt to remain silent despite having a working knowledge of a subject. On the contrary, our classrooms should be safe spaces for ‘stupid’ or partial answers that encourage the students to reflect on why those responses require more thought.
In a constructivist view, learners are not blank slates which we fill with information: rather, they are intellects with existing knowledge structures (schemas) which are formed based on their experiences in life. When these existing schemas meet new knowledge in the classroom, the learner is required to make some adjustments in order to accommodate the new knowledge. This accommodation requires time and the capacity to be reflective, which in turn enables a more integrated worldview. Indeed, if education is meant to be transformative, repeated opportunities to integrate new and existing knowledge structures must be offered to learners within our classrooms. In short, I believe silence could also indicate an unspoken request for space and time to contemplate the significance of new knowledge. Sometimes, we give our students too little time to fully turn ideas around in their heads before requiring them to respond to us. I’ve observed many good educators allowing their frustration at silence to compel answers from students – resulting in responses that might be superficial rather than actual reflections of learning. A better way to undercut our impatience with silence would be to invite learners to hash out their fledgling ideas among themselves before attempting to articulate a holistic and/or individual response. This preliminary discussion often assists in integrating new and existing knowledge in the relatively safer space of peer groups.
Over centuries, educators have also played directly into the problem of sanitising education – separating theories and practices from the contexts in which they originated or detaching them from the sociocultural impacts they may cause. In turn, learners gain an ‘education’ that is removed from its everyday consequences. This also makes it difficult for learners to assimilate such unrelatable concepts, leading to more awkward silences in our classrooms as they attempt to collect seemingly detached pieces of knowledge.
Finally, silence is further compounded in classrooms where students are expected to respond in their second languages. With increasingly more undergraduate study programmes opting to shift wholesale (and almost overnight, in some cases) to the English medium instruction, many more undergraduates are going to be struggling to articulate their thoughts in a language that is not part of their repertoire. Educators (especially those other than language teachers) must be doubly attentive to these unspoken difficulties when interpreting silence. There are a heartbreakingly large number of stories where perfectly articulate and knowledgeable students are deprived of their classes (not to mention jobs) simply because they have not mastered the art of the second language yet. In wrongly categorising such students as ‘below par’ or not having the requisite ‘skills’, we relegate them as incompetent rather than critique our own skewed standards. I have often admired a student in my class for her comfort with awkward pauses as she attempts to construct a sentence that accurately reflects her thoughts as well as ‘acceptable’ language structures. But this is also possible only because I have now taught myself to never rush learners as they navigate new knowledge in a language that they are not fully familiar with. As a teacher of English as a second language, the tendency is to jump in with the necessary vocabulary so that the silences/pauses cause minimal discomfort to the learner. Yet, how will our learners ever be comfortable with the pauses that are inherent to language use and language learning if we do not (want to) confront our own discomfort with silence?
Learner silence, therefore, could act as a signifier of multiple underlying processes and problems. I am not in any way suggesting that silence cannot be associated with a lack of knowledge or with disinterest. However, to boil nuances in learner silence down to either a lack of knowledge or a sense of apathy regarding their discipline is to view learners reductively; we rob them of their right to be considered and accommodated as complex intellects in our classrooms. In rephrasing our questions (to better shape the silences in our classes) or in simply limiting our impatience at the lack of sound/response, we begin to create an atmosphere that is supportive of deeper engagement with our disciplines.
(Ruth is a teacher of English as a second language at a state university.)
Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.
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