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Take Human Rights seriously, not so much the council or office

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By Dr Laksiri Fernando

The 46th Session of the UN Human Rights Council started on 22 February morning with obvious hiccups. The Office, to mean the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, finally decided to hold all sessions virtually online, only the President of the Council and the assistants in the high table sitting at the UN Assembly Hall in Geneva. The President, Ms. Nazhat Shammen Khan, Ambassador from Fiji in Geneva, wearing a saree, was graceful in the chair with empty seats surrounding.

In the opening session, the UN General Assembly President, UN General Secretary, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Head of Foreign Affairs, Switzerland (as the host country), addressed remotely the session. In fact, there was no need for Switzerland to have a special place, as the UN is independent from any host country. Switzerland is fairly ok, however, if this tradition is followed, the UN General Assembly may have to give a special place to the US in New York.

 

Initial Addresses

UN General Secretary, Antonio Guterres’ address could have been quite exemplary if he gave a proper balance to the developed and developing countries. He talked about racism and fight against racism but did not mention where racism is overwhelmingly rampant (US and Europe) and what to do about it. Outlining the human rights implications of Covid-19 pandemic, he made quite a good analysis. It was nice for him to say, ‘human rights are our blood line (equality), our lifeline (for peace) and our frontline (to fight against violations).’ However, in the fight against violations, he apparently forgot about the ‘blood line’ or the ‘lifeline’ quite necessary not to aggravate situations through partiality and bias. He never talked about the importance of human rights education or promoting human rights awareness in all countries.

His final assault was on Myanmar. Although he did not call ‘genocide,’ he denounced the treatment of Rohingyas as ethnic cleansing without mentioning any terrorist group/s within. His call for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and other civilian leaders undoubtedly should be a common call of all. However, he did not leave any opening for a dialogue with the military leaders or bring back a dialogue between Aung San and Min Aung, the military leader. With a proper mediation, it is not impossible. Calling for a complete overhaul as the young demonstrators idealistically claim might not be realistic.

High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet’s address was brief and uncontroversial this time without mentioning any country or region. It is clear by now perhaps she is not the real author of the Report against Sri Lanka, but someone probably hired by the so-called core-group led by Britain. Her major points were related to the coronavirus pandemic trying to highlight some of the socio-economic disparities and imbalances of policy making that have emerged as a result. The neglect of women, minorities, and the marginalized sections of society were emphasized. But the poor was not mentioned. As a former medical doctor, she also opted to highlight some of the medical issues underpinning the crisis.

Then came the statements from different countries in the first meeting in the following order: Uzbekistan, Colombia, Lithuania, Afghanistan, Poland, Venezuela, Finland, Fiji, Moldova, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Equatorial Guinea, Vietnam, Belgium, and Morocco. The obvious purposes of these statements were different. Some countries were apparently canvassing for getting into the Human Rights Council at the next turn perhaps for the purpose of prestige. Some others were playing regional politics against their perceived enemies. This was very clear when Lithuania and Poland started attacking Russia.

But there were very sincere human rights presentations as well. One was the statement by the President of Afghanistan, Mohammad Ashraf Ghani. He outlined the devastating effects that Afghanistan had to undergo during the last 40 years, because of foreign interferences. The initial support to Taliban by big powers was hinted. His kind appeal was to the UN was to go ‘beyond discourse to practice’ giving equal chance to the poor and the developing countries to involve without discrimination.

 

Controversial Presentations

China’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Wang Yi, made his presentation almost at the end of the first day. This is apparently the first time that China had directly addressed the Human Rights Council. Beginning with outlining the devastating repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic he stressed that the world should face the challenges through ‘solidarity and cooperation.’ He broadened the concept to human rights solidarity and cooperation. His expressed views were quite different to the others, particularly to the Western ones.

He frankly said that what he expresses are the views of China on human rights without claiming those are absolute truths or forcing others to believe or implement them. There were four main concepts that he put forward before the member countries. First, he said, “We should embrace a human rights philosophy that centres on the people. The people’s interests are where the human rights cause starts and ends.” Second, he said, “we should uphold both universality and particularity of human rights. Peace, development, equity, justice, democracy, and freedom are common values shared by all humanity and recognized by all countries.” “On the other hand,” he said, “countries must promote and protect human rights in light of their national realities and the needs of their people.”

“Third,” he said, “we should systemically advance all aspects of human rights. Human rights are an all-encompassing concept. They include civil and political rights as well as economic, social, and cultural rights.” He then emphasized, “Among them, the rights to subsistence and development are the basic human rights of paramount importance.” Fourth, “we should continue to promote international dialogue and cooperation on human rights. Global human rights governance should be advanced through consultation among all countries.”

It was on the same first day before China, that the United Kingdom launched its barrage against several countries not sparing Sri Lanka. The Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, delivered the statement from top to bottom attacking alleged violating countries on human rights. But there was no mentioning of Israel for the repression of Palestinians or the systemic racism rampaging in the United States, including the 6 January attacks on the Capitol by extremist/terrorist groups.

His first sermon was on Myanmar without acknowledging the British atrocities or mismanagement of this poor and diverse country during the colonial period. He was quite jubilant over implementing sanctions and other restrictions over the country. Many sanctions, in my opinion, are extortions. Undoubtedly, Aung San Suu Kyi and other leaders should be released, and democracy restored. This is a task of the whole council and when one or two countries try to grab the credit, there can be obvious reservations of others.

His further scathing attacks were against Belarus, Russia, and China. Some appeared factually correct but not necessarily the approach or the motives genuine. The following is the way he came around Sri Lanka. He said,

“Finally, we will continue to lead action in this Council: on Syria, as we do at each session; on South Sudan; and on Sri Lanka, where we will present a new resolution to maintain the focus on reconciliation and on accountability.”

‘Action’ to him basically means repeatedly passing resolutions, of course imposing economic and other sanctions. He said, “as we do at each session”; like bullying poor or weak countries at each session. Can there be a resolution against Russia or China? I doubt it.

What would be the purpose of presenting a resolution against Sri Lanka? As he said, “to maintain the focus on reconciliation and on accountability.” This will satisfy neither the Tamil militants nor the Sinhalese masses. But it might satisfy the crafty Opposition (proxy of the defeated last government). This is not going to be based on any of the actual measures that Sri Lanka has taken or not taken on reconciliation or accountability. But based on the ‘Authoritarian and Hypocritical Report’ that some anti-Sri Lankans have drafted within the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. This what I have discussed in my last article.

In this context, successful or not, the statement made by the Sri Lanka’s Minister of External Affairs, Dinesh Gunawardena, in rejecting any resolution based on the foxy Report of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in my concerned opinion, is absolutely correct.



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Opinion

What went wrong?

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By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

I am stuck in the UK, badly missing trips back home, but I have been closely following the developments in Sri Lanka, especially with regard to the Covid-19 epidemic and the engulfing political drama. It was no great effort either, as plenty of time was available, being almost totally housebound, dreading to go out as the virus was killing thousands and thousands in the UK. What was remarkable, initially, was how badly the UK controlled the pandemic and how well Sri Lanka did. Total number of deaths in Sri Lanka remained very low for months whilst the Brits were dying in large numbers. It is the other way around, now; deaths due to Covid-19 in Sri Lanka are exceeding that of the UK now. What went wrong?

Whilst Sri Lanka is grappling with a resurgence, caused by the excesses indulged during the Sinhala and Tamil New Year festivities, the British government recently announced significant relaxation of pandemic preventive measure. It expects the country to be ‘near-normal’ by mid-June, if the present trends continue. One may argue that normalcy cannot be guaranteed until the virus is controlled, globally, as well stated in the editorial “All hat and no cattle” (The Island, 10th May). The editor argued that “the only way out is to follow the motto—unus pro omnibus, omnes pro uno (‘one for all, all for one’).”

Although both are island nations, admittedly, the UK and Sri Lanka are poles apart, on many counts, most significant being the availability of resources. The UK is rich enough to buffer the resultant economic downturn, whereas Sri Lanka was struggling, economically, even before the epidemic. Therefore, attempts by the Sri Lankan government, to keep the economy afloat, are mandated by sheer necessity, although the Opposition accuses it of endangering lives. The big question is how to strike the right balance. At the time of Independence, our economy was in better shape than that of the Brits, but where are we, now? That, however, is another story.

At the start of the pandemic, the UK was slow to close its borders. Again, it was a tough call because Heathrow is one of the busiest airports in the world. The UK paid heavily, in terms of lives lost, because of this. UK politicians took the advice of expert committees, and whether the initial failures were due to wrong advice by scientists or not, we will not know until the findings of the committee, to be appointed by the British government, is available. However, the UK government took serious notice of the advice by scientists, regarding the need for mass vaccination, and placed orders for vaccines, even before trials for their effectiveness were concluded. That strategy paid off. Already, two-thirds of the adult population in the UK has received one dose and one-third of has received the second dose, as well. It was interesting to follow the progress: as the vaccination drive proceeded, the number of cases, the numbers in intensive care, and the number of deaths, progressively plummeted.

If there are any vaccine doubters, they need to look at what happened in the UK. I am personally aware of many ‘so-called educated’ vaccine-doubters. The responses in a WhatsApp group, started by a friend of mine, are very illuminating. There is a nutritionist who argues against vaccination, suggesting that boosting immunity, by nutrition, is the way forward. Professor Emeritus Saman Gunatilake has addressed this issue, academically, in his illuminating piece “Boosting immune system to fight Covid-19: Is it possible?” (The Island, 7 May). There is a media lawyer who supports the nutritionist and sends contrasting messages. Three hours, after forwarding a message which states that CDC data shows the survival rate, for under 69, is over 99%, he forwards another message stating that a site by the University of Washington predicts Sri Lanka will soon have 200 deaths daily. Both ‘experts’ take part in TV discussions and are very likely to be passing on wrong messages, as they are continually forwarding anti-vaccine messages, the latest being that vaccination has made the epidemic worse. Wonder why they callously disregard the success of the UK. Covid-19 has given rise to a plethora of experts who give widely differing opinions about many things, including the UK variant, but the UK is successfully controlling the epidemic, with vaccination, which is estimated to have saved at least 10,000 lives so far.

It is a pity these vaccine-doubters overlook the fact that some diseases are eradicated, thanks to vaccines. The most successful vaccine ever is the smallpox vaccine, which enabled the eradication of the dreaded disease that existed for millennia, killing more than 300 million, in the 20th century, and around 500 million, during the last 100 years of its existence, including six monarchs. Initially, before Edward Jenner introduced vaccination, with the cowpox virus, in 1796, direct inoculations, with smallpox virus, were used, which had a mortality rate of 3% but this was acceptable as the mortality rate of smallpox was around 30%-40%.

Some exaggerate the risks of vaccination. There is no drug, without side-effects, and vaccines are no exception. Concern about the Oxford AZ vaccine causing Superficial Cerebral Vein Thrombosis was made use of by the German Chancellor to promote the Pfizer vaccine, which was developed by a German bio-tech company. Medicine and Healthcare Regulatory Agency of the UK made a detailed study and recommended, when possible, those under 40 should be offered an alternative vaccine but emphasized the safety of AZ vaccine. To put in perspective, the birth control pill poses a greater risk of causing venous thrombosis; so does Covid-19 itself.

What went wrong, in Sri Lanka, is putting sentiment over science. The government failed to establish an expert committee, which could have been done easily as we are not short of real experts in the relevant fields. The decisions made by that committee could have been translated to practice by the committee, headed by the Army Commander. Another failing was the lack of proper communication. In the UK, the Prime Minister, or one of the senior ministers, together with senior scientists, hold regular press conferences.

Instead, what did we do? Our Health Minister polluted rivers with pots, devised by a faith-healer, and then drank a syrup, made by a charlatan. She wasted the valuable time of Professors of Medicine, as well as resources, to investigate a piece of garbage that was found to be useless, whilst the kapuwa minded money, at the expense of the gullible. Now, a member of my profession also has joined the band-wagon of deception. A non-specialist doctor has joined hands with his brother to sell a concoction of herbs etc.! Why hasn’t the Minister taken action against this errant medic?

We have a State Minister, a Professor of Pharmacology, who sees the benefits of Ayurveda for political reasons! The mother country of Ayurveda, meanwhile, is reeling with Covid-19. If Ayurveda is effective, surely that cannot happen!

All this happens while we have a State Minister, a specialist in communicable diseases, who speaks sense but is largely ignored!

The Minister of Transport reverses the decisions of Medical officers of Health and then blames the poor government servants, stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea, for carrying out his orders. The virus is having a hearty laugh and now infecting his voters!

We thought the President would act decisively once he regained full executive powers from the 20th Amendment, but he seems less powerful than before! The need of the hour is not to protect errant politicians, or unproven systems of treatment, but directing all efforts at getting adequate stocks of vaccines to overcome the epidemic.

It is high time the President considered sacking the incompetent and idiotic ministers. Otherwise, he might as well forget about a second term!

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Opinion

The Organic Ideal – Killing Two Birds with One Stone!

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By I.P.C. MENDIS

The government has very boldly embarked on a long-delayed project of transforming our agricultural habits of heavy dependence on harmful chemical fertiliser to the old method of organic fertilisation. The chemical fertiliser lobby is as strong, if not stronger than the pharmaceutical one. The life story of Dr Senake Bibile speaks for itself! As for the fertiliser lobby, some decades ago, a high-up in a media institution confided in me how he was compelled to jettison his media campaign against chemical fertiliser, about which he was very forcefully using his pen through immense pressure brought about by the strong lobby.

Quite apart from the international connections, please permit the writer to relate a personal experience he had with a media institution, where a certain article he wrote, very much irked a then local high-profile businessman, almost ruling the roost at the time, where this powerful personality had come down hard on the Head of the media institution, threatening to withdraw his advertising budget of sizeable proportion! To the eternal credit of the Editor, he did not join his Boss who had decided to call on the irate customer (Head of a mighty Group then, mind you) who thought he had a right to intervene and control its media policy.

Being privy to the immense power, these lobbies wield, and how they will use it to sabotage any effort which would undermine their business interests, notwithstanding public and human interests, it would be utterly puerile, and even foolish, to confront them in any meaningful way, if political interests are to take precedence. Their money power and influence are capable of winning over, not only sections of the population, but also politicians. Governments can be toppled in the process.

The defeated forces have now received some oxygen, and we see even the high and mighty, who were sent reeling home at the polls, attempting to make their presence felt. There is everything which points to financing by the fertiliser lobby, against the organic fertiliser issue. It is left for the government to be wise about such and other possibilities, when steering on the drive towards its laudable goal. The government failed to rope in the hoarders of rice, despite its rhetoric, and now they are faced with a similar situation in the fertiliser shortage. The remedies the government suggests seem to be worse than the disease. People are sick and tired of seeing any government playing politics, and attempting to find solutions which would please the electorate or business interests, rather than what is needed, and good for the country. To hell with the next election and commission agents; people will rally round results eventually. It has the battle against the LTTE as a feather in the cap. 

Two birds with one stone 

While on the subject of organic fertiliser, the writer wishes to draw the attention of the authorities to the vast acreage of waterways, rivers and canals, covered and infested with water-based plants, like “Japan Jabara’ (water hyacinth) and other odd plants., causing, inter alia, a huge health hazard. This clogging has almost diminished, or made extinct, the fish concentrations, and adversely affected a popular inland fisheries network and breeding of new varieties. This can be a source of nutrition to a vast number of people in villages, and contribute towards employment, too. The water plants thus removed could be tested for their various properties, which could contribute in no small measure to the preparation of organic fertiliser, using it as a cost-effective input to the preparation of organic fertiliser. If I remember right, some research is already available in this regard. It is reported that some outfits have already been lined up to prepare organic fertilizer. These companies, or outfits, can do the clearing and preparation at their own cost, which could be far cheaper than importing organic fertiliser, or importing certain ingredients to manufacture the final product. Some of it could possibly be diverted to the Energy sector. Side by side, farmers can be mobilised to prepare their own needs, or part of them.

How about it, Mr President and Mr Minister of Agriculture and Agrarian Services?

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Opinion

More on ‘Hi Machan’

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I wish to add my two cents to the above-mentioned article, well versed by MA Kaleel of Kalmunai in The Island of 10/5/21. I really don’t know whether he was in a university, either here or abroad, since some of the descriptions are mainly confined to the University vocabulary.

I wish to deal with some events from my University (Peradeniya) days where the word Machan had some relationship. The first episode was when a fellow student’s late father came to visit him at the Wijewardena Hall. The bathrooms, in the hall, at that time, were similar to a barber’s shop, where the door was used to hang the towel, until the bathing was finished. One day, a student was bathing in one of the cubicles, having hung the towel on the door. Someone shouted ‘Machan, your father has come to see you’. In his haste to meet him, he has forgotten the towel which was anyway not there, probably hidden by some of his Machans. This was a regular feature in the boys’ halls of residence. When he entered the room, in his birthday suit, his father was seated chatting with his roommate (who I think was a co-conspirator) . His father could only say Putha and he never repeated that act.

Dealing with the use of the word is confined only to males. I beg to disagree, since I have heard such conversations with my own ears, particularly if one lives close to a Hall of residence. (As to what a male student was doing in a female hall of residence is another story!)

When one studies in a University, with several disciplines, the word machan is very handy. When I returned to Sri Lanka, having completed my postgraduate studies, I had to obtain special permission to clear our baggage (including that of my wife). The clerk indicated that I would have to pay a hefty demurrage. Then I saw a gentleman, peeping through a glass door, and, lo and behold, he was the Commissioner of Customs, another machan Peradeniya. Everything was cleared in a few minutes. There are several such incidents where our sojourn at Peradeniya helped us in various ways. All these gentlemen were machans in the campus and I hear that the tradition is still maintained, but at a lower scale.

 

Dr. UPALI ILLANGASEKERA

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