Law, Diplomacy and the Politics of Human Rights
by Dr. SinhaRaja Tammita-Delgoda
Sri Lanka will shortly be facing renewed scrutiny at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, where elements of the international community have been calling for action over unsubstantiated war crimes allegations. This may lead to sanctions against senior officers of the Sri Lanka armed services and even political leaders.
Sri Lanka’s response has been characterized by the usual lack of preparedness, last minute flurries of activity and panic. There has been very little research, serious study or thinking. This has been the hallmark of Sri Lankan strategic and diplomatic thinking over the years.
The current president of the UNHRC is Fiji’s ambassador in Geneva, Nazhat Shameem Khan, a diplomat and former judge, who has been the Permanent Representative of Fiji to the United Nations since 2014. Khan, who served as the council’s vice president in 2020, was elected on January 15, 2021.
This story began at the UN Headquarters in New York in 2018 when Fiji won its bid for a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council, receiving the second highest number of votes among all the candidate. This was a moment of global success for Fiji, giving this small Pacific nation international recognition for its advancement and protection of human rights.
What is not widely known is that since independence Fiji has had a tumultuous recent history, characterized by ethnic tensions, military coups and recurrent suspensions of the democratic process. A closer look will reveal strong historic parallels and many commonalities between Sri Lanka and Fiji. Both countries have had to face similar problems and the challenges. These parallels and commonalities are clear and immediate and deeply relevant.
Like Sri Lanka, an island nation, Fiji was colonized by the British during the 19th century. The second Governor of Fiji (1875-1880) was the Liberal Party politician and colonial administrator Sir Arthur Hamilton-Gordon, who went onto become the 16th governor of British Ceylon (1883–1890).
Hamilton- Gordon’s policies were to have decisive influence in the shaping the history of modern Fiji. He presided over the suppression of an uprising against the British in the central highlands. As with the suppression of the Kandyan rebellion in 1818, the British adopted a scorched earth policy, burning rebel villages and destroying fields.
In 1878 Gordon decided to import indentured labourers from India to work on the sugarcane fields which had replaced the cotton plantations. As in Sri Lanka, this began a wave of emigration which completely transformed the social, ethnic and political dynamics, leaving an enduring impact on the country. Whereas native Fijians, iTaukei, remain the majority (54 %), Indo-Fijians, the descendants of these Indian laborers now comprise 38% of the population. The tension between these two ethnic groups has dominated the politics of the islands since independence.
Unlike Sri Lanka, which has remained a democracy since independence in 1948, Fiji has seen several coups and many political revolutions. It also has a history of military rule, first by Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka, later Prime Minister from 1992-1999, and then Commodore Voreqe(Frank) Bainimarama, Prime Minister since 2007. Both men seized power when they were serving officers, before going onto to become elected political leaders
In 1970 Fiji gained independence as the Dominion of Fiji. Until April 1987, it was governed by the Alliance Party, which championed policies of “multiracialism.” This government, which had a majority of Indian members in the legislature, was overthrown twice in 1987 in military coups led by Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka. These coups were driven by demands for the protection of majority rights and sought to entrench native Fijian dominance in any future government. To this end, Fiji declared itself a republic and revoked the 1970 constitution. In 1990 a new constitution, designed to concentrate power in the hands of Fijians, was established. Fiji was expelled from the Commonwealth in the same year.
Under the 1990 constitution, Colonel Rabuka was elected to parliament and went on to become prime minister in 1992. In 1999 Mahendra Chaudhry became Fiji’s first prime minister of Indian origin. Chaudhry’s premiership was bitterly opposed by Fijian nationalists, and in May 2000 he and his government were taken hostage and deposed by a military backed group, claiming to be acting for indigenous Fijians. A counter coup was launched by the Commander of the Armed Forces, Voreque (Frank) Bainimarama. The rebels were neutralized and an interim military government was formed. This led to the restoration of democracy and new elections.
However, the tensions between the military and the elected government remained. In December 2006, Bainimarama seized power in another coup, removing the prime minister and establishing himself as the country’s sole leader. In January 2007 he restored executive powers to the President, Ratu Josefa Iloilo(2000-2006, 2007-2009), who then named Bainimarama as the head of an interim administration. In 2009, the Fiji Court of Appeal ruled that the Bainimarama government was illegal. In response, President Iloilo abrogated the 1997 constitution and dismissed the country’s judges. National elections were postponed and another interim government appointed, again with Bainimarama as prime minister.
During this period Fiji was isolated and largely ostracized by western powers such as Australia, New Zealand, UK and Europe. Fiji’s participation in UN peacekeeping operations was also suspended. Neighbouring Australia and New Zealand were the loudest international critics and in 2009 Fiji expelled both the Australian and the New Zealand ambassadors, accusing them of interfering in the Fijian judiciary. Fiji also shut down many NGOs. In the same way as Sri Lanka, Fiji was forced to look beyond its traditional partners towards China, who refrained from involving herself in domestic politics.
Only in 2014, after years of delays, did a democratic election take place. The parliamentary elections of 2014 were won by Bainimarama’s Fiji First party. Bainimarama, who had resigned as head of the military in March, was sworn in as prime minister. In the 2018 general election the Fiji First Party won again an outright majority for the second time and Bainimarama was sworn in as Prime Minister for a second term.
In 2017 Fiji presided over the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP23).It was the first time a small island developing state had assumed the presidency of the negotiations. Fiji’s ability to preside over an international meeting of this calibre signalled its growing reinstatement within the international order. This was followed a year later, by Fiji’s election to the seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council.
It is an extraordinary story, the resurrection of a nation which was an international outcast and its transformation into a human rights champion and a pillar of the international community. How did this turnaround take place?
Many of the answers appear to lie in the efforts of Fiji’s Permanent Representative in Geneva, Nazhat Shameem Khan. Fiji opened its first Mission in Geneva in 2014, barely months before the country’s Universal Periodic Review at the Human Rights Council. Under this process the human rights situation of all UN Member States are reviewed every five years. Every year, 42 States are reviewed during three Working Group sessions. The result of each review is reflected in the Final Report of the Working Group, which then lists the recommendations which each country will have to implement. Khan proved herself a skilled diplomat and negotiator and a convincing advocate. Not only did Fiji succeed in passing the review. In less than three years, she has managed to secure the Presidency of United Nations Climate Change Conference and now the UNHRC.
One of Fiji’s pre-eminent judges, Khan was educated at Sussex University and Cambridge, where she obtained a Master of Philosophy in Criminology. In 1983 she was admitted to the Bar of England and Wales at the Inner Temple in London. In 1994 Khan became the first woman in Fiji to be appointed as the Director of Public Prosecutions and in 1999, she became Fiji`s first female High Court judge. In 2009 she became a private practitioner, concentrating on training lawyers and judges in human rights law, sentencing law, governance and litigation.
There is a background of law and human rights in the family. Khan’s sister, Shaista Shameem, also a lawyer, was the director and then chairman of the Fiji Human Rights Commission (FHRC), later serving as United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Use of Mercenaries (2004-2005) and becoming a member of the UN Working Group. During her time as chairman of the FHRC, Shameem published a report defending the 2006 coup, an action which was strongly criticized by Human Rights Watch. What is striking is that despite their legal and human rights background, both sisters have played an important role in defending and rehabilitating their country.
What appears to have gone unnoticed is the role played by many Sri Lankans in helping revive Fiji’s judicial sector and resuscitate the country’s international reputation. During the years when Fiji was frantically trying to establish law and order, many Sri Lankans played key roles in rebuilding the country. Some of the most important judicial offices were all held by Sri Lankans and until 2014 the Fijian judiciary was heavily dependent on Sri Lankan expertise. This was despite the considerable pressure which was put on many Sri Lankans not to live or work in Fiji. In 2009 Fiji’s chief justice, Anthony Gates, accused Australia and New Zealand of telling a number of Sri Lankan judges that they would be banned from entering Australia or New Zealand if they took up appointments on the Fiji bench.
Although as a country Sri Lanka has not helped Fiji, there remains a deep recognition and gratitude towards the many Sri Lankans who lived and worked in the country during this time. There are strong connections and in some cases enduring relationships. Shameem Khan herself has worked alongside Sri Lankan jurists and is very conscious of their skill, expertise and integrity.
The prima facie evidence suggests that Sri Lanka could be dealing with a sympathetic interlocutor with whom it already has many connections. Even at this late stage however, there are options and strategies which can be pursued.
This administration has three to four research institutions at its disposal, the BCIS, the Institute of National Security, the Lakshman Kadirgamar Centre and the Kotalawela Defence University. Yet there has been no study or appraisal of these potential links and their possible connections. It is clear from the public discourse that we have no idea of whom we are dealing with, what their backgrounds are and where their skills and attitudes lie. Perhaps we have not even begun to think about it.
The resurrection of Fiji seems to have taken place within a decade, much the same decade that Sri Lanka found itself being gradually isolated and targeted. Through the use of law, human rights and diplomacy, Fiji has rebuilt its place in the world. The parallels suggest that this has been achieved through the implementation of a carefully calibrated national strategy, one which has been concerted, sustained and informed. It shows what could have been done and how.
Strong on vocals
The group Mirage is very much alive, and kicking, as one would say!
Their lineup did undergo a few changes and now they have decided to present themselves as an all male group – operating without a female vocalist.
At the helm is Donald Pieries (drums and vocals), Trevin Joseph (percussion and vocals), Dilipa Deshan (bass and vocals), Toosha Rajarathna (keyboards and vocals), and Sudam Nanayakkara (lead guitar and vocals).
The plus factor, where the new lineup is concerned, is that all five members sing.
However, leader Donald did mention that if it’s a function, where a female vocalist is required, they would then feature a guest performer.
Mirage is a very experience outfit and they now do the Friday night scene at the Irish Pub, in Colombo, as well as private gigs.
Dichotomy of an urban-suburban New Year
Ushered in by the ‘coo-ee’ of the Koel and the swaying of Erabadu bunches, the Sinhala and Tamil New Year will dawn in the wee hours of April 14. With houses to clean, preparation of sweetmeats and last-minute shopping, times are hectic…. and the streets congested.
It is believed that New Year traditions predated the advent of Buddhism in the 3rd century BC. But Buddhism resulted in a re-interpretation of the existing New Year activities in a Buddhist light. Hinduism has co-existed with Buddhism over millennia and no serious contradiction in New Year rituals are observed among Buddhists and Hindus.
The local New Year is a complex mix of Indigenous, Astrological, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions. Hindu literature provides the New Year with its mythological backdrop. The Prince of Peace called Indradeva is said to descend upon the earth to ensure peace and happiness, in a white carriage wearing on his head a white floral crown seven cubits high. He first plunges, into a sea of milk, breaking earth’s gravity.
The timing of the Sinhala New Year coincides with the New Year celebrations of many traditional calendars of South and Southeast Asia. Astrologically, the New Year begins when the sun moves from the House of Pisces (Meena Rashiya) to the House of Aries (Mesha Rashiya) in the celestial sphere.
The New Year marks the end of the harvest season and spring. Consequently, for farming communities, the traditional New Year doubles as a harvest as well. It also coincides with one of two instances when the sun is directly above Sri Lanka. The month of Bak, which coincides with April, according to the Gregorian calendar, represents prosperity. Astrologers decide the modern day rituals based on auspicious times, which coincides with the transit of the Sun between ‘House of Pisces’ and ‘House of Aries’.
Consequently, the ending of the old year, and the beginning of the new year occur several hours apart, during the time of transit. This period is considered Nonegathe, which roughly translates to ‘neutral period’ or a period in which there are no auspicious times. During the Nonegathe, traditionally, people are encouraged to engage themselves in meritorious and religious activities, refraining from material pursuits. This year the Nonegathe begin at 8.09 pm on Tuesday, April 13, and continues till 8.57 am on 14. New Year dawns at the halfway point of the transit, ushered in bythe sound of fire crackers, to the woe of many a dog and cat of the neighbourhood. Cracker related accidents are a common occurrence during new year celebrations. Environmental and safety concerns aside, lighting crackers remain an integral part of the celebrations throughout Sri Lanka.
This year the Sinhala and Tamil New Year dawns on Wednesday, April 14, at 2.33 am. But ‘spring cleaning’ starts days before the dawn of the new year. Before the new year the floor of houses are washed clean, polished, walls are lime-washed or painted, drapes are washed, dried and rehang. The well of the house is drained either manually or using an electric water pump and would not be used until such time the water is drawn for first transaction. Sweetmeats are prepared, often at homes, although commercialization of the new year has encouraged most urbanites to buy such food items. Shopping is a big part of the new year. Crowds throng to clothing retailers by the thousands. Relatives, specially the kids, are bought clothes as presents.
Bathing for the old year takes place before the dawn of the new year. This year this particular auspicious time falls on April 12, to bathe in the essence of wood apple leaves. Abiding by the relevant auspicious times the hearth and an oil lamp are lit and pot of milk is set to boil upon the hearth. Milk rice, the first meal of the year, is prepared separate. Entering into the first business transaction and partaking of the first meal are also observed according to the given auspicious times. This year, the auspicious time for preparing of meals, milk rice and sweets using mung beans, falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 6.17 am, and is to be carried out dressed in light green, while facing east. Commencement of work, transactions and consumption of the first meal falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 7.41 am, to be observed while wearing light green and facing east.
The first transaction was traditionally done with the well. The woman of the house would draw water from the well and in exchange drop a few pieces of charcoal, flowers, coins, salt and dried chillies into the well, in certain regions a handful of paddy or rice is also thrown in for good measure. But this ritual is also dying out as few urban homes have wells within their premises. This is not a mere ritual and was traditionally carried out with the purification properties of charcoal in mind. The first water is preferably collected into an airtight container, and kept till the dawn of the next new year. It is believed that if the water in the container does not go down it would be a prosperous year. The rituals vary slightly based on the region. However, the essence of the celebrations remains the same.
Anointing of oil is another major ritual of the New Year celebrations. It falls on Saturday, April 17 at 7.16 am, and is done wearing blue, facing south, with nuga leaves placed on the head and Karada leaves at the feet. Oil is to be applied mixed with extracts of Nuga leaves. The auspicious time for setting out for professional occupations falls on Monday, April 19 at 6.39 am, while dressed in white, by consuming a meal of milk rice mixed with ghee, while facing South.
Traditionally, women played Raban during this time, but such practices are slowly being weaned out by urbanization and commercialisation of the New Year. Neighbours are visited with platters of sweetmeats, bananas, Kevum (oil cake) and Kokis (a crispy sweetmeat) usually delivered by children. The dichotomy of the urban and village life is obvious here too, where in the suburbs and the village outdoor celebrations are preferred and the city opts for more private parties.
New Year games: Integral part of New Year Celebrations
Food, games and rituals make a better part of New Year celebrations. One major perk of Avurudu is the festivals that are organised in each neighbourhood in its celebration. Observing all the rituals, like boiling milk, partaking of the first meal, anointing of oil, setting off to work, are, no doubt exciting, but much looked-forward-to is the local Avurudu Uthsawaya.
Avurudu Krida or New Year games are categorised as indoor and outdoor games. All indoor games are played on the floor and outdoor games played during the Avurudu Uthsava or New Year festival, with the whole neighbourhood taking part. Some of the indoor games are Pancha Dameema, Olinda Keliya and Cadju Dameema. Outdoor games include Kotta pora, Onchili pedeema, Raban geseema, Kana mutti bindeema, Placing the eye on the elephant, Coconut grating competition, Bun-eating competition, Lime-on-spoon race, Kamba adeema (Tug-o-War) and Lissana gaha nageema (climbing the greased pole). And what’s an Avurudhu Uthsava sans an Avurudu Kumari pageant, minus the usual drama that high profile beauty pageants of the day entail, of course.
A salient point of New Year games is that there are no age categories. Although there are games reserved for children such as blowing of balloons, races and soft drinks drinking contests, most other games are not age based.
Kotta pora aka pillow fights are not the kind the average teenagers fight out with their siblings, on plush beds. This is a serious game, wherein players have to balance themselves on a horizontal log in a seated position. With one hand tied behind their back and wielding the pillow with the other, players have to knock the opponent off balance. Whoever knocks the opponent off the log first, wins. The game is usually played over a muddy pit, so the loser goes home with a mud bath.
Climbing the greased pole is fun to watch, but cannot be fun to take part in. A flag is tied to the end of a timber pole-fixed to the ground and greased along the whole length. The objective of the players is to climb the pole, referred to as the ‘tree’, and bring down the flag. Retrieving the flag is never achieved on the first climb. It takes multiple climbers removing some of the grease at a time, so someone could finally retrieve the flag.
Who knew that scraping coconut could be made into an interesting game? During the Avurudu coconut scraping competition, women sit on coconut scraper stools and try to scrape a coconut as fast as possible. The one who finishes first wins. These maybe Avurudu games, but they are taken quite seriously. The grated coconut is inspected for clumps and those with ungrated clumps are disqualified.
Coconut palm weaving is another interesting contest that is exclusive to women. However men are by no means discouraged from entering such contests and, in fact, few men do. Participants are given equally measured coconut fronds and the one who finishes first wins.
Kana Mutti Bindima involves breaking one of many water filled clay pots hung overhead, using a long wooden beam. Placing the eye on the elephant is another game played while blindfolded. An elephant is drawn on a black or white board and the blindfolded person has to spot the eye of the elephant. Another competition involves feeding the partner yoghurt or curd while blindfolded.
The Banis-eating contest involves eating tea buns tied to a string. Contestants run to the buns with their hands tied behind their backs and have to eat buns hanging from a string, on their knees. The one who finishes his or her bun first, wins. Kamba adeema or Tug-o-War pits two teams against each other in a test of strength. Teams pull on opposite ends of a rope, with the goal being to bring the rope a certain distance in one direction against the force of the opposing team’s pull.
Participants of the lime-on-spoon race have to run a certain distance while balancing a lime on a spoon, with the handle in their mouths. The first person to cross the finish line without dropping the lime wins. The sack race and the three-legged race are equally fun to watch and to take part in. In the sack race, participants get into jute sacks and hop for the finish line. The first one over, wins. In the three-legged race one leg of each pair of participants are tied together and the duo must reach the finish line by synchronising their running, else they would trip over their own feet.
Pancha Dameema is an indoor game played in two groups, using five small shells, a coconut shell and a game board. Olinda is another indoor board game, normally played by two players. The board has nine holes, four beads each. The player who collects the most number of seeds win.
This is the verse sung while playing the game:
“Olinda thibenne koi koi dese,
Olinda thibenne bangali dese…
Genath hadanne koi koi dese,
Genath hadanne Sinhala dese…”
Six nabbed with over 100 kg of ‘Ice’
Happy New Year!
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