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UN must promote human duties, not only human rights

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By Dr Laksiri Fernando

One-sided human rights promotion and advocacy by the UN has come to a crisis point today not only because of the Coronavirus pandemic, but also due to the weakening of the democratic States throughout the world with neoliberal economic and political deviations. Apart from the failures, the culpability of the UN and some of its agencies are very clear under the circumstances.

Since last year, the coronavirus pandemic has hit very hard at countries where people, particularly the youth, have been groomed with unlimited freedoms without any sense of duty. Many young people opted to resist or question lockdowns and other restrictions as invasions on their freedoms. In countries where public health services had been cutdown as part of the dismantling of the ‘welfare state,’ the death tolls were extremely high. America’s death toll exceeded half a million by the end of the last year. Who is responsible for these deaths? No UN Shenanigan has answered this question.

Britain, Italy, France, and other EU countries were among the next hardest hit. Those are the countries where protest marches and resistance loomed against lockdowns. Of course, some southern countries were not spared. India also was one of worst-affected countries. Brazil at present is experiencing extremely difficult conditions with chaos and lack of appropriate medications and hospital beds. Although some vaccinations have been developed by researchers and pharmaceutical companies, their effectiveness is still not clear.

The idealistic globalization has collapsed with the enforcement of lockdowns and boarder restrictions between and within countries. Now several variants of the virus have emerged while countries are scrambling over limited vaccine supplies. The ‘vaccine nationalism’ among the Western countries is now rampant, the poor countries being virtually left out.

This is the immediate background within which the so far Western promoted human rights notions and approaches of the UN should be scrutinized and critically assessed.

Lopsided UDHR?

It was completely short sighted for the UN to highlight individual freedoms and rights without equally emphasizing human duties and responsibilities in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and in the two International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). With the good intervention of the Soviet Union, there was a possibility of striking some balance between civil and political rights on one hand, and economic, social, and cultural rights on the other. But for some reason, the balance between rights and duties was virtually lost except in some corners of the international conventions.

During the preparations and consultations for the UDHR, then UNESCO Director, Julian Huxley, sent a request to Mahatma Gandhi, among others, to seek his views. In May 1947, while busily travelling in a train, Gandhi wrote back a succinct reply giving his vision. The following was its essential part.

“I learnt from my illiterate but wise mother that all rights to be deserved and preserved came from duty well done.”

Gandhi further exchanged views with H. G. Wells who was also involved in the consultation process for the UDHR and said: “Received your cable. Have carefully read your five articles. You will permit me to say you are on the wrong track. I feel sure that I can draw up a better charter of rights than you have drawn up. But what good will it be? Who will become its guardian? …Begin with a Charter of Duties of Man and I promise the rights will follow as spring follows winter. I write from experience….” he said.

No one needs to accept what Gandhi said as the absolute truth. But it was a strong view particularly in Asia and the Pacific which should not have been neglected. Even today, there is a great divide between the East and the West on this matter, but the Westerners try to ignore and impose their views.

Neglect of Duties

At a UNESCO meeting held in Malta in 1987 on Human Rights Education, I asked one of the main drafters of the UDHR, John Humphrey, whether they had taken Mahatma Gandhi’s views into consideration. He pointed out Article 29 but later admitted to me in Geneva that it might not be what Gandhi completely meant. Article 29 of the UDHR says the following.

(1) Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.(2) In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.(3) These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

The above was not sufficient. It is not only for the ‘full and free development of personality’ that duties should be promoted (2.1). Duties are moral obligations. The other two sections (2.2 & 2.3) have placed duties completely in a negative manner. There is a positive and a dialectical interconnection between human rights and human duties.

If we take what Gandhi said as an Asian or a different view, there was no question that drafters could have found a middle way between, if they wanted. But that was not the case. Although 29 (1) says, ‘everyone has duties to the community’ what are they? The UDHR or the International Covenants never explained them. Why? The predominance of the Western views in the UN drafted human rights.

Let us take the principal article of the UDHR, Article 1. It says, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

Of course, to say, ‘all human beings should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood’ is a good one. But to say, ‘all are born free and equal in dignity and rights’ is bit of a lie! There are so many inequalities and disparities when we are born, and no doubt that we should change them. It is a long struggle. Even in the British royal family these disparities have surfaced today!

In ideal terms, equality should be the case. But it is not the reality. Without such a lie or idealism, it should have been said differently. Gandhi’s views or Asian views should have been taken into proper account in drafting the UDHR. Realism should be our guide in human rights promotion and protection. Otherwise, we easily get into political traps. One formulation could have been the following.

“All human beings are of the same human family (Homo sapiens) and should treat each other with dignity and equality. In a democratic polity, they all should have equal rights, and equal duties to each other and to the community. In exercising and performing both rights and duties, they should act on reason and conscience guided by the rule of law and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

Conclusion

Human rights and human duties are largely interdependent and interrelated. When there is a right (rights holder), there is a corresponding duty (duty bearer). In a democratic society, the state and the government/s are the primary duty bearers. However, the duties go beyond. In respect of child rights, for example, parents are the primary duty bearers. In respect of women’s rights, all men are the primary duty bearers.

There are duties on the part of the rights holders when they exercise their rights, not to abuse them. These are also called responsibilities. People should be educated and trained to exercise their rights in a responsible and a nonviolent manner.

There are duties on the part of human beings independent from rights, or whether they have rights or not. Respect for other human beings, protection of the environment, and caring for other animals are some of them. The disrespect for these duties could be catastrophic for human beings with environmental disasters, global warming, and pandemic diseases.

Human needs and aspirations are the basis of human rights. Human conscience and morality should be the basis of human duties. Both should go hand in hand. The failure of the UN to promote human duties, alongside human rights, appear to be a major reason for the increasing conflicts, violence, chaos, and wars not only in developing countries but increasingly in the developed societies.



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Features

Strong on vocals

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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.

 

 

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Dichotomy of an urban-suburban New Year

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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.

 

 

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Features

New Year games: Integral part of New Year Celebrations

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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…”

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