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Human Rights Scholar Discusses Human Rights and Nation Building in Sri Lanka

Human Rights Scholar Discusses Human Rights and Nation Building in Sri Lanka

According to Professor Deepika Udagama, Sri Lanka is a country of contrasts, demonstrating a liberal ethos in regards to development and social issues but lacking the political capacity to  effectively acknowledge the pluralist nature of its diverse population. Udagama, the Head of the Department of Law at the University of Peradeniya, was featured at the October 7 session of the Holocaust, Genocide and Mass Violence Studies (HGMV) bi-weekly workshop, sponsored by the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies (CHGS), the Human Rights Program and the Department of Sociology. A specialist in International Human Rights law, Professor Udagama served as Sri Lanka's alternate member to the United Nations (UN) Sub-Commission on the promotion and protection of human rights in the early 2000s and co-authored a report for that body on Globalization and its impact on Human Rights.

Professor Udagama laid out the historical context of Sri Lanka and its implications for society today.  Colonial powers that ruled the country for hundreds of years, particularly the British, played on the existing cleavages in Sri Lanka between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority while at the same time trying to impose the notion of a unitary nation state.  Following Sri Lanka’s independence in 1948, there was significant tension between the different groups, yet the independence constitution of 1946/47 provided for minority protection. Parliament was enjoined from enacting any legislation that would discriminate against members of any community or religious group. The judiciary, however, failed to prevent the the implementation of discriminatory legislation on citizenship and language rights which affected the Tamil community in a very negative manner..  The courts found that issues concerning citizenship to be a political question and ought to be left up to the executive, therefore enabling this process to go unchecked.  Moreover, in 1956, still in the dominion of Britain, the legislature introduced legislation which recognized only one official language, Sinhalese, which served to alienate the Tamil speaking communities in the country. 

The independence Constitution remained in effect until 1972, when Sri Lanka transitioned into a Republic.  However, due to decades under British rule, government policies entrenched a sense of majoritarianism in the Sinhalese population and in the work culture of public office.  The new constitution did possess a bill of rights, but did not offer any form of judicial remedy.  This phase was marked by a state-oriented constitution.  Unlike the Indian or South African constitutions the Sri Lankan  republican constitution was not drafted with the aid of broad consultations and public interventions , but rather by the government of the day . For those countries, much like the United States, such a document came out of some sort of struggle and as a consequence, the constitution holds almost sacred value.  Sri Lanka on the other hand did not consult the people or typically excluded groups, and as a result the population simply did not embrace this document as a meaningful core text.  They possessed no emotional attachment to it.  Additionally, the constitution stipulated that it gave “foremost place to Buddhism.”  Such vague language failed to provide effective guidelines in upholding principles of religious tolerance.

By 1978, with a regime change came yet another constitution in the country. Divisive politics and restrictive laws lead the country to a traumatic and bloody civil war from 1983 to 2009 between the state and Tamil rebels.  The state also faced rebellions from the majority community, such as student-led groups, indicating a serious lack of nation building following independence.  In the recent past, the U.N. Human Rights Council investigated and adopted three resolutions in regards to the serious human rights violations in Sri Lanka.  Yet, there was little domestic will to implement those resolutions, and the state's response can be characterized as outright denial of crimes committed during the conflict.  The High Commissioner for Human Rights carried out an investigation and called on the new and more reconciliatory government elected in January, 2015 to establish a domestic inquiry mechanism, a sort of hybrid of domestic and international courts.  Udagama finished her talk by reiterating the high levels of development in Sri Lanka but is failure to progress politically.  The brutality and violence of the civil war period, and during the youth uprisings in the south speaks to a greater pattern in Sri Lankan policy.  Law should be a used as a mechanism to build peace and protect those most vulnerable in society, yet in this case, it was manipulated for violent and intolerant purposes.  The new era in which Sri Lanka finds itself offers an important opportunity to turn the corner toward a constitution-based society that respects the rights of all its diverse communities. 



We have since learned upon Professor Udagama's return to Sri Lanka that she was appointed as Chair of the National Human Rights Commission. We congratulate her on this recent appointment, and we look forward to her insights and contributions.
October 26th, 2015