How about looking at your own human rights first

WHEN talking about human rights, we in the developing world — the butt end of Western criticism — cannot ignore former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad’s defence of Asian values and his attacks on Western hypocrisy.

By Ameen Izzaddeen

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Published: Tue 20 Mar 2007, 8:48 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:21 AM

The West cannot assume the role of a high priest and preach its version of human rights, he would say.

"It is only right that as a civilised society and nation we should all be concerned with human rights in our country and in fact in the world. But human rights should be upheld because they can contribute to a better quality of life. To kill 100,000 people because you suspect that the human rights of a few have been denied seem to be a contradiction. Yet the fanaticism of the champions of human rights have led to more people being deprived of their rights and many their lives than the number saved. It seems to me that we have lost our sense of proportion," Mahathir told a 2005 international human rights conference in Malaysia.

Mahathir’s speech made many Western diplomats who attended the conference to walk out in protest. But for millions of others, his speeches were music to their ears, solace to their souls and a foundation for a new philosophy.

While the Western culture places great emphasis on human rights of an individual, Asian values, which we consider to be superior, given their antiquity, demand that community rights should take precedent over rights of an individual. This principle, which the Asian cultures have upheld for millennia, is the core of some of Western political theories on state. Didn’t English philosopher John Locke say that state is a result of a social contract where individuals have given up some of their rights for the well-being of the community? Sadly, today many of the Western countries have turned Locke’s principles upside down and lost the moral authority to preach human rights.

The Hijab/Niqab issue has exposed the tolerance level in Britain, France and other European countries. We in former colonies may have forgiven Britain —sorry I would not call it Great Britain, as the earlier generation had called the all-conquering empire —but will the people of Diego Garcia forgive Britain for uprooting them from the island they had lived from time immemorial? There is no apology from our colonial rulers for colonizing us. Neither are they taking corrective measures to rectify the wrongs they have done. If there had been such measures, there would have been peace in Palestine.

The draconian Patriot Act, the manner in which Guantanamo prisoners are treated, the Abu Ghraib torture saga and the so-called CIA rendition flights have painted the United States black, yet the state department had the audacity to release its once a year annual report, criticising developing countries.

The congressionally-mandated report did not leave out Sri Lanka. In an 11,000 word stricture, the State Department Human Rights report said the government’s respect for the human rights declined due in part to the breakdown of the ceasefire agreement. It talked about unlawful killings by government agents, high profile killings by unknown perpetrators, politically motivated killings by paramilitary forces associated with the government and the LTTE, and disappearances.

It is perhaps only China which had the political courage to tell the United States to mind its own business. "We urge the US government to acknowledge its own human rights problems and stop interfering in other countries’ internal affairs under the pretext of human rights," China said.

But Sri Lanka is not China. Neither is Mahinda Rajapaksa Dr. Mahathir. Sri Lanka, whose human rights record is being dissected at the ongoing sessions of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, is not in a position to tell human rights hypocrites, "Go fly a kite" or cite our "great Asian values" to defend ourselves. Why? Some may say that we are dependent on foreign aid for our economic survival. But that is only part of the answer. The other part of the answer is our guilt —our culpable failure to arrest the deterioration of the human rights situation.

The official policy of the government which is fighting a separatist movement appears to be that terror can only be met by greater terror. Such a policy had paid dividends. That was how the then governments quelled the 1971 and 1987-89 insurrections by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna.

Abductions, extra-judicial killings, deteriorating law and order situation, lack of media freedom and intolerance of political dissent form the charge-sheet against the government. If the government does not bring those responsible for human rights abuses to justice, we face the danger of being branded a failed state in the Fund for Peace global report which is due in May/June.

Interpretations of human rights or community rights vary from culture to culture. True enough. But this does not mean a country under the pretext of protecting community rights, sovereignty or territorial integrity could violate individual human rights in a culture of impunity? It is true that the threshold of individual freedom varies from culture to culture, but we must not forget there are minimum human rights standards that cut across cultures and communities. The challenge before the government is how to win its war on terror without violating human rights. Such an approach will help the government win not only the war but also the hearts and minds of the Tamil people.

Ameen Izzadeen is a Sri Lankan journalist based in Colombo

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