Members of the Head Table, Venerable Sirs, Your Excellency President Kumaratunga and Friends,
Let me begin by thanking the National Peace Council for this inaugural Citizens’ Peace Award, which I accept in all humility.
I am acutely conscious that the objective of peace, securing human rights protection and good governance cannot be achieved by the singular efforts of a single individual or similar acts by many – it is a continuous process, it is a struggle and it goes on and on, irrespective of the few high moments we celebrate. We have to recommit ourselves and steel ourselves to the challenge that lies ahead.
But before I say anymore, thanks are in order. First and foremost, to my parents and to my family for the values of public service and public interest that they have instilled in me. Next, very specially to my senior colleagues and colleagues at the Centre for Policy Alternatives – Bhavani, Mirak, Lionel, Asanga, Sanjana, Pradeep, Sriyanie, Rohan – your support and solidarity has been a great strength in the years that have gone by and indeed, I am sure, in the years to come. Likewise, my thanks and appreciation for the support and solidarity given to me and to the Centre for Policy Alternatives by the national and international human rights community.
I know that at some point Sunila Abeysekera is going to say a few words. Sunila, I remember in 2008 when you won the prize in commemoration of the 50 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, I delivered the toast at the reception. In my toast I quoted Rosa Luxemburg who said to her detractors, ‘you can have your revolution, if I can’t dance’! You very mischievously reminded me of the fate of Rosa Luxemburg. Well, Sunila, you are still standing; I am still standing and we will continue to be standing. [Applause]
Friends, our country is at a crossroads, but it is also in crisis. We have won a war, but we are still stuck in a post-war situation. We need to move to a post-conflict situation, defined in terms of a situation in which the sources of conflict are not sustained and certainly not reproduced. But sadly there are too many trends that suggest otherwise.
At the present moment, economic development is being prioritised as the overarching goal of this country, but in this notion of economic development, sadly, unfortunately, there does not seem to be any room for rights. Rights are at best seen in this perspective as irrelevant and at worst, they are seen as subversive. Public discourse has been forced into a dichotomy of patriots and traitors. Dissent is seen as treasonable.
These are at one level are not new, neither are the problems with regard to transparency and with accountability. But what we see today, I submit to you, is something of a much larger scale – a much, much larger scale. And that it should happen after the trials and tribulations and travails that we have been through in the past is not just a cause to pause and ponder, but should be a sharp reminder that action is necessary and that things have to be done about it.
Only the last couple of days, I was in Delhi at a conference, which was addressed by, amongst others, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Professor Amartya Sen. Sen reminded us that development without a firm base within a rights perspective and paradigm is inherently risky and inherently dangerous. He also made the point that fundamental to a functioning democracy must be the ability of all its citizens to discuss the public interest, the public good and public policy. Today we do not really have this and it is indeed a tragedy.
When we look at what is happening in this country, we really do need to remind ourselves that unless we as a society and we as citizens recommit ourselves to saving what is precious and valuable and worthwhile in this country, we have no right to talk in terms of patriotism, national interest or public interest. We need to act.
The culture of impunity is something that plagues us in all walks of life. It is still the case that Sri Lanka has the highest number of cases of enforced and involuntary disappearances recorded with the Working Group in Geneva. It is still the case that no action has been taken in respect of the 16 cases that came before the Commission of Inquiry – no action whatsoever!
It is still the case that we have a Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, which is hardly news worthy; it barely gets a footnote in our daily papers. If reconciliation is to be a national process, a national exercise, a national need, the lament, the trauma, the travails of all those poor women in Vavuniya, in Kilinochchi, in Jaffna where they detailed what happened to them during the war and in the last days of the war, we should all know about them, we should all be reading about them, we should all be seeing them, and together with them, engaging in this process of reconciliation if it is to be truly national and if there really are lessons that ought to be learnt.
It is not enough for Government officials and ministers and the great and good to grab the headlines on the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. They have spoken and no doubt will speak many times, but it is the lament, it is the pain and suffering of those women in particular that the women in the rest of the country and the men in the rest of the country need to hear about if we are to heal, if we are to move from the politics of hurt, of harm and of hate that has been the cancer eating away at our body politic and our civil society. We need to think and act upon these things.
We need to ask ourselves as to what has happened to a public service that was proud because it was professional. We need to ask ourselves as to what has happened to a Foreign Service that was proud because it was professional.
We need to ask ourselves as to what happened to a time when the police were not universally thought of as the most corrupt institution in the country. We need to think of a time when we as citizens of this country can make the distinction and ensure that it prevails in practice between state and government. An election after all is not a license to loot.
Those of us in civil society who have focused on human rights and on governance have done so in the firm and unrelenting belief that if our country is to get the prosperity it deserves and which no doubt we all desire, then these values have to underpin public action and public policy.
We have been doing this for some time with little success, but that should not in any way discourage us or prevent us from moving forward.
When there was a ceasefire, there was a group of us – Sunila and Jehan included – who got together and formed the Peace Support Group. Our principal aim was to remind those negotiating a peace that without an overarching sense of the importance of human rights, that peace would not last, it would not be just and it would not be democratic. I still have vivid memories of us hot-footing it to Sattahip, getting off a plane and dashing immediately to the venue of the inaugural peace talks with our document calling for a comprehensive peace agreement.
We have worked on elections, on malpractice, violence as far as elections are concerned and we have bemoaned the particular tragedy that in a country that has had adult universal franchise for over seven decades, the integrity of our electoral process is compromised.
Elections after all are the basic mechanism of choice and change in a functioning democracy.
My critics and my detractors, of which there are many, take particular exception when I say that our governance and the institutions of governance of this country are in a state of dysfunction and disrepair. I throw back the challenge to them to name a single one that is functioning today in the way that it is intended to.
Ceremoniously, the 18th Amendment was passed without being ever mentioned in the two election campaigns, national election campaigns, that preceded it and what do we have? We now have an executive that is there for life, in effect. We as civil society failed to arouse sufficient interest and passion in the hearts and minds of our fellow citizens to do something about it.
We are told frequently that questions of governance, of democracy and human rights – unless you are directly affected – do not arouse and inspire people to action of any sort. But, for me that is not the case. We have to recommit ourselves to the challenge of governance, of human rights in our country, or else we are facing an autocracy, which will deprive us of our fundamental freedoms and liberties. There will be no discussion. It will instead be replaced by diktat.
I stress these things because I am acutely conscious that what you have given me is a citizens’ peace award and I stress these things because whilst all around us we see people from all social strata and walks of life coming up with individual acts of courage to resist autocracy and authoritarianism, people frequently ask if things are so much in crisis in your country, why is there no resistance to it? Why is there no popular dissent that puts any pressure on the government to change? Where is the popular movement that can change the popular mass?
I do not have a ready answer to that unfortunately. But I want to remind you though that many, many years ago – three centuries ago – Montesquieu made the point and the point was a simple one: the tyranny of an oligarch is not so dangerous to the welfare of the public as the apathy of the citizen in a democracy.
Justice Brandeis made the point that the most important political office is that of a private citizen. Let us ponder on those words, but let us not take too long pondering. We have a penchant for that.
In the last couple of years, Pastor Niemöller has been quoted ad infinitum, but very few have taken to heart the central message of what he was trying to say when he said that when they came for a certain category of people, he did not do anything. He then goes on to tell us of the similar fate of a number of other categories, until he alone was left and that when they come to take him, there would be no one to save him.
So friends, as I conclude this acceptance speech let me appeal to you, do not go gentle into that good night, rage, rage against the dying of the light.