Of Human Rights and Conflict | Daily News

Of Human Rights and Conflict

War is always ugly. Humans have been waging war since recorded history began – wars have been fought over land, water, treasure, kingdoms and religion. Millions have been killed in the last century alone in two World Wars and countless other conflicts.

While these wars were essentially waged among countries, in more modern times we have witnessed the phenomenon of terrorism where non-State actors engage in attacks on military and/or civilian targets (both properties and people) in an apparent struggle for a given goal, which is sometimes not even clear.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) wanted to carve out a separate state in Sri Lanka’s North. This conflict ended in 2009 after 30 long years. While groups such as the LTTE essentially fought for land, things are not so clear with many of the transnational terror groups that have emerged within the last 25 years or so. Many of these outfits claim to be Jihadist and apparently seek to wage war against the West. But as groups such as ISIS are driven away from their traditional strongholds, they are trying to encroach on countries such as Sri Lanka, India and Philippines. Worse, these outfits and the hate they disseminate seem to inspire other individuals and groups to commit senseless acts of terror. It was such a horrific attack that Sri Lanka witnessed on Easter Sunday.

This barbaric attack and its implications for Sri Lanka from human rights, religious freedom and ethnic harmony perspectives came under sharp focus at the recently concluded Colombo Defence Seminar. Delivering the Valedictory Address at the Seminar, Foreign Secretary Ravinatha Aryasinha encapsulated these concerns when he noted that post 21/4 has been a ‘litmus test’ on Sri Lanka’s resolve to adhere to human rights standards, while fighting terrorism.

He rightly emphasized that countries challenged by terrorism, “must ‘fight terrorism’ and ‘protect human rights’ simultaneously, and not sacrifice one at the altar of the other”. He however noted that this very delicate balance has often been elusive – with states veering towards one extreme or the other, applying double standards to similar situations and often politicizing these issues.

Balancing security imperatives and personal freedom is always a sensitive task. Given that the perpetrators of these attacks were misguided young Muslims, it was inevitable that the wider Muslim community itself came under scrutiny. However, the Government, the Security Forces and the Police must be given due credit for addressing security concerns without foregoing their respect for religious freedom and human rights. The credit must also go to religious leaders of all denominations who called for calm and restraint. But as always certain ethnic minded politicians did take advantage of the situation to create mayhem in a couple of instances.

It is indeed laudable that the Government, Security Forces and Police are following strict human rights guidelines in dealing with this issue. There has been no infringement on the religious and personal rights and rituals of the Muslim community. In fact, one of the biggest gatherings of Muslims is taking place in Colombo as we write. The Emergency has been lifted, as it had primarily served its purpose. However, other legislative measures have either been taken or proposed to ensure that security is maintained at all times. In the words of the Foreign Secretary, the Government has been self-reflective, self-critical and constructive in the implementation of security measures. In instances where it was pointed out that certain measures may negatively impact on the Muslim or another community, action was taken to review and adjust.

This is however not a mission that Sri Lanka can undertake alone, given the transnational nature of these terror groups. Following appeals by Sri Lanka, Internet companies such as Facebook have agreed to police their sites in a more aggressive way to filter out any hate filled posts. Sri Lanka has also expressed its desire to join global initiatives such as the ‘Christchurch Call to Action’ spearheaded by France and New Zealand. Sri Lanka’s security agencies are also engaged with counterparts abroad in intelligence, criminal investigative and criminal justice cooperation to tackle terrorism.

The Foreign Secretary’s call for a ‘Whole of Society’ approach to this challenge is also timely. The challenge of addressing extremism and forging ethnic harmony cannot be left to the Government alone – all communities and religious groups must essentially participate in this exercise. That is the one lesson we must learn as we rise from the ashes of 21/4.


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