Abusing human rights: playing the ‘anti-colonial’ card

By Savi Hensman
November 14, 2013

As the UK Prime Minister and other leaders prepare to attend a Commonwealth gathering in Sri Lanka, its government has criticised his pledge to flag up concerns about human rights. It is estimated that tens of thousands of civilians were killed by the regime and Tiger rebels at the end of a brutal civil war.

"The invitation to Prime Minister David Cameron was not based on that," declared minister of mass media and communications Keheliya Rambukwella to the BBC. “We are not a colony. We are an independent state."

It is indeed important for those in the West to bear in mind the risk of being unfair or condescending to those in the South. But that would include not holding African, Asian or Latin American governments to the same standards as those of Europe, North America and Australasia.

International gatherings offer an opportunity for various countries’ leaders (and to a lesser extent civil society representatives) to hold one another accountable to certain agreed standards regarding human rights and democracy. If a government has violated Commonwealth values and principles, whether it be that of the UK, Sri Lanka or any other, it cannot reasonably expect everyone to pretend this has not happened.

Not surprisingly, offenders try to find all kinds of reasons why they should not be probed too deeply about their offences. In recent years, some leaders have tried to make out that human rights and the rules of war are a western imposition on the rest of the world, a kind of cultural imperialism. This involves a substantial rewriting of history, since Africans, Asians and Latin Americans struggling against colonialism, neo-colonialism and racism have played a key role in promoting rights for all.

A century ago or so, a campaign against the terrorisation, torture and murder of the people of the Congo by King Leopold of Belgium’s colonialists helped to found the modern human rights movement. Those ‘natives’ who had their hands chopped off or were raped would probably not share Sri Lankan ministers’ distaste for the notion of universal standards to which regimes should be held accountable.

Likewise the Ethiopians gassed by the Italian fascist regime of Benito Mussolini, and the Kenyans currently claiming compensation from the UK government for being tortured by colonial forces during the 1950s Mau Mau uprising, may be less than enthusiastic about the idea of a no-holds-barred world in which the powerful can do what they want to those in their control.

The Final Communiqué of the 1955 Asian-African conference of Bandung “declared its full support of the fundamental principles of Human Rights as set forth in the Charter of the United Nations and took note of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.”

Sri Lanka’s president Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brothers, who together rule the island and have tried to stamp out dissent, may not like being asked to account for what they have done to so many of the people they are supposed to serve and protect. But international institutions such as the United Nations and Commonwealth, if their ideals are to be more than tokenistic, have a role in promoting a more just and less violent world.

For instance, Ben Emmerson, UN special rapporteur on human rights and countering terrorism, has raised serious concerns about the US government’s use of drones. It is not just countries such as Sri Lanka that are subject to challenge.

In an interconnected world, it is very hard for countries to avoid having an impact on others. Indeed what governments often want is for international partners to bolster their own prestige, power and wealth and that of their allies, for instance through aid, trade and foreign policies, even if this is at ordinary people’s expense. ‘Non-interference’ in a genuine sense is hard to achieve.

Ultimately Asian, African and Latin American leaders are no less capable than those in the West of exercising self-restraint when tempted to bomb or shell non-combatants, carry out ethnic cleansing, allow troops to torture and murder with impunity, imprison people without trial or otherwise behave in appalling ways. They are no less guilty if they fail.


(c) Savitri Hensman is a regular Christian commentator on politics, economics, society, welfare and religion. She is an Ekklesia associate and works in the equality and care sector. Her family background is in Sri Lanka.

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