Get Up and Get Involved, A Call from Amnesty International
Interview with Jim McDonald, Sri Lanka Country Specialist for Amnesty International USA
Jim McDonald is the Sri Lanka Country Specialist for Amnesty International USA. He has testified before Congress on Sri Lanka on behalf of AIUSA and has organized several campaigns on Sri Lanka by AIUSA members. He joins us in this interview to discuss human rights in Sri Lanka, the UN and Amnesty International’s involvement there, and to suggest ways for us to get involved by showing solidarity and taking action.
Q. What is the current state of human rights in Sri Lanka?
A. Since the election of President Sirisena this past January, the Sri Lankan government has shown a new willingness to acknowledge past human rights abuses and to commit to reforms. The government has taken some steps to strengthen important institutions such as the National Human Rights Commission, whose independence and impartiality had been compromised by the previous government. The government has committed to repealing the Prevention of Terrorism Act which facilitated the use of torture and arbitrary detention by the security forces. There has been international attention given to human rights in Sri Lanka this year and the government is responding to that pressure. If the Sri Lankan government fulfills its promises, there could be long overdue progress for human rights in the country.
Q. What work is Amnesty International doing in Sri Lanka?
A. Amnesty International continues to shine a light on human rights violations in Sri Lanka, as we do elsewhere. We pressure the Sri Lankan government to make good on its promises and we lobby other influential governments to push for human rights reform in Sri Lanka. We support human rights defenders and victims of abuses and their relatives by mobilizing international solidarity; one example of that is our recent global memorial project for relatives of the disappeared. To explain that project: the Sri Lankan security forces and their agents have committed at least 80,000 enforced disappearances over the past 30 years. October 27 is observed each year in Sri Lanka as the National Day of the Disappeared. To support the relatives of the disappeared at the memorial service on October 27 this year, Amnesty activists around the world conducted candlelight vigils and other solidarity actions. Photos of those actions were displayed at the memorial service this year and have been widely shared on social media.
In the photo: Prageeth Eknaligoda, Sri Lanka Flickr Photo Action
Q. What work is the UN currently doing regarding human rights in Sri Lanka?
A. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights recently completed its investigation into war crimes and other abuses committed by both sides during the final months of Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2008-2009. Its report documented credible allegations of horrific crimes committed by both the security forces and the opposition Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The UN Human Rights Council used the report as a basis for a resolution it passed on October 1 regarding Sri Lanka, in which the Council urged that Sri Lankan government establish an accountability mechanism with international participation in order to deal with those war crimes and other abuses and to finally give the victims and their families truth and justice. The UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances is currently visiting Sri Lanka now for the first time in 15 years. We hope their visit will result in important recommendations for the government to implement that will go a long way in terms of accountability, systemic reform, and bringing the truth to the families affected.
Q.Considering the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and your experience in the domain, do you think that there can be a globally agreed-on definition of human rights and what they fundamentally entail?
A. Well, the UN Declaration was drafted by representatives from different legal and cultural backgrounds and was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in 1948 as a common standard of human rights goals for all peoples and nations. The UN Charter states that one of the purposes of the United Nations is to promote and encourage respect for human rights. The goals in the UN Declaration of Human Rights have been embodied in internationally binding treaties – the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which are now in effect and binding on those countries which have ratified them. Sri Lanka is one of the countries that has ratified those covenants. The US, unfortunately, has only ratified one of them.
Q. What role does cultural relativism have in these discussions and how do you approach it in your work?
A. In my experience, those who raise arguments about cultural relativism tend to be the apologists for those committing human rights abuses and not the victims. The right to be free from torture or from enforced disappearance, does not depend on one’s cultural background. People from widely varying cultures expect to be treated with respect and to be able to raise their children in peace and dignity. It is not a cultural construct that someone could be held in detention without trial. It is also important to note that often the people making those cultural relativism arguments are in positions of power. The people affected by human rights abuses look for international solidarity and support. The idea that culture should excuse their government never comes up. Ultimately, I ask: whose side are you on? Because this is real; it is not an abstract theoretical discussion.
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Q. What do you suggest should be done by us (and the UN) to make governments more accountable for their human rights violations?
A. International pressure is key. We pressure governments by publicizing their abuses and calling on them to stop. We support human rights defenders in those countries so they can carry out their extremely important work, work that can include building domestic human rights constituencies. We lobby influential actors, both other governments and others who may have influence on the governments we’re targeting. And we don’t stop; the effort is continuous. Human rights violators love working in the dark, and shining the light on them will continue to expose and pressure them. We maintain the pressure until the governments provide accountability for past violations and enact reforms to prevent future abuses.
Q. How do you suggest that young people today get involved in protecting global human rights?
A. As you might expect, the first thing I’d suggest is to join Amnesty International and participate in our campaigns. We work on many issues in a large number of countries. If you have a passion for a particular issue, it may be that Amnesty activists are already working on it and could use your help. Talk to an experienced Amnesty member or an AI staffer to find out more. We have a lot of work to do and we need your help. We need creative activists to conduct hard-hitting media campaigns to raise awareness of human rights violations and mobilize people to act against them. We need strategic thinkers to help develop strategies to determine the most effective ways of pressuring governments on behalf of human rights. Rather than passively looking at their news feeds, we need people to feel mad and educate themselves. Get up and get involved! And our human rights campaigning doesn’t come cheaply. To fund our research and campaigning, we also need people committed to raising the funds we need for our work.
In addition, Jim encourages you to take action to support human rights in Sri Lanka, to help the victims of human rights abuses finally get truth, justice and reparations.
Follow this link to find the latest reports on Sri Lanka, and for the 2 online letters and one photo action for Trinco Five Students and disappeared journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda: http://www.amnestyusa.org/our-work/countries/asia-and-the-pacific/sri-lanka
In top photo: ‘Sri Lanka: The World is Watching You’, from the ‘No Fire Zone’ film screening campaign.
In second photo: Jim McDonald speaking at the ‘Get on the Bus for Human Rights’ event.