Some government officials in Sri Lanka have talked of human rights as an outside imposition. The current President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, has even said, “as far as I am concerned, democracy and human rights are western values. They are not for us.” But this claim does not withstand scrutiny. Throughout history – from the slave trade and imperialism, to the “war on terror” – western countries have often possessed a poor record when it comes to human rights. Meanwhile, from the struggles for independence and liberation in Africa, Asia, South America, to the “responsibility to protect” doctrine that the UN adopted in 2005 – it has been non-western nations that have frequently led the struggle for human rights.
Today, there is a vocal but marginalised community of citizens in Sri Lanka who share a deep commitment to human rights – rights which they are entitled to under both international law and Sri Lanka’s constitutional framework. It is a community which includes the families of the disappeared, women’s rights activists, trade union members, LGBT activists, and those working on all manner of rights-related issues, from land occupation to the impacts of urban development. It is a community that, while not always in agreement, straddles many social, ethnic, and political divides.
Both this community and the history of human rights cannot simply be erased with the lie – often pedalled by state officials to justify the oppression of the weak by the strong – that human rights are “not for us.”