Interviews

People are facing issues on economic rights not human rights: Sunil Handunnetti

By Skandha Gunasekara

Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) MP Sunil Handunnetti said that while Sri Lanka could request to withdraw from its co-sponsorship of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution on the country, it is unlikely to get the support needed.

Below are excerpts of his interview with The Sunday Morning:

There has been a proposal by President Maithripala Sirisena for Sri Lanka to withdraw its co-sponsorship of the Resolution on Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva. Is this something Sri Lanka can afford to do at this point?

While we do have the freedom to make such a request, we must think twice before making such a request as we are not a powerful country like the US. We don’t have the weight the US has to make such a request. If we are to withdraw from the resolution then we will need the vote of a majority of the constituents of the Council. But because of our questionable foreign policies in the past I don’t think we have such a support.

On the other hand, we have to consider the principles of the Human Rights Council and understand that there are matters as a state that we must look into even without the Council instructing us to. But that is not what happens within the country.

What happens in Sri Lanka is that politicians incite racism to further political careers. We saw the repercussions of this in the recent past. The Leader of the Anti-Corruption Force Namal Kumara, supported by the President, was involved in instigating the Digana riots. There were obvious diplomatic and international implications of the Digana riots. So if there are such people close to the President, how can we expect to garner support or favour to make a formal request to withdraw from the co-sponsorship?

Several NGOs are already in Geneva, pushing for more international intervention on Sri Lanka. What is your opinion on some of these groups exerting pressure on Sri Lanka?

That is wrong. NGOs should be working to protect the sovereignty of a country, not to undermine it. But it is clear that these NGOs are working for the needs of certain international communities as well as for the funding that is given by foreign companies and nations. They are able to build a foundation for their demands on the actions of our corrupt politicians.

I’m clearly stating that the agenda’s of these NGOs are against the interests of our country. But they are able to make these demands because of the actions of our politicians, who with their crass statements and callous actions, give the ammunition needed for these NGOs to exert pressure on the Government.

Is there a legitimate human rights issue in Sri Lanka at this moment?

It’s not a human rights issue our citizens are facing now but an issue of economic rights. Poverty is widespread, we are unable to repay our loans, cost of living has sky rocketed – all these affect our citizens whether they are Sinhalese, Tamil, Burgher, or any other community.

Around 70% of the population lives in rural areas, but they only receive 21% of the country’s economic benefits. There is no racism for this inequality. Human Rights are being violated by depriving our people of their economic rights. This is the main problem. The denial of democracy comes second. Democracy has been denied because the people are not given economic rights.

The working class don’t benefit; those who study don’t have jobs. If those who study and graduate don’t have jobs, is that a violation of their human rights? Is there any racial discrimination in this? No. People from all communities have to face this problem. The only way to get anywhere in life in this country is to pander to politicians. In my opinion, you can’t take human rights in isolation; the lack of political rights and economic rights too must be taken into account.

The US withdrew from the UNHRC, claiming the Council was biased. Should Sri Lanka consider withdrawing to protect its own interests?

If Sri Lanka can handle the economic and diplomatic repercussions of withdrawing this way then there is no problem. It is not a big deal for America to withdraw from the Human Rights Council as they are both economically and politically powerful. If Sri Lanka can also achieve such independence in the world, then it is a good thing.

The Government has taken some steps by setting up institutes like the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) to address concerns related to human rights. Have we done enough to address these concerns?

Not at all. All that has been done is purely to score political points. No real genuine effort has been taken. The issue of schools in the North and East, the same in the South, the problem of healthcare in the country – aren’t these human rights issues?

Setting up institutes such as the OMP is all well and good but what’s important is addressing the grassroots level issues of the people. But the Government has neither the capacity to do this nor the interest or will.

Those affected by the war in the North – what of their rights and needs? What has been done? Those families in the South – what has been done for them? Nothing. This is the reality. The issue in the North is the same in the North. In the end, nothing has been done.

The issue of human rights seems to be centred purely on one community, i.e. the Tamils. Do you think that human rights concerns of other communities are being sidelined?

That is wrong. Have the human rights of other communities been addressed? What of the disabled? Of pregnant mothers? It is wrong to separate communities by race. There are hundreds of thousands of disabled in the country – disability doesn’t discriminate by race. That in itself is the problem. Everything is being divided by race. Is there racial discrimination when there’s no disability access at a government building? No. There is no race involved.