Interviews

SL has done well in human rights, but can do more: Sujeewa Senasinghe

By Skandha Gunasekara

United National Front (UNF) Parliamentarian and Minister Sujeewa Senasinghe asserted that human rights must be advocated for and furthered in the country. He noted that, immaterial of who they are, human rights are applicable to all.

“We can’t do away with human rights. Once we do away with human rights, then the innocent people who need these rights such as political victims also lose this protection,” Senasinghe observed.

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 in Geneva. Is this something Sri Lanka can afford to do at this point?

I think the President has misunderstood the concept of human rights. It’s a mix up of knowledge and the practical aspect of this. I have been listening to the President and, practically, on certain issues, he may be correct, but we can’t set aside norms of human rights.

For example, what he questions is why an underworld criminal should have human rights. It’s a very sensitive issue and people might think, especially in our part of the world, that recognising a criminal’s human rights is unfair. But the concept of human rights is that, immaterial of who they are, human rights are applicable to all. It’s a parallel between how to impose this and how to have a balance view on this.

We are progressing, and in the past three years, the country has progressed in good governance, democracy, and rule of law. So whether we like it or not, even criminals have human rights. We can’t do away with human rights. Once we do away with human rights, then innocent people who need these rights, such as political victims, also lose this protection. We should never do away with human rights.

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?

Human Rights are always good but sometimes these NGOs and foreign companies can have double standards. So, human rights in America and England are different to human rights in our part of the world. There is a debate on that.

There were no human rights for Bin Laden, there were no human rights for Sri Lankans who were under the British 70-80 years ago, and the British are yet to apologise. So you can see the double standards. All in all, human rights are good. Whether it’s pushed by foreign countries or NGOs, the more human rights protections we have the better for our country.

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

In every sphere there are human rights issues. In normal day-to-day life, there are human rights issues. Even in America there are human rights issues. In every country there are human rights issues; it depends on which area and the magnitude of it. There are human rights violations every day and best practices will help us protect this.

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

No, America is a different country. People are not greatly affected by America withdrawing, but in Sri Lanka, if you don’t have human rights, and if we didn’t inculcate that in our Constitution, it would be very bad for our citizens. People must have these rights and when you’re helpless, it is the only silver lining you have in protecting oneself.

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

We have done well but we can improve on it and do more. Only the family will know the pain and suffering of questions not being answered. If it had happened to you or me, our approach would be different. We have to always think of the victim. We can do more.

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?

Yes, I would think so. It’s just that sometimes it becomes biased as well. When you think about it, the North and East are very underdeveloped – it has only about a 3% growth rate – with Monaragale coming next. But poverty is common to the whole country, not just one area.

It is also good to concentrate on one area to compensate the losses they have made in the last 30 years. But as a whole, everybody faces these problems – for Tamils it may be more because of the war, but then again, this is, I think, where the President’s mindset comes from: What human rights do terrorists have? They have killed thousands of people, so do they have any human rights? It is a very sensitive area.

I think even the families of a terrorist, as an innocent family, needs to know what happened to them. They need closure. That is what they need to bring an end to this. Reconciliation is what is needed and that needs to happen very fast. We must get it done and finish it.