By Salma Yusuf
Human Rights are an increasingly important aspect of Diplomacy, and must be regarded as such, in any endeavour to improve a country’s international positioning. The process of safeguarding and promoting Human Rights through discourse and cooperation, has to become a fine art. Human Rights Diplomacy is understood as the utilization of diplomatic negotiation and persuasion for the specific purpose of promoting and protecting human rights. Skillful and principled diplomacy can become a crucial part of a holistic approach to human rights protection, complementing other means. As globalization of trade, environmental and security concerns brings nations into closer contact, serious questions have been raised about where human rights issues fit into traditional diplomatic discussions. Consequently, addressing human rights in diplomacy, requires a fine balance.
Human Rights in the Context of Sovereignty
What is increasingly becoming necessary, is the need to project a positive image abroad, the importance of which cannot be exaggerated. We need to show the world that we are committed to the practising, safeguarding and promoting of Human Rights and in the instances of gaps and challenges to be addressed, that we are well aware of the responsive facilities required.
Distinction needs to be drawn between, on the one hand, voluntary participation in international mechanisms and the subsequent rules of procedure, obligations of implementation and reporting that come with it, and, on the other hand, an encroachment of a nation’s sovereignty and territorial integrity that are not as a result of a nation’s undertaking. The true test of our sovereignty will be to follow the nation’s interest, assume strong national positions and communicate such positions effectively to the local and international communities. We must understand that the opportunity to justify our policies is an exercise of sovereignty, and not an encroachment of it.
National Human Rights Action Plan
Pursuant to its pledges at the United Nations’ Universal Periodic Review in 2008, the government embarked on drafting a National Human Rights Action Plan in 2009. The Action Plan has sought to address the objective of improving the human rights protection and promotion in all aspects, with targets to be achieved in five years. The Action Plan has subsequently been adopted by the Cabinet.
The efforts that have been invested in formulating the Action Plan will sadly be lost if subsequent action is not taken in an expedient manner. Furthermore, there is the risk, as is being seen, of such measures being labelled as mere rhetoric, if not translated into concrete and concerted follow-up action.
Report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission
In this regard, it must be mentioned that what remains essential is the finding of ways and means to synchronize the aims and objectives of the implementation plan of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) report with those of the National Human Rights Action Plan (NHRAP). This is important for two reasons, first to ensure human rights protection and promotion in both fact and perception are regarded as critical to the broader national reconciliation agenda. Second, it will ensure a powerful message is sent out both nationally and internationally, similar to the LLRC report, that the NHRAP is being taken seriously by the accordance of realistic timeframes linked to achievable goals together with the designation of responsible institutions for implementation, monitoring and coordination.
Human Rights and Peace – Building
The role of human rights protection and promotion in both peace-building and nation-building cannot be overstated.One of the key advantages that civil and political rights offer is that, when properly implemented, it enables citizens to feel involved with the state, and that the state, in some way, belongs to them. This is important in terms of nation-building and securing lasting peace in Sri Lanka, because if our citizens have no connection to the state, then they also have no motivation to avoid conflict. The aim of protecting and promoting economic, social and cultural rights is to ensure that all people in the country are able to meet their basic human needs. The introduction of socio-economic rights should not be ruled out on the basis of monetary concerns. Instead, it has been seen that the fulfillment of economic, social and cultural rights in fact has the potential to improve the nation’s economy as a whole. Such an endeavour is not only beneficial for the citizenry but also for the state as it improves the relationship between the two, strengthening the social contract, and hence contributes to a new culture, structure and system of governance.
Human Rights in a Multi – Cultural Society
Apart from common citizenship and equality, rights that are explicitly guaranteed in the Fundamental Rights Chapter of the Sri Lankan Constitution and those that are implied, can potentially help to bring the communities together. The Constitution not only guarantees the liberty of the person but also provides for the freedom of movement, the freedom of speech, assembly and association, and the freedom of religion.
However, when segments of the community have perceived, or misperceived, that their rights are not protected, disillusionment has set in and impacted negatively upon ethnic relations. Individuals and groups who have abused the freedom of speech and assembly in pursuit of narrow self–serving agendas have invariably undermined our quest for national unity. It is for this reason that human rights protection and promotion ought to be contextualized and seen as a means to an end, and not an end in itself.
This is why rights especially in a multi-cultural or multi-religious society such as ours, will have to be balanced with responsibilities. Citizenship after all is about responsibilities inasmuch as it is about rights. It would be irresponsible of a citizen who is determined to exercise his freedom of expression on an ethnic issue to ignore how it will impact upon members of another community. Similarly, a community which seeks to enhance its own cultural or religious rights without any regard for the feelings or sensitivities of the other will only exacerbate ethnic tensions.
Human Rights and Foreign Policy
Most of the country’s bilateral and multilateral engagements are haunted by a spectre of reconciliation and human rights concerns. We must remember that human rights and inter-communal harmony are not alien to our country, the values of which are enshrined in our shared history, cultures and legal frameworks. We need to capitalize and draw on these strengths to forge a robust system of governance that will be able to function with independence and credibility. Hence, for every allegation made, we will have the availability of structures and norms to deal with such allegations, domestically. In this regard too, the implementation of the outcomes of the two national processes, namely the LLRC and NHRAP will demonstrate homegrown mechanisms can credibly provide solutions, while improving our foreign relations and prospects. Here, once again, is a demonstration of the link between domestic and foreign policy.
Moreover, due to the conflict, we were largely inward looking, preoccupied with internal considerations and taking up defensive positions in human rights and other international forays. With the end of the war, there is now a need to broaden our areas of engagement into areas such as trade, science, environment, human and arms trafficking, terrorism, and regional cooperation. With a shift to the post-war phase, an identification of priorities, and a policy of engagement must be pursued to find common ground.
In the final analysis, it is the consolidation of peace, freedom, democracy and the domestic rule of law that will translate into the ability for us to project our nation as sovereign and credible in the international domain. The link between the protection of our national interests and international positioning cannot be clearer.
This article appeared at Ceylon Today and is reprinted with permission