Embracing The Full Menu Of Human Rights – OpEd


The disproportionate focus on human rights from a negative perspective has sadly resulted in detraction from understanding the role that human rights can in fact play in a post-war setting such as ours. The time is ripe for human rights to be approached positively, recognizing its value and ability to contribute to the process of national healing and reconciliation.


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 illustrations below demonstrate how specific rights can help to rebuild the nation and secure lasting peace.


Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen approved by the National Assembly of France, August 26, 1789.
Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen approved by the National Assembly of France, August 26, 1789.

This right, combined with the right to life and freedom from torture, is important for ensuring that people do not have to fear for their safety whilst going about their daily lives. In terms of what this right can bring to the nation, it can help to maintain peace and security because if citizens are able to feel safe and secure in their environment, conflict is less likely to arise.
It is particularly important that this right is successfully protected because there is likely to be suspicion among citizens and other peoples that the rebuilding of the nation will result in the re-instatement of previous conditions of deprivation and discrimination: these suspicions need to be put to rest once and for all.

Additionally, ensuring that the security of person is protected can improve international relations: if the international community can see that rights such as these are being effectively protected, they are likely to be much more willing to engage with the state. In a globalised world, the ability to engage with other states is essential, both politically and economically.


It is important to ensure that all people, irrespective of ethnicity and religion, are treated fairly in legal proceedings within the country, largely because faith needs to be restored in the ability of the legal system to provide justice. As with the right to liberty and security of person, the implementation of the right to a fair trial and equality before the law is particularly important because it is necessary for those who have been unjustly treated in the past to see that the state is now able to protect them from future injustices: if they are unable to see this, then they are unlikely to be able to feel that they truly belong within the state.
The protection of these rights is also important more generally – a functioning and respected legal system is crucial in securing law and order, being essential if future civil unrest is to be avoided.


Protection needs to be afforded not only to the majority of the citizens, but also to the minority and other disadvantaged groups within that society. If this cannot be achieved, then it is unlikely that peace will be maintained. For a political system to be truly democratic, it has to allow minorities a voice of their own, to articulate their distinct concerns and seek redress and lay the basis of democracy. Introducing ‘special measures’ for minorities does not place them in a position of privilege in society, but rather puts them on an equal footing with the majority. This allows minority groups to be able to influence public policy and therefore to prevent feeling detached from the nation.

Participation in public affairs by minorities is essential to creating a sense of national identity. It is crucial to feeling part of the state and the wider community. It is essential to the protection of their interests. Further, it will serve to inform decision-makers of the concerns of minorities, and leads to better decision-making and implementation. It is therefore clear that when minority rights are secured, there is a much greater likelihood that peace will be maintained. Practitioners should therefore aim to ensure that minority voices can be heard and feed into national processes.

What must be remembered, however, is that the requirements and needs of different minority groups in the country are different to each other and cannot be generalised, and practitioners too should not attempt to do so.


The aim of these 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 fulfilment of economic, social and cultural rights in fact has the potential to improve the nation’s economy as a whole. The benefits offered by a number of specific economic, social and cultural rights are considered below.


The physical and mental wellbeing of the nation can be particularly important for maintaining peace and security. A human rights framework that provides comprehensive protection for the human right to health should include provision of real access to healthcare – such access should include emergency and routine medical treatment, as well as immunization programmes. This will help to maintain lasting peace because, if our society as a whole – or a less affluent proportion of our society – is suffering from ill-health and disease, it is much more likely to be rife with discontent. Additionally, creating a healthy nation is likely to benefit the state’s economy – a sick nation is unable to work, and is therefore unable to generate wealth.

Concerns about the cost of providing human rights protection for the right to health should not be overstated. The right to health is a progressive human right, meaning that citizens should expect the state to provide for ‘the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.’ This standard depends on the wealth of the nation, so the standard that we could expect to enjoy in Sri Lanka, for example, is not the same as the standard that could be expected either in Germany or Guatemala.

What is important, however, is that access to healthcare is provided to all people equally. If this is not achieved, civil unrest is likely to return. Practitioners should therefore work to encourage the development of healthcare infrastructures that can be easily accessed by even the most marginalised groups in society.


Education provides citizens with opportunities to develop new skills. This, in turn, provides the opportunity to generate a higher income. As citizens are able to earn more, it is clear that the nation’s economy will improve as a whole and the likelihood of satisfaction and prevention of frustration can considerably contribute to building a connection with the post-war state. This is happening at the moment, where India is moving ahead of the Western world in relation to science and technology. It is clear that a world-class system of universities cannot be developed overnight. However, if investment is made in our education system, then the state’s economic outlook can improve in the long-term. Moreover, such investment will prevent unrest in the short to medium-term because if every Sri Lankan citizen can see progress being made and are given the opportunity to improve their own standard and quality of life, they are far less likely to agitate and return to conflict.


The right to work carries with it the potential to improve the prosperity of the nation. This is because it is important to have an active workforce in order to grow the nation’s economy: if people are given the opportunity to work, then they are able to go out and earn more money, some of which can then be created as revenue. Such protection will in turn reduce unrest and improve the economy.


Possibly the most important contribution human rights can make towards reconciliation and securing lasting peace in Sri Lanka is the protection they can bring to minorities. Practitioners are therefore well advised to work closely with minority groups in order to determine how their needs can be best met. It should be borne in mind, however, that an overly minority-focused approach could arouse the suspicions of the majority. Ultimately, balance and discretion need to be used, ensuring that the social fabric woven leaves no place for discrimination, discontent or misgiving.

This article appeared at the Daily Mirror and is reprinted with permission

Salma Yusuf

Salma Yusuf is a Visiting Lecturer, Masters in Human Rights, University of Colombo and University of Sydney; Visiting Lecturer, Bachelor of Laws, University of Northumbria – Regional Campus for Sri Lanka & Maldives; LL.M, Queen Mary, University of London; Queen Mary Scholar 2008-2009; LL.B (Hons), University of London. She provides legal and policy advisory services on both national and international programmes in the fields of human rights law, transitional justice, comparative social justice, and peace-building. She has authored publications for the Sri Lanka Journal of International Law; the Seattle Journal for Social Justice; the Complutense University of Madrid; the Institue of Human Rights; and the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Email: [email protected]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *