Human Rights Protection In Sri Lanka: The Forgotten Half Of The Story – Analysis


Much ink has been spilt over the years on the subject of human rights in Sri Lanka. The opinions, observations and indeed ultimatums have emanated from official, unofficial, international and domestic quarters. The issue of media freedom and related rights have come to the fore time and again. In recent weeks, fresh incidents related to the freedom of the press have sparked off renewed debate, condemnation and equally candid reaction. It is time we take stock and review the situation.


Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka

What has been conspicuously and starkly missing over the years in most human rights discussions related to Sri Lanka is the notion of correlating responsibilities that comes with every human right.

Rights and responsibilities are two sides of the same coin. Failure to focus on either is to present only half the story, or in other words, an incomplete picture. To every human right guaranteed there is a correlated responsibility linked to the enjoyment of that particular right. Ideally, if responsibility is observed in the exercise and enjoyment of the right, a violation is rarely a consequence. As a simple illustration, in order to enjoy our right to clean and fresh water we must first fulfil our responsibility as custodians or stewards of the environment.

Thus, we will notice that in Sri Lanka, human rights has occupied centre – stage with almost negligible recognition of human responsibilities and our roles in society. While a focus on human right protection and promotion is not to be abdicated, what is being argued here is the need for the discussion to be coupled with an equally robust discourse on human responsibilities. The dividends will be manifold : creating both an active Sri Lankan citizenry who have an internalized sense of social responsibility while creating a democratic and free society where enjoyment of rights will lead to the full realization of human potential.


How do we make sense of a situation, where human rights violations the world over have been on the rise, despite us living in times where the human rights norm is at the highest point in its development?

I state with conviction that the failure of human rights systems have been primarily due to two related reasons: an over-emphasized and exaggerated notion of individualism coupled with the lack of an equally robust discourse on human responsibilities.

Human responsibility is about encouraging people to be more socially engaged, in the political process, in social issues and in the global community. Let us consider the situation in Sri Lanka. The dissapointing lack of constructive discourse on human rights issues leaves the public at large to blame (constructive being the operative word). Balancing the interests of the community with the interests of the individual has become a distance dream. The vanishing distinction between badmouthing, slandering and defaming on the one hand, and exposing, highlighting and monitoring on the other, has become a cause for concern. The dwindling ethical standards in society has resulted in us being quick to allege a human rights violation without any attempt at introspection into personal conduct. This is indeed a slippery slope to travel.


Responsibilities provide a regulatory framework for the exercise and enjoyment of rights. Just as rights are based upon moral and ethical considerations so must responsibilities be grounded upon similar precepts.

It is the integration of rights and responsibilities that provides balance in the life of human beings. The absence of either – in the Sri Lankan context the absence of the an emphasis on human responsibilities – has resulted in arrogance and self – centredness of the human person, where reprehensible and irresponsible conduct is every so often camouflaged with vociferous declarations of violations. Human rights should never be taken for granted. Similarly, human responsibility should be considered as sacred as our human rights. The reverse of the two, and particular in combination, is a recipe for disaster.


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.

It is because responsibility is so crucial for the well-being of any society that Mahatma Gandhi was somewhat dismissive of the attempt to formulate a Universal Declaration of Human Rights that excluded any notion of responsibilities. In a letter to the Director of UNESCO in 1947 he observed, “I learned from my illiterate but wise mother that all rights to be deserved and preserved come from duty well done.” Similarly, the Confucian scholar, Wu Teh Yao, who was involved with the preparatory work that went into the formulation of the Universal Declaration had tried to convince his colleagues that it would not be wise to produce a document that only emphasized rights without giving equal attention to responsibilities.

The prophetic wisdom expressed over six decades ago has come to haunt the generations that have followed. Sri Lanka is a case in point.

Has the time come for us to develop a National Charter on Human Responsibilities?

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]

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