Editorial | Sunday Observer

Editorial

Human Rights: Ginthota, Errant MPs, Engine Drivers

The victims of the latest ethnic pogrom, in Ginthota, await expectantly for redress, citizens at large wonder confusedly how their elected parliamentarians get away with just a Rs. 1,000 penalty fine for violating basic Parliamentary regulations on declaration of assets and, Railways engine drivers and other employees flex their trade union muscles over what seems to be a minor technical hitch in their career prospects. All this happens as, today, World Human Rights Day, heralds the seventieth year of the United Nations’ adoption and implementation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Adopted by the UN in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a kind of postmodern ‘Magna Carta’ for humankind – a socio-political ‘first’ in Humanity’s striving for greater democracy. The Declaration sets out universal values shared by Humanity of the right to basic individual rights and, equal rights for economic survival, prosperity, among other things.

The Declaration commits UN member states to a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations. Formulated by experts and representatives of diverse legal and cultural backgrounds from all regions of the world, the Declaration has, over the past seventy years, withstood the tests of time and human exigency.

For all member nations of the United Nations, including Sri Lanka, the Universal Declaration is one many international collective mechanisms that, today, subordinate national sovereignty to global collective needs and interests such as human development, global ecology and, complementary systems of Justice. As citizens of the world under UN member nationhood, we are now all beneficiaries of such international protection of our basic citizen’s rights, with national governments now answerable to global regulatory bodies in protecting those rights.

Just as much as we look to our elected governing representatives to fulfil world standards of human rights, as citizens of UN member states, we can now hold our government accountable to the world body for the upholding of our rights.

Even as we become aware of the scope of protection of our individual rights, we are reminded of the suffering undergone by some of our fellow citizens in the recent anti-Muslim riots in Ginthota, near Galle. In those infamous recent incidents of physical damage and, arson against, Muslim-owned properties and Muslim enterprises a minority community underwent, yet again, the experience of violence, fear, and insecurity. Worse is the realisation, and, the trauma of knowing, that you are under threat from your very neighbours or, fellow townsmen.

The Government has already initiated firm action against the perpetrators and also against public officials – including the Police – for their laxity of response to the social crisis that beset a minority ethnic community. The country is world famous for its multi-facetted ethno-cultural nationhood but has been questioned in global fora for its treatment of ethnic and religious minorities in recent decades.

Today, there is a government that is, at least, attempting to meet our own as well as world standards in human rights. The affected social groups in Ginthota and other hotspots of communal tension await redress in accordance with those standards.

The Universal Declaration also establishes the equal dignity and worth of every person. That ‘equal worth’ must be the same for both ruler and ruled.

But last week citizens were reminded that the rulers – in our case, our elected parliamentarians – tend to look after themselves first and tend to the ‘ruled’ with less than a pinch of salt. The Colombo Additional Magistrate last week imposed a fine of just Rs 1,000 on former MP Sajin de Vass Gunawardena, who pleaded guilty for failure to declare his assets from the year 2011 to 2012.

The Bribery Commission had filed a case against the former Parliamentarian for failing to submit declarations of assets and liabilities during his time as an MP from March 31, 2011 to March 31, 2012.

Citizens will be forgiven for wondering how is it that an elected representative of the people can be punished so leniently when ordinary Sri Lankans face much stiffer punishment for numerous offences - starting with motor traffic violations - for which fines range from thousands of rupees to millions. The law governing the declaration of assets does not allow court to impose anything more.

Can we challenge our legislators to revise this law so that they, too, are under much stricter regulation and may not escape with a pittance of a ‘fine’?

Meanwhile, the national railway network suffers from a major strike that had yet to be resolved when this edition went to press.

The current strike that has seriously disrupted rail transport services across the country, is, yet again, seemingly a symptom of the impatience of our technical work cadres on the one hand and, on the other, the slow reaction of administrators to the problems raised by the railway engine drivers.

That trade union rights are respected by this Government is obvious from the sheer number of groups of employees of many sectors who have, under this regime, resorted to strike action at the slightest provocation.

On the one hand, employees have to learn to strike work only as a last resort in their efforts to resolve their work place problems. Employees, however, can only be reassured that negotiations can succeed if the available mechanisms of negotiations and mediation are smoothly functioning and can be activated rapidly without the delays that only serve to perpetuate their problems.

The bureaucracy and political leadership has to ensure that such labour response mechanisms are more sensitive and responsive to employee issues. This is a crucial aspect of labour justice and an important means of ensuring that a satisfied workforce does not resort to strikes too often. 

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