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  5. Harmonizing Asia's Cultural Values and Human Rights : The Validity of the Approach - Sri Lankan Experience

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FOCUS September 1997 Volume 9

Harmonizing Asia's Cultural Values and Human Rights : The Validity of the Approach - Sri Lankan Experience

Basil Fernando - Asian Human Rights Commission

The purpose of study of culture in relation to human rights education and implementation is not "to legitimize such values on the basis of cultural continuity from the past as part of a specific way of life or culture."[1] To regard such a study of culture as purely a legitimization exercise is to reduce it to a selection exercise, i.e. selecting quotes from important texts regarded as basic sources of a particular religion or any other cultural source. This may be extended to selections from favorable episodes from history. Such an exercise belongs mostly to the propaganda sphere. The promotion and protection of human rights by way of implementation requires much more than propaganda.[2]

Legal formulations of human rights (international as well as local) only constitute an initial stage in the achievement of these rights. The gap between law and its implementation needs to be bridged if human rights formulations are not to remain mere illusions. Bridging this gap is an exercise in social transformation[3] and such transformation can only take place within a living cultural context, which needs to be addressed.[4] The essence of the pursuit of human rights is to establish the dignity of the human being as the most central concern of society. This end cannot be pursued without at the same time making efforts to understand the indignities that are meted out to human beings in that society and the cultural forms by which such indignities are constantly reinforced.[5]

For such a purpose, what is required is not selective use of quotes from religious texts or other sources of culture. For example, to select quotes from Buddhist texts which are supportive of freedom of thought and expression or on the rights of women may be an interesting exercise but hardly enough to meet the needs for achieving a proper implementation of these rights. An example of the study of culture from a human rights perspective is the work of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar on the issue of untouchability and his promotion of the notions of equality and fraternity in the cultural context of Hindu India.

The fear that cultural studies may lead to complications is hardly a serious objection. All attempts to move from ignorance to understanding creates complications and this is especially so in such issues as implementation of human rights norms and standards. The search for uncomplicated means of modernization is not a new one. It is shared by leaders from differing political perspectives. Pol Pot believed in wiping out the past as a fundamental tenet of his modernization philosophy and experimented with it ruthlessly within the four years he was in power.[6] This was his way of doing away with the cultural complications involved in dealing with local culture. A less sincere attempt in this direction was the cultural revolution of Chairman Mao.[7]

The political perspective of avoiding cultural complications has been articulated most clearly in Singapore by Lee Kuan Yew and in Malaysia by Mahathir. It was particularly stressed that possible ethnic confrontations need to be avoided to achieve rapid modernization. The end result was either to restrict freedom of expression and human rights altogether as in the case of Singapore or to a very great degree as in the case of Malaysia. It is quite natural that for a country like Sri Lanka, which is bedeviled by ethnic violence, to admire a seemingly less complicated model of development. What is implied in such a proposition, however, is to accept an authoritarian model of development as a way out of ethnic conflict. In fact minority parties and many liberal intellectuals preferred a strong Head of State capable of settling ethnic issues as against a democratic government which was perceived as too weak to deal with the views of the majority on the ethnic issue.

In fact, authoritarianism of some sort was seen in Sri Lanka as a short cut to modernization from the late sixties. The "limited dictatorship", as advocated by Felix Dias Bandaranayake is well known. The attempt at a full authoritarianism was attempted by J.R. Jayawardene and Ranasinghe Premadasa, the first and second executive Presidents of Sri Lanka. Such authoritarianism was seen as an imperative for economic modernization of the country and received support from the powerful economic lobbies in the country and outside. Many intellectuals gave theoretical and moral support to this political venture. This authoritarian model was less complicated in that it believed in the use of violence against dissenters and was expected to be able to carry out modernization rapidly.[8] The resulting displacement of democracy is well documented. The ethnic issue grew into civil war and the country, instead of achieving modernization, descended to unprecedented chaos. This very chaos in turn can create a desire for simple methods of getting over such chaos and achieving some form of prosperity as some countries have achieved in southeast Asia. However, the experience of the last two decades has distanced most people from the belief that such a result could be achieved through authoritarianism.

Modernization in the West was accompanied by a fundamental transformation of culture achieved through religious reformation. Perhaps this process contributed to the evolution of democracy and its accompanying modernization. Thus modernization in the West included the replacement of the feudal culture with a democratic culture. Such transformation was not an automatic process following economic modernization but a conscious process achieved by the critical examination of the cultural foundations of the feudal society in different countries. The feudal lords as well as the feudal clerics came under scrutiny as a part of this transformation.

In a country like Sri Lanka, is it possible to protect and promote human rights without a thorough scrutiny of society and culture? If one answers this affirmatively, then it is quite understandable to divorce human rights issues from issues relating to culture. However, the experience in Sri Lanka shows that despite increase in the number of legal enactments on human rights and quite a lot of programs for education on such rights, the country's human rights problems are increasing. There has not been significant improvements either in the civil or the economic rights spheres. Any serious attempt at promotion and protection of human rights must be accompanied by an effort to understand the root causes for the existence of such a situation.

A short examination of some of the basic human rights problems may be useful at this stage. Equality remains a basic issue that the Sri Lankan psyche does not easily accept despite the Constitutional recognition of the concept as a fundamental aspect of the legal system. Sri Lanka has a very deeply rooted caste system both among the Sinhalese as well as among the Tamils. To regard the Sinhala Buddhists who constitute over 69.30% of the population, as a homogenous community, is to overlook the deeply-rooted caste system that exists among the Buddhists even more than in non-Buddhist Sinhala communities. In India, Buddhism rose as a social movement that radically rejected and replaced the caste-entrenched Hinduism. Buddha went so far as to exhort the rejection of Hindu sacred texts (Shastras) as a part of radical rejection of caste. [9] Centuries afterwards it took a ruthless Hindu counter-revolution to oust Buddhism from India and to re-enforce a rigid caste system.

However, when Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka and was accepted by the Royalty of the time it incorporated unto itself the existing caste hierarchy of the country. Later, even the organization of Sanga attained a caste character. This continues to the present. Thus in Sri Lanka Buddhism - the world's most egalitarian philosophy popularly regarded as a religion - lost its capacity to contain the concept of equality within its body of thought. The opposite of original teaching - the caste system- was accommodated within itself. As a result, a deep religious barrier exists in the country reproducing discriminatory practices among the Sinhala Buddhists themselves. In provinces such as Kandy, Ratnapura and Matara, where the population is overwhelmingly Sinhala Buddhist caste-based discrimination exists to appalling degree.

It is the caste character of Sinhalese that prevents the acceptance of the Tamils on an equal basis. A race that does not accept equality among themselves is not likely to accept equality with other races. Buddhism as is practised in Sri Lanka has been psychically transformed to accept and justify caste and is unable to generate social energy to accept racial equality. While some intellectuals have tried to create the notion called Sinhala Buddhism [10], as an important component on the contribution to anti-Tamil racism, they have failed to raise the issue of caste which deeply divides the Sinhalese. Lack of familiarity with equality as a human experience among the majority community itself is more responsible for the present ethnic crisis than any other factor.

Caste discrimination exists in the Tamil community too. The caste system of Tamils in Sri Lanka is even more rigid than the Sinhala caste system. There have been many Tamil movements fighting for such rights attending to Kovils (Hindu Temples). At the early phase of militant organizations of Tamils in the middle part of this century, their violence was directed towards "higher" castes of the Tamils themselves (this was so in southern rebellions of the South in 1971 and afterwards also). Perhaps the continuing violence in Tamil communities has leveled down caste barriers among the Tamils living in these areas.

The study of cultural factors relating to lack of familiarity of the concept of equality in Sri Lankan culture can contribute greatly to understanding the present situation of the country and will help towards finding ways to cultivate a culture of equality. A doctrinal basis for this exists in Buddhism as taught by Buddha, though the actual Buddhism as found in Sri Lanka has assimilated local caste prejudices.

Another important human rights problem in the country is the general tolerance of violence. The use of torture by the police is endemic. Psychological forms of torture are so common that no one even cares to challenge them in a court of law. As far as law goes, the Constitution of Sri Lanka has incorporated the provisions of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights against torture and cruel and inhuman punishment. The Supreme Court of Sri Lanka has given several laudable judgments protecting these rights as absolute rights which know no limit. However, torture and inhuman treatment remain quite an accepted cultural habit, so that anyone who has some connection with the police gets its support to punish their less influential opponents. During the times of instability, use of such violence reaches unimaginable proportions. In the South, such occasions were the periods around 1971 and 1988-1993. And in the Tamil areas it has continued from early 1980 up to date.

The extra-judicial killings have now become quite a part of the stuff the Sri Lankan psyche has learned to put up with. There were a considerable number of such deaths in 1971 in the South and between 1988-92 the conservative estimate of such deaths is twelve thousand (NGOs have claimed the number to be sixty thousand.) The bodies were exhibited on the roads and were thrown into rivers. The attempt to prosecute offenders is almost negligible. Even the horrific cases such as the killing of over thirty school children have not ended in the prosecution of all the suspects. While there have been protests, these have not been in proportion to the massive violations. An old psychic habit has asserted itself and there has been the willingness to adjust to the situation as if fearing that the pursuit of justice may lead to further trouble. Among the weaker sections of the population, tolerance of such violence may be a way of expressing their weakness. Among the socially strong it can be a way of asserting their power and authority. In either case, promotion and protection of human rights implies understanding of such human behavior. Houtart analyzed the statistics of the participants in 1971 and claimed that there was a clear indication of a link between heavily discriminated castes and the participation in rebellion. [11] After the rebellion, when thousands of youth surrendered answering a call of the government for amnesty, interviews were conducted to find the extent of each person's involvement. One question was about the caste of these persons. Belonging to a particular caste was regarded as prima facie evidence of possible participation in the rebellion. In the suppression in 1988-1993, some of the worst police violence was directed towards some "low" castes.

A further important human rights issue is the seeming indifference towards the weakest in society. This is a very important aspect in a country where over 40 percent of the people live below the poverty line. (It must be noted that the category below poverty line in a third world country like Sri Lanka is very different from a similar category in the first world where it is implied that poverty is relative poverty. In a third world context this means lack of basic food, shelter and clothing.) Still, most businesses including those providing professional services rely on the exploitation of the poorest. In the agricultural sphere which is the largest economic sphere, the traders rely on the purchase of products below the cost price. Many attempts by the state and other agencies to regulate price mechanism have not been resolute enough to be successes. Suicides among peasantry is high. In fact, the suicide rate in the country ranks among the highest in the world. Recent published statistics showed 70,000, suicides from 1983 to 1997, a number higher than the accounted for deaths in ethnic warfare during the same period. Vast numbers of these suicides have taken place among the poorest. Those who have died in the ethnic war on both sides also, for most part, belong to poorest sections of society. The professionals have a long-standing cultural habit of exploiting the ignorance and the backwardness of the poorest sections of society. A frank relationship where professionals inform their clients of the things that these clients have as a right to know is not yet a part of the local culture. While there is some improvement in the right to information as against the state, there is hardly any improvement in the area of scrutiny of professional behavior.[12] Enforcement of the right to health implies scrutiny of practices of the medical profession: due process rights requires an examination of the legal profession. The poor can have the benefit of such scrutiny only if the guardians of rights such as the press and the human rights community take a serious attempt.

The indifference to the poor is related to the caste-based character of the society where "lower caste" by definition are the socially weak. The social consciousness in Sri Lanka has been determined by the land distribution of the feudal society. The landless were dependent on the land owners, usually referred to as "Radalayas". Radalayas were arrogant and trampled on the people with impunity. The impunity of the "upper caste" and people who belonged to a higher status than those known as "Sananya Minissu" (ordinary people) is a deeply imbedded cultural concept. Recently, (June 1997), a senior judge who has been presiding over some serious human rights cases said," independence of judiciary in this country is a myth where even getting a warrant executed is impossible if the suspect does not happen to be a "Haramanis" ( small person).[13] While legally no one is immune from prosecution, in reality, many are. Thus medieval conceptions still continue in the practical application of laws. Radalayas treated "Samanaya Minissu" with contempt and use of violence against such people was a common practice. One example is a criminal case which happened in the seventies in a town in the south called Akurassa. One Radala family occupied positions in town such as posts in town council and the cooperatives. One male youth, who was a son of a woman who worked for this family, joined the local communist party and at one cooperative meeting challenged the Radala master on some points. Such a question was too much for this man to bear. He stabbed the young man to death with a huge knife and surrendered to the police with the knife in his hand. According to a close relative he never regretted this act.[14]

A farmer from Tabutthegama, Anuraddhapura summed up what human rights means to poor people in the country-side: "When the officer-in-charge of the police station shoots our cow and takes it to a party at his home, my mother prepares chillies and sends it through my father to the police officer's house. This is the way my father tells the officer that he bears no grudge for the police officer killing his cow. If the officer feels that there is some ill-will my father may face other problems."[15]

The cruelty that "upper castes" have perpetrated in the past centuries on the "ordinary people" is immense. It may well be the psychic patterns of this behavior that gets repeated during times of disturbances by way of crude killings, humiliating forms of the disposal of bodies, and other forms of violence. Is it not the same psychic pattern that creates in the victims inhuman and cruel forms of revenge? With more people from "low castes" getting educated due to free education, resentment grew in rural "upper" castes and much violence developed on this basis. In the promotion and protection of human rights it is very necessary to study and understand the patterns of violations in the country.

The Sinhala language in its grammatical form still retains a distinction of addressing people on the basis of status. In the colloquial form such distinctions are expressed in even a more harsher manner.

Another important area concerns rights to information and freedom of expression. Besides the limitations imposed by the state there are limitations which are culturally imposed. A close scrutiny of patterns of corruption and a pattern of violence is not generally pursued consistently. Even the pressure to expose the extra-judicial killings did not reach anywhere near to similar investigations in Argentina. To hide things under the carpet continues as a cultural habit. The cultural habit is re-imposed by the use of violence against those who break the taboo. This violence is often initiated privately.

Creating a human rights culture involves much more than legalistic approach. As against the Indian Marxists of the pre-independence period who ignored social and cultural aspects Dr. B.R. Ambedkar argued, "History bears out the proposition that political revolutions have always been preceded by social and religious revolutions."[16] The sensitivity the conservative elements show against examination of religion from a religious point of view was demonstrated by the ex-communication of Fr. Tissa Balasuriya, a Sri Lankan priest, for his attempts to look into the rights of women from a theological point of view.[17] The literature relating to this debate is a rich source on the issue of Religion, Culture and Human Rights.


The implementation of human rights principles, norms and standards is the key concern of the human rights project. Such implementation can only take place in the living cultural context of any given society. The violations of rights in any society are supported by the elements of culture of that society. Thus, human rights violations are not purely acts of perverted individuals acting against their culture. The cultural foundations of human rights violations need to be scrutinized if the root causes of human rights violations are to be grasped. Without such a grasp, no deep transformation is possible, and any human rights project will remain a cosmetic exercise as it is often accused of being. If it is to become a dynamic movement capable of unleashing the inner energies of people to pursue its aims, the shadowy side of society and culture should come within the scrutiny of human rights practitioners. As no self-knowledge is possible without knowledge about one's shadow, it is also not possible to understand a culture without scrutiny of its shadowy side. It is knowledge of the shadowy side that unleashes the dynamism slumbering in the social psyche of which we are seldom aware. The social potentialities of great dynamism could erupt when a society becomes capable of dealing with its shadow that is imbedded in its culture. Thus, the scrutiny of culture is an inescapable aspect of the protection and promotion of human rights. As there are ventures to record the violation of rights, there needs to be recording and scrutiny of the cultural roots of such violations as well. All cultures have their positive sides when judged from a human rights standpoint. These remain often crushed under the shadow, however. The process of overcoming such suppression, therefore, requires dealing with the darker aspects of the cultures concerned.

End Notes

  1. Sasanka Perera, 1997. Articulating Modern Notions of Human Rights in Sri Lanka in the Context of Paradigmatic Positions of Buddhist Ethics; Brief Comment on Problems and Concerns in HURIGHTS OSAKA Report on "Harmonizing Asia's Cultural Values and Human Rights", Osaka, Japan
  2. Asian Human Rights Charter, Final draft - Volume 13 of Asian Human Rights Solidarity, Hong Kong, February, 1997
  3. The statement of the participants of the Workshop on Human Rights Education, Organized by the Diplomacy Training Programme, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia, 1997
  4. Human Rights and Spirituality, A Workshop Report-, Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong, 1996
  5. ibid.
  6. David P. Chandler, 1997. The Tragedy Of Cambodian History, Yale University Press.
  7. Wei Jingsheng- Courage to Stand Alone- Letters from Prison and other Writings, Viking Publications.
  8. Basil Fernando , 1992. Militarization Versus Modernization , Asia Monitor Publication, Hong Kong.
  9. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. Buddha and His Dharma
  10. David Kumar and S.S. Kadirgammar, 1989. Ethnicity, Identity, Conflict, Crisis, ARENA Publication, Hong Kong.
  11. F. Houtart, 1974. Religion and Ideology in Sri Lanka , TPI, Bangalore.
  12. Eradication of Poverty as a Basic Human Rights Issue - A Workshop Report, Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong, 1995.
  13. Workshop Report on Provisions in The Draft Constitution and Independence of Judiciary - Asian Human Rights Commission, Colombo, May 1997
  14. An interview by the author with the son of the accused.
  15. An interview by the author.
  16. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, 1936. Annihilation of Caste .
  17. Balasuriya Tissa. Mary And Human Liberation, Logos Publication of the Centre for Religion and Society, Sri Lanka; Basil Fernando. Power Vs Conscience- The Excommunication of Fr. Tissa Balasuriya, Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong.