The Friday Forum, made of a distinguished group of Sri Lankan citizens led by retired diplomat Jayantha Dhanapala, has protested and expressed ‘grave’ concern over the refusal of the Colombo University to permit human rights activist Sunila Abeysekera to speak at a UN-organised event at the university premises.
In a letter to the Vice Chancellor and the members of the University Council, the Forum said the event, organized by the Faculty of Law and the Centre for the Study of Human Rights in collaboration with the UN Resident Coordinator’s office at the University on December 10 to commemorate World Human Rights Day, was (as a result) cancelled.
“We express our concern on the grounds that this decision violates basic tenets of academic freedom, which forms the cornerstone of university education, and has been upheld by the University of Colombo through many decades. We note that the relevant academic authorities, the Senate and the Faculty of Law, were not consulted.” The Forum comprises Rev. Bishop de Chickera, Prof. Arjuna Aluwihare, Prof. Savithri Gunasekera, Prof. Gananath Obeysekera, Prof. Ranjini Obeysekera, Dr. Devanesan Nesiah, Dr. Nimal Sandaratne, Ranjit Fernando, Ms. Sithie Tiruchelvam, J.C. Weliamuna, Ms. Jezima Ismail, Dr.A.C.Viswalingam, Ms Manouri Muthetuwegama, Ms. Suriya Wickramasinghe, Dr. Deepika Udagama, Dr. Jayampathy Wickramaratne, Dr. S. Sivakumaran, Ahilan Kadirgarmar, Lanka Nesiah, Dr. Cameena Gunaratne, Dr. Selvy Thiruchandran, Ms. Shanthi Dias, Ms. Dhamaris Wickramasekera, Professor. Stewart Motha and Chandra Jayaratne.
The letter said Ms. Abeysekera is well known as a human rights activist working in Sri Lanka and has been recognized for her work within the region and internationally, receiving the UN Human Rights Prize in 1998. She currently serves as Co-Chair of the UNDP’s Global Civil Society Advisory Committee to the Administrator of the UNDP.
It said universities are places of higher learning and provide a country with a valuable human resource. Providing students with access to as broad a range of learning experiences as possible should be a principal objective of any university administration. Exposure to various ideas, indeed especially those which one is not in agreement with, is an essential component of a sound liberal education.
“The Vice Chancellor and University Council imposing restrictions on access to opportunities to hear invited speakers and for dialogue and learning can only send a negative message to the academic community in respect of freedom of information and expression, which is a universally accepted fundamental human right and reiterated in our constitution and jurisprudence in the courts. Consequently such restrictions, stunts the development of a democratic mindset.”
The autonomy of the universities in Sri Lanka, and the role they play in ensuring academic freedom are well established in the Universities Act and have been reaffirmed by several decisions of the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka involving both students and academic staff. The Forum sought clarification on the basis of the decision to refuse Ms Abeysekera permission to speak at the event.