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3rd January 1999

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Culture of complacency – 1998 in retrospect

By Kishali Pinto Jayawardena

In her contribution to a 1998 Commemorative Anthology of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights put out a few weeks back by the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs , CNN journalist Christiane Amanpour reflects that she was twenty years old before her conscience "kicked in", before she understood the real meaning of words like freedom and human rights.

In writing that is as vibrant as her personality on television, Amanpour points out that she is now forty and that "the intervening years sometimes seem like an atonement for that early ignorant indifference." For her, the introduction to "human rights and violations", as she puts it, came with the Islamic Revolution.

"Suddenly, my whole world spun around people that I had grown up admiring and I respected. They were put before firing squads, a beloved uncle was put to death in prison, " she comments. Her catalogue of her eight short years as foreign correspondent seems indeed like a guidebook to human rights violations with detailing of tyranny, oppression, slavery, torture, indignity, inequality, invasion of privacy, the denial of political rights, arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, the denial of free speech, of association and of worship. Throughout, her problem was a troublesome inner voice which kept on compelling her to speak out when it would have been wiser to keep quiet, to witness horrors about which she could speak unflinchingly to the world but which kept her awake at night and to tell stories that confronted the official lies with the truth. It was in this seeking for the truth that she became aware of the moral dimension to her work. Here again, she experienced conflict. Journalists are, by definition of their work, expected to be objective. In distinguishing between the aggressor and the victim in particular violations of human rights, was she transgressing this golden rule? The answer, which came after years of striving, was finally in the negative. She phases it thus ," I realised that objectivity means giving all sides an equal hearing, it does not mean treating all sides equally. When you do that, when you cannot distinguish between victim and aggressor, rapist and victim, you enter the zone of moral equivalence….I could not do this, I took some hits…….there were complaints that I had lost my objectivity, that I was siding with one faction. My answer is that I sought the truth and that I became aware of the moral dimension to our profession. I also became aware of the power of a journalist's words and the consequences they have."

Twenty years after discovering that she had a conscience, Amanpour put it to use in her profession as a journalist, where "….having started out ignorant and somewhat indifferent, I have found out that our (work) can be a power for good, can advance universal rights, can expose those who would destroy them" Her powerful sincerity easily overrides the cynical mistrust so often expressed about journalists and journalism.

She states that "by her experiences, she has been shaped forever as a person."

As 1999 dawns for Sri Lankans, now living in a country identified as one of the most violent conflict zones in the world, Amanpour's personal awakening cannot but come too soon for each and every Sri Lankan. Her awareness of the "moral dimension" to her work is not limited, by definition, to journalists or to human rights activists. Instead, the same duty to manifest this "moral dimension" and to speak out in instances where it is outraged can be claimed from any person, be it a private sector executive, a banker, a lawyer or a businessman. The problem is, of course, that the contrary is happening in a society that seems to be rent by cynicism, complacency and a self centered preoccupation that borders on the grotesque.

Take for instance, this Christmas and New Year celebrations. As the cities were jampacked with shoppers and hotels competed with each other to host the "grandest NewYear's dance", groups of women were meeting in secret in the major towns for quite a different purpose. They were the mothers, wives and sisters of the "disappeared", those service personnel caught in recent operations in the North and the East whose bodies have never been recovered and who are now inhumanly categorised as "missing, presumed dead". The women are meeting thus to explore ways and means of finding out what has happened to their men, their planned action is unobtrusive for fear that if they speak out, they will be further penalised or that their other sons who are in the forces would be affected. Part of their anguish comes from the sheer uncertainty of it all, the inability to see the bodies of their sons,husbands and brothers for the last time, to know that they are really dead.

For them, the end 1998 year celebrations are a parody of the agony that they are undergoing, the agony that many of them sense, would never be lessened.

They are not alone in their despair, their plight is ironically shared by women fated to be "on the other side' due to the vagaries of race, the women in the conflict areas whose children have been coerced into war by the LTTE and women in other parts of the country who live daily in fear that they or their families would be harassed, because a so called liberation army is fighting for a separate state which many of them do not wish to live in.

This, then is Sri Lanka, at the end of 1998, a country named as having one of the highest rates of disappearances in the world. A country where a culture of complacency has set in, where sometimes one is driven to a torturous longing for the brutalities of a previous era, which was however accompanied by a critical mass of indignation, sadly so lacking now.

Looking back at 1998, the increasing activism by the courts regarding violations of rights brought before them, remained the one saving grace in an otherwise commonplace year. In particular, the Krishanthi Kumarasamy case where the rape and murder of a fifteen year old school girl and the subsequent murder of her mother, brother and neighbour who went in search of her, by eight soldiers and one policeman on duty at the Chemmani check point marked the coming together of forces across the country, united in their condemnation of the horrendous incident. The case also saw the growth of hope that the 1990's will see swift justice for those members of the forces who engage in rights violations. The call was made for a genuine rethink by both ordinary people and their leaders as to the reality of the events happening in the country and a surge of angry public opinion emphasized that abuses by members of the security forces have to be acknowledged and a consciousness created that such incidents are, indeed, hugely counterproductive. However, at the close of 1998, it appears that the momentum caused by the Kumarasamy verdict has petered out. Other cases, similarly gruesome in nature remain to be pursued. Identified mass graves such as the one at Suriyakanda in the South and Chemmani in the North have yet to be fully investigated and arbitrary arrests, disappearances and torture at the hands of the armed forces are still reported.

The National Human Rights Commission is still struggling to prove itself and its ambitious mandate, while the government has yet to account to the families of those who disappeared during 1988-'89. The recommendations of the three Disappearances Commissions which looked into the involuntary removal of persons and submitted remedial measures that could be taken have not been implemented up to date, the purpose of that particular exercise apparently being merely to portray the UNP as the villain of that particular era.

Meanwhile, censorship curtailing freedom of expression has now been in force for over five months and excepting sporadic outbursts in caustic editorials,it seems that no one is bothered over much. In truth, what prevails is a culture of complacency, an air of "going about our business", being mildly shocked at the atrocities of the war, exclaiming over the breakdown of civil society as instances of open rape, murder and violence become commonplace and jolted out of our complacency only when a particularly brutal rape and murder takes place as in the case of Rita Manoharan or a terrorist explosion occurs in the cities.

What is gravely needed, as we go into 1999, is a shaking of this complacency, an awareness of the "moral dimension" articulated with so much feeling by Amanpour and which could be demonstrated not only by picketing in the streets but by intentional indignation, individually and collectively expressed. Without this consciousness on the part of every individual citizen, 1999 can be no better for the country than 1998. The nightmare is that, quite possibly, it could be worse.

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