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Global Human Rights Issues

Fr. Nandana Manatunga (Sri Lanka)

Father Nandana Manatunga, a Catholic priest, is transforming the human rights landscape in Sri Lanka, calling for Peace & Democracy. He challenges religious leaders to use their moral authority to advocate for human rights, and organizes volunteers to collaborate with agencies to document abuse, support victims during trial, and influence societal attitudes through community dialogue.

He also offers long-term rehabilitation for victims by providing security, protection, legal, medical and psychological assistance. The most critical component of his work hinges on media outreach and advocacy to ensure equal rights, Justice, Peace and Democracy.

Working in partnership with other local and international agencies, Father Nandana ensures that cases of all human rights violations are documented and publicized in the form of urgent appeals and press releases, thereby strengthening the broader calls for legal reform in Sri Lanka.

Lessons from the May 18 Democratic Uprising

The 2018 Gwangju Prize for Human Rights recognized my humble efforts along with many other committed people for defending and protecting the Rights of the marginalized and activism in Peace and democracy. It was an encouragement to me as well as to our movement that is composed of the staff, the victims, survivors, members of the support group and all human rights defenders. I firmly believe that the Award inspired many other activists and the religious priests to defend and protect the rights of people, taking up unforeseen risk both within the church as well as from the state actors. My sincere appreciation to May 18 Memorial Foundation in Gwangju, for their continued efforts in promoting democracy by recognizing and encouraging an activist of this region.

The Human Rights Office where I work was established in 2008 as a separate office, advanced upon the image and credibility in voicing for justice, peace & democracy at the most crucial time in the history of Sri Lanka during the civil war. Human Rights Office(HRO) accompanys the survivors of torture, sexual violence, families of the disappeared, prisoners with fabricated chargers and their families and other human rights violations to seek justice and campaign to establish the rule of law. By taking up individual cases we identify the defects of the Justice System and campaign for reforms in the police and the judiciary.

The HRO provides security, legal & medical assistance, and trauma counseling to victims and their family members to empower them to continue with their campaign for Justice and redress. We arrange with communities to provide facilities for the child victims to continue with their formal education. Since such efforts need to be supported by the communities “in breaking the silence”, particularly on violations as torture and sexual abuse, efforts are made to educate the general public on the need to campaign for the defense of rights and getting redress to the victims.

At present, the Human Rights Office handles more than 189 cases and assists more than 148 survivors of torture, child abuse, rape and has created a movement along with survivors and their families, human rights citizen committees and the support group. The Human Rights Office from the Central Province is the only organization that came forward to assist the political prisoners, the so called “terror” suspects who were detained indefinitely with fabricated charges in prisons and in other detention centers under the Prevention of the Terrorist Act. Human Rights Office successfully freed several of those suspects after having challenged the, so called, confessions obtained after severe Torture.

The Human Rights Office has campaigned with street movements, poster exhibitions, postcards, audio visuals, radio programmes, press conferences on Human Rights issues, Peace and democracy. We stand by the victims of many communities both to get redress the damages and educate the civil society and to get the perpetrators punished through fair trials. We are happy and proud to state that during the civil war, amidst lots of opposition, we have taken to the streets calling for peace and reconciliation. The HRO conducted street drams and exhibitions to educate the civil society to respect the dignity of all citizens irrespective of ethnicity and religion. Breaking the silence of the suffering of the poor victims of torture / sexual violence and of other human rights violations, we empower the victims and their family members from different parts of the country and make help to speak calling for justice to activate existing laws and to establish the rule of law and we have made history with landmark judgments in torture cases, sexual violence cases and cases against political prisoners and have activated the Torture Act no 22 of 1994. Further we have challenged the religious leaders to stand by the victims and campaign for the reforms of the police and the judiciary.

Legal frameworks and law enforcement are vital to the integrity and credibility of elections. The legitimacy of electoral processes hinges on an adequate legal framework that is effectively enforced. In many countries, money politics, lack of transparency, and political violence are still major challenges. Public trust in the electoral process and its institutions can only be restored by reforms to regulatory frameworks, effectively implemented, supported by more transparent and professionals. Further, elections and other political processes are pivotal to the quality of a country’s governance and can either greatly advance or set back a country’s long-term democratic development. Acknowledging and endorsing the fundamental principles relating to periodic free and fair elections the Human Rights Office along with civil society activists monitored the presidential elections and general elections in Kandy District in Sri Lanka to ensure that the elections were transparent, inclusive and free and fair.

While many Asian countries figure in the list of 166 countries, yet none of these countries, according to the report, has ‘full democracy’. However, South Korea figures at the top. Democracy is a key component in how the governance of our region evolves. Decentralization, connectivity, inclusivity, equity and closing development divide all imply empowerment of the peripheries and the traditionally marginalized, linking up and incorporating previously isolated areas into broader systems and networks, as well as mutual support, equal entitlement, and reciprocal accountability. From expanding the access to services and information, bridging gender development gaps, reforming election monitoring bodies and judicial systems, to defending pluralism and diversity − a deeper commitment to democracy can only strengthen the development vision and prospects. It is even more vital that the institutions are strengthened and prepared to be responsive to the people they serve a quality inherent in democratic values and institutions built on democratic principles.

Many Asian societies suffer from political corruption and periodic political violence. Legal process often gives way to political pressure, making it difficult for judicial officials, parliamentarians, and law enforcement bodies to act with impartiality and independently. This state of affairs erodes public confidence in institutions, creates trust deficit between citizens and government, and makes it more likely that disputes will again be settled violently. What was proved in 2016-17 was that South Korea’s democracy is among the most resilient in the world. When political institutions failed to prevent corruption of insulated elite, ordinary citizens intervened. Hence it is our duty, then, to follow the example of South Korea and strive together to build a region where we invest in and nurture democracy together to honour the collective vision.

The strengthening of rule of law institutions is central to efforts to create an enabling environment for democratic politics. Enforcement officials must adopt a professional policing culture that protects and serves citizens impartially. Judges must defend the separation of powers and uphold their duty to protect the rights of every citizen by applying the law without favour in accordance with the constitution. Religious, political and ethnic identities are frequently exploited in South Asia to promote conflict, spread discrimination and hate speech, and ultra-nationalist, ethno-nationalist and extreme religious agendas. The diversity of the region’s societies is part of its richness, on which further economic development depends.

Democracy faces challenges not only in South Asia but also in mature democracies in Europe and North America. This is a stark reminder that the road to democracy is long and winding and travellers on it sometimes go backwards as well as forward. Progress cannot be taken for granted and democracy cannot be imposed from outside. Societies must develop their own genuine and sustainable forms of democracy organically from within. The lessons from South Korea’s democratization should be framed in terms of interplay of formal and informal structures. This interplay drives both the problems and successes of the country’s experience. The disjoint between formal institutions and actual political configurations is a prominent theme in leading scholarship on South Korea’s modern political and social transformation.

A loss of faith in democracy has led to the rise of populism, xenophobia, extremism and intolerance. Growing doubts that democracy is an effective system for managing power and securing prosperity tempt some to explore alternative governance systems. A combination of resilient authoritarian regimes and new violent movements have caused civilian deaths, massive internal displacements and an unprecedented refugee crisis. There is clear evidence that we need constantly to nurture democracy and safeguard it by responses that are flexible, innovative and adapt emerging circumstances.

However, South Korea's democracy has turned obstacles into opportunities for reform and development. The Gwangju Uprising symbolizes South Koreans’ spirit of resistance to military rule, their aspirations for democracy and freedom and last but not the least, a dignified self-control even during such turbulent times.

When reflecting on democracy, the Gwangju May 18 Uprising is considered to have had positive effects on democratization efforts and citizen movements across the world. I feel that the “Power of people” is so strong that it just cannot be destroyed by violent suppressive means. Such power, from the people, spreads a spirit that will last for generations.

For us Gwangju Uprising remains as a unique sign that symbolizes people’s power that cannot be suppressed. Further, Gwangju Uprising inspired other countries suffering under dictatorship to follow suit and set an example of ordinary people taking power into their own.

Despite the ruthless persecution by the military authorities, the Gwangju Uprising could be seen as a historical victory that has inspired generations. Specifically, reading the stories of bystanders who witnessed the Uprising as children or young adults, the Uprising has played a role in processes of identity formation at both the regional and individual levels taking into account the institutions, territorial boundaries culture etc. The spirit of the Uprising resonates not only in Koreans but also in peoples throughout the world who are fighting for democracy and striving to safeguard democratic values and principles.

This year 2020 will mark the 40th anniversary of the Gwangju Democratic Uprising in South Korea, a pivotal event that inspired the Korean democratic movement through its ultimate victory. In Gwangju, where hundreds died in the Uprising, the event will marked by solemn remembrances and the presence of political leaders. We can learn from South Korea’s experience the importance of caring for democracy. When wider forces were denied opportunities to contribute, chances to improve the country’s democracy were missed, there are still more specific lessons that South Korea offers “the impressive record of the country’s civil society has not escaped the notice of neighboring countries”.