Having previously served as a Cabinet Minister as well as a Governor, Dr. Jagath Balasuriya has been appointed as the Chairman of the Human Rights Commission. He has close ties with the heads of government and a special attention has been paid towards how he serves as the chairman of the Human Rights Commission.
What is your vision for human rights?
I have experience in human rights. As a politician, I study all the sufferings of the people. Sometimes we have to live on with that grief. Because what we often get to hear are problems and grievances of people. During the 1988-89 period of terror, I resigned from being a university lecturer and entered the legal profession. It was an era of blatant violation of human rights.
At that time, I appeared in cases under the Anti-Terrorism Act. Back then, I spoke in the highest number of cases in the Kegalle High Court. But I did not take any money. Through that we learned that we must stand up for the human rights of the people. Why is the Human Rights Commission important to a country and its citizens? Human rights are an ideal.
A very noble policy. There are a large number of ideals in religions as well. But we know that they do not work in the exact way that they are intended to. No matter how much we talk about human rights, governments do not try to enforce it in the same way. There are various reasons for this.
A former United Nations Secretary-General once said that poverty, global inequality, discrimination, war, the weakening of democratic institutions, and weak institutions do not enable human rights to function properly. That is the real situation of human rights. We have all accepted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But has no legal obligation to it. Also, media repression is taking place in a large number of countries in the world.
These facts show that even though there is a great epitome, things do not work accordingly.
Speaking of the Human Rights Commission, we have a shortage of officers. Also, there are many complaints that the investigations are not finalized. If a helpless person tells the Human Rights Commission about his problem and it is not fulfilled, human rights are shattered right there. Lack of resources is the biggest problem we have. In addition to the Human Rights Commission’s head office, there are ten other branch offices.
Many are calling for an increase in the number of such offices. But we do not have the resources for that. It would be great, if every district could have one human rights office. However, our primary goal is to complete the unfinished investigation as soon as possible. Let’s say that your son is a Minister of State and your wife is his personal secretary.
Can an individual act independently under such circumstances?
Basically, what arises here is an intellectual and attitudinal problem in a person. Different people can give different interpretations as to whether a family relationship would cause malfunctions here. Looking at other sectors of Sri Lankan society, this situation is everywhere. But I’m not approving it as a good trend.
I am an active politician. And I was a person who taught at the university. I am now retired from politics. I think the President must have considered this retirement when he made this appointment. It is true that my son is in politics. But he contested and came to the Parliament. People have voted for him. Whether he has the right to participate in politics or not just because he is my child is another question.
My wife works as his secretary. It can also be interpreted in different ways. She is fluent in English and Sinhala. Also, as she has experiences working as a governor, she is well versed in public administration laws and regulations. Find out how many wives, daughters, sons and relatives of politicians in this country hold private secretarial posts.
I’m not saying it’s good. But it is good to have someone you trust as a private secretary. If the government decides that it is not appropriate for a close family member to work in such a position, no one will do this. However, this question depends on the individual. If there is a person who is fair and just, he can act in a neutral manner.
If not, it may not be appropriate.
Many sections of the government say that human rights are a foreign tactic. Even your son said so when he took over a ministerial position. What is your opinion on this?
NGOs are often involved in human rights. There are also NGOs that sincerely intervene to protect human rights.
There are also organizations that act as foreign pawns. If anyone acts with the intention of vandalizing the state structure of a country, it should not be allowed to do so. Even in India, NGOs have certain limitations. But such a thing has not been done in Sri Lanka yet. Many are trying to say that human rights is a Western-centric concept. When we talk about world power politics, we know that all major nations are influential.
Not only America but also China keeps pressing us. That is the nature of the world. We cannot live in isolation in the world. As a third world country, we have to move forward with the support of all of them.
As a person with close ties to the government, can a former minister represent the citizens at the Human Rights Commission?
If we cannot work accordingly with an epitome that is fundamental to the well-being of our citizens, then there is no point in us being here.
If someone has expressed his grievances that he/she has been treated unfairly, we will intervene. For example, we have the right to go to remand prisons. We can intervene, especially for violence against women and children. We must be able to see right and wrong as a matter of policy, whatever our political views. That is our view.
There is no pressure on the commission council.
This is the first time that a minister is appointed to the HRCSL. What do you think of it?
There was a lot of criticism on this. I am a politician. After contesting the 1977 elections, I served as a Deputy Minister and a Cabinet Minister. Served as governor. Like this, I have been in the field for a long time. It is important for a person to have human devotion so as not to act impartially. I’m not boosting myself. I have never been involved in violent politics.
No bribes were taken. No corrupt work has been done. So, I can work ideally. But it varies from person to person.
What is your view on the incident in Mahara prison?
A commission was appointed to report on the incident. The report states various reasons. It is said that there was a shooting. This report also mentions the steps to be taken for this. It is a fact that most prisons in Sri Lanka are over capacity. When that happens, the prisoners cannot be controlled. It was not possible to control the Covid situation. That’s why such a thing happened. The facts of this report should be set on motion.
Even the World Health Organization (WHO) has stated that the bodies of those who die of Covid can be buried or cremated. But in Sri Lanka it does not happen. Even the Human Rights Commission made a recommendation in this regard. But it’s still not implemented?
Such recommendations had been made before we were appointed. This is a religious concept. Decisions in our country should be based on the decisions of medical experts. The World Health Organization (WHO) has stated that there is no problem with burial or cremation. But it applies to a country according to the decisions taken by a panel of experts. A country should have a common law. Kandyans have a similar tradition. There is a tradition that if a child dies while both the parents are alive, the body should be buried and not be cremated.
So as a community in this country, the Muslim people also have the right to stand up for their traditions and practices. However, it is good to have a common law in the country.
There seems to be some conflict between the nations. How do you intervene to prevent them as a commission?
We must intervene as soon as we feel that conflicts between nations are about to begin. If not, it will turn into a much bigger crisis.
The most recent incident was the demolition of a monument at the University of Jaffna. Now it’s being rebuilt again. In a way, if people accept a group as their heroes, they can do anything, no matter how many laws we make. What do we do if we start building monuments in every house? Can we demolish them? Or assign police to every house?
But if we discuss this in a friendly way, a solution can be found. Conversation is very important in such matters. These are not issues that should end in violence. Everybody goes to both Kovils and temples. But people still keep fighting.