Features
Human Rights and Peace
NOTEBOOK OF A NOBODY
by Shanie

This week, we pay tribute to five outstanding Sri Lankans who have enriched the lives of our people and our country. Rajini Tiranagama, Rajan Hoole and K Sritharan were three academics at the University of Jaffna who co-founded the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna). For twenty years, they have, at great risk to themselves, been documenting and highlighting abuses of human rights by various actors in the ethnic conflict in our country. Tiranagama was assassinated for this; Hoole and Sritharan have been driven underground. They received recognition for their courage and perseverance when they received the Martin Ennals Award this week in Geneva. Also this week, Christopher Weeramantry, a former Judge, was named the recipient of the Right Livelihood Prize for Peace and Environment, referred to as the alternative Nobel Prize. This week was also the birth anniversary of A. M. A. Azeez, a visionary educationist and a prophetic leader.

We often tend to recognize only politicians when we talk of national heroes. But, these five, though dabbling in political debates, cannot be counted as politicians. They, like many others, are the real national heroes who have made a difference to the quality of life and values of our people and to the image of our country.

UTHR (J)

The University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) was founded in 1987 by Tiranagama, Hoole and Sritharan. As Rajan Hoole has stated in his speech [the full text of which is published in The Isalnd today] accepting the Martin Ennals Award last Tuesday, the inspiration was provided by Tiranagama, whose life of promise was cut short by a brutal assassination. Since then, Hoole has been the face of the UTHR (J), though both he and his able colleague Sritharan have been forced to work underground.

Hoole in his book ‘Sri Lanka – The Arrogance of Power’ published in 2001 wrote that what they wanted in the late eighties at the University of Jaffna was to create an institutional framework so that any attack on the rights and dignity of the people could be resisted. ‘It was a remarkable experiment in the University of Jaffna. It involved patient and exhausting political work, talking to people and persuading them to take on responsibilities. Its strength was that no individual was that no individual was unduly exposed, because a large number of people from the Vice Chancellor to the students and non-academic staff were part of the effort. The LTTE found this self-assertion on the part of the University striking at the very heart of its totalitarian claims. It set about identifying individuals to put an end to the University’s activism and murdered Rajini (Tiranagama).’

In his acceptance speech in Geneva last Tuesday, Hoole said that when they commenced their work in 1987, they had also no illusions about the Sri Lankan State and its capacity for ideologically directed violence against the minorities, especially the Tamils. The two bouts of communal violence targeting the Tamils in 1977 and 1983 were the major catalysts in giving birth to the Tamil militant movements. So from the beginning, while giving violations by the State and its Sinhalese ideological compulsions their due, it was no less important to address internal violence within the Tamil community arising from the LTTE’s ideological character. ‘The LTTE’s fascist ideology also made it virtually impossible for it to live with any political settlement outside a separate state of Eelam, in the name of which it had killed as traitors those who stood for a federated Lanka.

The UTHR (J) has stood firm in its adherence to the objectives which they set before themselves at their founding. Hoole stated that their work was essential to keep alive the voices of sanity and preserving dissent against heavy odds. "In this context, our work of documenting human rights abuses by state and non-state actors in a situation of armed conflict, with the aim of arresting dehumanizing trends and advancing accountability by giving a place to the people’s narratives, we hope, would also make a small contribution towards the major re-evaluation needed to address the limitations of human rights mechanisms."

This column salutes these brave three co-founders of the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) who have for twenty years kept alive the need for values and decency in an environment of armed conflict. We also need to salute the many other invisible men and women who have, also at risk to themselves, provided invaluable information to Hoole and Sritharan to document abuses. Those who read the regular UTHR (J) reports will know that meticulous research goes into them and never have they been found wanting in the accuracy of their narratives.

Christy Weeramantry

This week also saw the announcement by Swedish-based the Right Livelihood Award Foundation of the four laureates for 2007. Among them was Deshamanya Dr Christopher Weeramantry. The Right Livelihood Award is popularly known as the alternate Nobel Prize and is awarded ‘for outstanding vision and work on behalf of our planet and its people.’ Unlike the Nobel Prize, the Prize is not awarded for particular categories but to men and women with vision who provide practical solutions to global challenges. Weeramantry was given the award this year for ‘his lifetime of groundbreaking work to strengthen and expand the rule of international law.’

Weeramntry is of course a world-renowned figure. A former Judge of the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka and a Professor of Law at Monash University in Australia, Weeramantry came into international prominence when he chaired the Nauru Commission of Inquiry looking into the ruination of Nauru’s phosphate deposits by the international trustees. In 1990, he was elected to the International Court of Justice at The Hague. In 1997, he was elected by his colleagues as the Vice-President of the Court.

At the International Court of Justice, he sat on many landmark cases, including the Lockerbie bombing case. But his outstanding contribution to international law was his dissenting judgement in the Nuclear Weapons Case in 1996. His lengthy dissent where he said the use of nuclear weapons under any circumstances was illegal. This earned the displeasure of the United States and other nuclear powers who wanted to reserve the right to use nuclear weapons in so-called self-defence, even as a pre-emptive strike in the face of a perceived threat. "The threat and use of nuclear weapons", he wrote, "contradicts the fundamental principle of the dignity and worth of the human person on which all law depends."

Now based in Colombo, Weeramantry is still very active and in 2001 establshed the Weeramantry International Centre for Peace and Education and Research. Last year, he was awarded the 2006 UNESCO Prize for Peace Education. We can be proud to have such a world-renowned scholar and writer in international law in our midst.

His scholarship and activism has also extended to other areas of jurisprudence – environmental issues, theology, human rights and inter-cultural understanding.

A M A Azeez

One of the unsung heroes of our country is the late A M A Azeez, one-time Civil Servant and later Principal of Zahira College, whose birth anniversary fell this week. In referring to an individual from a minority community, it is sadly common to refer to him by his ethnic or religious affiliation. Azeez was truly a national figure. A brilliant student, he graduated in History from the University College and won the Government Arts Scholarship and proceeded to St Catherine’s Cambridge for post-graduate studies. But within a term there, he was selected to the Ceylon Civil Service. He opted for the CCS in preference to what would have been a brilliant academic career. He was the first person from his community to be selected to the Ceylon Civil Service.

As a Civil Servant he was posted to Batticaloa. There he made two contacts which were to influence his life. He struck up a life-long friendship with Swami Vipulananda of the Ramakrishna Mission, a world-renowned scholar. (Incidentally, Swami Vipulananda is probably the only Sri Lankan whose portrait is featured in a foreign postage stamp. This was in a stamp issued by Germany at the time of a Orientalist’s Conference held there in the thirties at which the Swami was a leading speaker.) Azeez and Swami Vipulananda, it is said, used to have long conversations. The other influence on Azeez’s life was the realization of the plight of the Eastern Muslim villager who was neglected and marginalized. Azeez was able to empower them by providing education and livelihood (mainly farming) support. He served in Batticaloa for less than two years but he did much for the people of southern Batticaloa – for people of all communities. They loved him and to this day, there is an area in the Kalmunai division referred to by locals as Azeez Thurai Kandam.

In 1948, T B Jayah was the Principal of Zahira College. Soon after the first general Election, the then Prime Minister invited Jayah to join his Cabinet. Jayah had to find a successor and he chose Azeez. His family were dead against his leaving a promising career in the Civil Service but Azeez consulted his friend Swami Vipulananda and accepted the offer. It can be said without any contradiction that he took Zahira to great heights. Students from all communities and from all parts of the country sought admission and from a near zero, by the time he left, Zahira was sending 15 and 16 students to all faculties of the University. Zahira shone in all areas – academically, in sports and in other extra-curricular activities, especially cadetting. Many Zahirians recall the many times that he entertained his students at his home ‘Meadow Sweet’ in Barnes Place.

He was a erudite scholar in both English and Tamil. His Prize Day speeches were carefully crafted gems. In the early fifties, he followed in the footsteps of his predecessor Jayah, joined the UNP and was appointed to the Senate. He resigned from the UNP when they adopted "Sinhala Only" in 1955.

Azeez co-founded the Muslim Educational Scholarship Fund purely because he saw that the Muslim community was at that time educationally backward. He urged the Muslims not give up Tamil as their mother tongue because that would separate the North East Muslims from the rest of the Muslims. His words were prophetic and it required Ashraff and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress to emerge many years later to re-unite the Muslims.

We remember Azeez as a true nationalist. There was nothing parochial about him. He was a person of utter integrity who believed in pluralism and a united Lanka. He was a true patriot.

 

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