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Sunila - A Tribute to an Indefatigable Defender of Human Dignity

Sunila - A Tribute to an Indefatigable Defender of Human Dignity

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Published by Maria Anderson

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Published by: Maria Anderson on Sep 23, 2013
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"What does it mean to call a country democratic when government critics are exiledand branded terrorists? Who decides what is patriotic and what is not? Whose voicesare actually being heard? Whose rights are really being protected?"BY N. SHANMUGARATNAM-23 SEPTEMBER 2013-- Sunila Abeysekera, interviewed by Kiri Westby, Huff Post World,10/22/2012The last time I saw Sunila was on October 2, 2012, when she visited the NorwegianUniversity of Life Sciences to speak on Women’s situation and human rights undermilitarisation of society: the case of Sri Lanka and personal experience as a ‘Scholar atRisk (SAT)’. She had sent me a mail about her visit to Norway although I already knewabout it from university sources, and was looking forward to seeing her on the campusat Aas. She was a guest of the ‘Norway Section of SAT’, which is a network of severaluniversities and university colleges in Norway. At the time, Sunila was based at theInstitute of Social Studies in The Hague, of which she was an alumna. We had not metfor some years and it was nice to see Sunila in her cheerful self during a chat beforeher talk. After the talk, while having lunch in the university’s main cafeteria, she did tellme and a couple of colleagues about her illness. We had hoped it was treatable.Sunila gave an excellent talk which was followed by a lively discussion. Among
 
the audience were many Norwegian and international graduate students anduniversity teachers. She focused on the continuing militarization and violations ofhuman rights and on the vulnerabilities of women in post-war Sri Lanka. She wascritical of both the government and the LTTE. She highlighted the regime’spersecution of journalists and defenders of human rights and democraticfreedoms. She also recalled the days when Mahinda Rajapakse, as an oppositionpolitician, worked closely with activists like her to campaign against the UNPgovernment’s abuse of human rights in the 1980s. Sunila was analytical,convincing and passionate in her defence of the Lankan people’s democraticrights against the repressive regime led by the same Mahinda Rajapakse, now asthe all-powerful executive president of the country.I first met Sunila in the 1970s, when she was already famous as a versatile artist.She was young and urbane. I knew her father Charles, the renowned humanrights activist and refined intellectual, as the head of the institution I worked for inthe 1970s and, more importantly, as a close friend. Sunila was getting moreinvolved in politics as a feminist and an active supporter of the JVP. She was astar singer in JVP’s ‘Vimukthi Gee’ shows. But soon she left the JVP and turnedinto an ardent campaigner for human rights since the 1980s. Sunila chose to be ahuman rights activist at a time when the country’s political landscape was beingredrawn by ethnic polarisation, armed conflict, neoliberal economic policies,suppression of workers’ rights, and rising authoritarianism. The left movementwas badly splintered and weak. Civil society was under continuous assault andlocal human rights groups were being subjected to various forms of harassment.On the other hand, internationally, the emerging human rights discourse wasbeing challenged by feminists and other radical critics. Feminists in the Westcriticised international human rights law for its patriarchal bias against women.Third world feminists criticised the human rights discourse including the law for itsneglect of the problems faced by women in the global South. These interventionsled to a broadening of the scope and interpretations of human rights. Oninternational issues of human rights, the radical left has, at times, found itself in adilemma best captured by Slavoj Zizek’s phrase ‘double blackmail’, for example,‘if you are against NATO strikes, you are for Milosevic's proto-Fascist regime ofethnic cleansing, and if you are against Milosevic, you support the global capitalistNew World Order’ (Zizek, New Left Review, March-April 1999). However, for aleftist the struggle for human rights is a part of the larger and longer struggle forsocial equality and democracy. Leftists support struggles for human rights whilebeing aware of the limitations of liberal international human rights discourse andactivism, and with a commitment to build a radical democratic political culture.Indeed, the human rights discourse today is not monolithic but multi-stranded.

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