[US to Sri Lanka and Nepal 2012] Howie Howard in “Above the Fold”
Our blog post today comes from Sri Lanka/Nepal delegate Representative Adam “Howie” Howard, who serves in the Vermont House of Representatives.
Sunday March 25th, Colombo, Sri Lanka—The top headline on Sri Lanka’s Observer newspaper says it all this morning: “UNHRC vote shows declining US popularity.”
It’s one of more than a dozen stories in the A section of the paper decrying the American move at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on Thursday morning: The effort pressures the Sri Lankan government to reconcile more quickly with its minority Tamil population even though, it says, this work is already well underway.
Starting in 1983 Tamil separatists, known as the LTTE or Tamil Tigers, led a bloody terrorist insurgency that culminated in a savage end in May of 2009. Fighters reportedly used civilians as human shields against government forces. In the final weeks of conflict UN and American observers pressed the Sri Lankan government to allow peacekeepers in to avoid what would become a slaughter. President Mahinda Rajapaksa resisted international intervention and allowed the fighting to continue, crushing the Tiger movement and killing its leader.
“Our estimates say that anywhere from 8,000 to 40,000 people died at the end,” South Asia Unit Chief Sheila Berry said Friday morning at our State Department briefing. “It will be good for you to be there,” she added, referring to our seven-person ACYPL (American Council of Young Political Leaders) delegation.
An hour later, at a luncheon in the home of Sri Lankan Ambassador Jaliya Wickramasuriya we got a taste of the restrained vitriol emerging in the wake of the American UNHRC effort. “We were very disappointed in the American resolution,” the Ambassador said, with his finest diplomatic reserve. “When you go there you will see all we are doing. It is 100% peaceful. 100% safe.”
That could be true. But our trip is packed with anything but beach visits, shopping or elephant viewings. Tomorrow we’ll be briefed by members of the National Reconciliation Unit on the “rehabilitation of former combatants and psychosocial training for war affected children.” On Wednesday we travel two hours north toward Vavuniya where the Tigers were active to visit the Psychosocial Child Rehabilitation Training Center in Nedunkerni. It’s heavy stuff. And it’s the heavy stuff that doesn’t make the American headlines now that the killing has ended.
Human rights. The subject, the reality, isn’t just above the fold and on every page here in Colombo. It’s above the fold in everyone’s minds from locals’ to tourists’ to ours’ as we pass AK-47 wielding security guards near our hotel. It’s the top headline in every conversation our delegation has on the bus at 3:30 a.m. this morning after 18 hours of flying. It’s viral.
In only a few hours of briefings Friday at the State Department, the Sri Lankan Ambassador’s home and at the humble Embassy of Nepal, it is clear that everything starts at the primary human rights baseline and climbs from there in South Asia. Climbs to conversation of unemployment, sanitation, imports, exports, GDP, healthcare, whatever. That’s all secondary.
The American human rights vernacular tends to start at the secondary. Building a convenient hierarchy of what human rights are shouldn’t be that casual. So, instead of thinking about what human rights are—work with me—I’m starting to think about what Human Rights, capital H, capital R are not. It’s not a Human Right to die as a child in the crossfire of some grown up war in Sri Lanka. It’s not a Human Right to huddle among hundreds of women in the sex trade on the boarder of Nepal and India.
And as the briefings end and the reality of this journey begins I know, unfortunately, my list will grow.