de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2007). The Business of Human Rights. LMD. June 2007. Page 138. Volume 13, Issue 11. ISSN 1391-135X.
Unless we clean up our human-rights record, the moral decay of our nation may spell economic doom.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne on the link between business and human right
Whilst others remained bullish, I predicted the financial year just ended would be one of the worst years for tourism. This was not because of the deterioration of the war but because we failed to market Sri Lanka positively to re-gain the momentum of positive publicity we lost because of the momentum. I now have a strange foreboding that not only tourism, but every sphere of economic activity in Sri Lanka which sells to foreign markets will be derailed by a disaster even bigger than the tsunami. Unlike the tsunami which is a sharp sudden catastrophic event, this is a slow cancer which will be much harder to overcome.
Human rights. To be more exact the lack of a basic and fundamental respect of human rights. A bad record for human rights violations could be the final nail in the economic coffin for Sri Lanka. This issue is not confined to businesses operating in tourism which have to project a positive image of Sri Lanka. It will impact everyone.
The papers are now filled everyday with stories of human rights violations. There have been some well publicised cases. The man who was charged with wrongly with a hoax bomb call and who was beaten to death by his jailers. If the police had not been negligent or un-truthful, he would never have been taken in the first place. A journalist who was imprisoned for several months despite allegations that even the police knew she was innocent. But there are hundreds of other violations which don’t make the press. In March I was introduced to a man whose son was mistaken for someone who had fallen out with a local, senior police office officer. The police took him away to teach him a lesson. It was seen and the father rushed to the police station to have him released. He was forced to go through a procedure, to fetch a witness, to file a complaint, etc. After some delay, the son was found. But, too late. The twenty three year boy died from the beating he had received. Can anyone imagine the grief that a father would feel to have his son beaten to death by four policeman? His innocence is not the point. Can any Sri Lanka who is cheering the Sri Lanka cricket team to victory, really feel that they have a nation to be proud of?
Edward Burke said that all it needs for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. There are plenty of good men and women in the media and in the NGOs what have been warning of the moral decay of this nation and its descent into being a pariah on human rights. Before it is too late, the business community will need to force the political leaders to take action. Rather than trying to curry short term favours, Sri Lanka Inc needs to demand good governance and accountability from the political leaders whom we have elected to serve us. Allowing the government to pretend that there is no problem does not mean the problem will go away.
Earlier this year I attended a film screened in Colombo on human rights violations in Sri Lanka. Several human rights activists spoke of the re-mergence of the ‘white van abduction’ culture. We are heading towards a fear psychosis where the average Sri Lankan citizen is mistrustful of its own government and law enforcement agencies. This is much more damaging than a fear of a terrorist organisation such as the LTTE or an extreme marxist group which has resorted to militancy. The human rights activists are not traitors, they may be the heroes which save Sri Lanka from economic doom.
The success of our garment industry, to take one example depends on receiving preferential supplier agreements. The qualifying criteria includes our human rights record. When we are perceived to have a poor human rights records, we will fail to qualify in future. Many businesses will find the doors to foreign trade closing due to removal of preferential trading arrangements or because foreign principals are wary of dealing with Sri Lankans who are all tarred with the dirty brush of human rights violations.
In countries where there are disappearances, foreign travellers and business people are wary of traveling to that country. It certainly destroys tourism. A tourist feels safer in a country with clearly identified terrorists or rebel groups than in a country where there are widespread abductions and other human rights violations. Some may make it a point not to travel because they feel that they want to exercise their individual power of veto. Foreign governments will increasingly do the same by restricting trade and favourable lending or other trade arrangements. Unfortunately, the best way to deal with human rights violations is to allow a country to prosper not to keep it poorer. Rich countries generally have a stronger public who demand and extract better governance. To avoid a slide into further poverty, the business community may need to take the lead in asking the government to clean up on human rights. Otherwise we will all become poorer. Good human rights (including press freedom) is a pre-requisite for good business.
Accountant & Banker turned wildlife populariser, Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne lobbies for progress. E-mail him at to subscribe to his wildlife e-newsletter.