Sunday, June 18, 2017

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Acts of racism: A slur on reconciliation


By Gamini Abeywardane
The need to curb acts of communal violence including attacks on places of business establishments belonging to Muslims came up for discussion before the cabinet of ministers this week.
Following the cabinet meeting Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in a special statement said that the Government would bring in new laws to stop religious and ethnic violence, if needed. He said this would be done in line with the policy of the current government and the pledge given by President Maithripala Sirisena when he was elected to office in 2015.

That was a direct reference to the policy of reconciliation, an idea that received wide support from all communities at the time the new government was voted into power. Communal violence of any form would be quite contrary to the idea of reconciliation which is a sine qua non for the economic development of the country.
He said that the police have been asked to take action against those who have attacked Islamic places of worship and business establishments belonging to Muslims, and also to arrest those who are engaged in religious and ethnic violence.  
If we are to stop repetition of the incidents that culminated in a bitter ethnic war which put our country behind by several decades economically, it is important to stem this type of tendencies right now. Bodu Bala Sena and various such organizations have been accused of incidents of arson and mayhem particularly against the Muslim community. These organizations have denied any involvement in these incidents, but it is up to the law enforcement authorities to find the real culprits whoever they are and take strict action against them.

The genesis of these organisations lie in the post war euphoria and the attitudes developed along with that. Buoyed by war victory those with communal inclinations would have thought that we have taught a lesson to the Tamils and shouldn’t we now teach a lesson to the Muslims as well.
They were blissfully ignorant that despite the presence of Islamic terrorist groups like IS, Hamas or Al Qaeda, elsewhere in the world, Muslims in Sri Lanka have been a peaceful lot traditionally concentrating on trading while younger generations have moved into higher education as well.

One thing that is clear is that after end of the war the country has been free of terrorism while in most other countries including Britain, the US and France there have been devastating acts of terrorism undermining day to day life as well as discouraging tourism and investment.

After many years of war and terrorism we are starving for foreign investments while tourism has just begun to pick registering satisfactory levels of growth over the last few years. Despite many other issues, both political and economic, one positive thing in or country is absence of terrorism and the prevailing peace.

In this context any person or organization that engages in any acts leading to destruction of that peace will be indirectly helping to breed terrorism and in the long run will be working for destruction of our country. Therefore, despite whatever claims of patriotism, people who act in a way to destroy amity among communities will be an obstacle in the way of reconciliation as well as the progress of the country.

Whenever accusations are levelled against these extremist elements in the south for their racist acts, they in turn make similar accusations against racists in the north and call for legal action against them as well.
Quite strangely Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) and Tamil National Alliance (TNA) despite their characteristic differences seem to have much in common. This became clear some time ago when some draft legislation was prepared by the government to ban hate speech. Both groups argued that the proposed legislation would be contrary to freedom of speech.

The two anti-hate speech draft bills presented in Parliament at that time sought to amend the Penal code and the Criminal Procedure Code criminalising by interpretation anything said that could allegedly instigate communal violence and disharmony.

BBS lodged an official protest at the Human Rights Commission against these proposed laws on the ground they violated freedom of expression recognised by the constitution. TNA had reportedly called for the withdrawal of the Penal Code (Amendment) Bill, placed on the Order Paper, citing that its provisions were identical to those of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).

Whatever is their opinion on this matter one thing that is clear is that both parties seem to represent some extreme views to suit their own politics. Right thinking people however, believe that such hate speech that instigate violence and create religious, racial or communal disharmony should not be allowed in a modern civilised society. We in our country have enough examples of such speech leading to violence in distant past as well as in recent times.

Freedom of speech like every other freedom recognised by law should have exceptions. The best example is that just because we enjoy freedom of speech and expression, the law does not allow one to use it in a way that will defame or harm the reputation of another person or use abusive language to cause mental harm to another.

Although in our country hate speech has not yet been banned many countries in the world including the US, most of Europe, India, South Africa and Singapore have done so. Such legislation is of paramount importance to ensure peace and harmony particularly in multi-religious and multi-racial countries like ours.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which is a multilateral treaty adopted by the United Nations General Assembly states that "any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law".
Realising the importance of peaceful co-existence among different ethnic groups for the future economic development of the country the new government immediately after coming into power placed much emphasis on reconciliation. A special unit functioning under the guidance of former President Chandrika Kumaratunga has been working towards achieving these goals and the reemergence of communal and racial violence can be the biggest impediment to this exercise.

In this back ground anti-hate speech laws become much relevant as we are getting ready to find a lasting solution to our ethnic issue through constitutional means.  After all having a peaceful country is far more important than having all sorts of freedoms that would destroy such peace.


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