Human Rights By Dr D. Chandraratna Perth, W. A

The Europeans who are now championing the cause of human rights ought to remember that in their original conception in the West they were not meant to apply to all human beings. By and large they covered only the human beings of European extraction. Even James Mill, the English philosopher (1806-73) who is often quoted as the great thinker in his ‘Essay on Liberty’ denied the human right of liberty to backward nations, women and children, while living in India. This meant that up till the 20 th century the Indians including the Tamils in India were not worthy of human rights. James Mill’s father (1773-1836) declared in 1817 that Hindu’s deserved to be slaves. The Governor General of Bengal (1813-23) , the Marquess of Hastings observed, ‘The Hindoo appears as a being limited to mere animal functions…. with no higher intellect than a dog or an elephant, or monkey…( cited in Majumdar R, India’s influence on Thought and Culture of the World Through the Ages).Even as late as 1919 the Lordships of the Privy Council noted that some of the Indian natives are ‘so low in the scale of social organisation as to render it idle to impute to such people a shadow of rights known to our law’.

Thomas Jefferson who helped to write the slave code after the Declaration of Independence deprived the slaves the right of liberty by punishing any attempted escape by death because he personally suspected the blacks inferior to the whites in endowment of body and mind. Inferiority in body is a bit suspect because it is well-known at least in the times of the Victorian Empire that sexual inferiority was one of the oddities with the British. Both famous novels, Forster’s Passage to India and Scott’s The Jewel in the Crown, make us believe that there is a kernel of truth in this suspicion. British historian Niall Ferguson in his famous book ‘Empire’ says that the revulsion that British displayed towards Eurasians and miscegenation in general was partly a reflection of this notion of male sexual inferiority.

Why we are peeved about the human rights activists is that the sheer arrogance of the modern day proponents who impose sanctions against those whom they have judged to be the violators, with or without proof. It is as if the white man’s burden is exploited for white man’s gain once again ( Jagdish Bhagawati).We must always remember that Human rights as totally a western progressive discourse is contested by many non Europeans. The entry of China gave impetus to this contest. The non Western countries voiced their concerns at the Vienna conference in 1993. Prime Minister of Malaysia stood up to state that Asian values are universal values and European values are only European values. Asian scholars are saying that Asian values are neither superior nor inferior but that they are only reacting to this Western march of superiority. The West must hold this mirror of human values to itself because despite the glorious rhetoric about equality in the US, even after the so called emancipation of the black Americans has there been much change in the condition of the blacks. Has the prison black population dropped even a tiny fraction?

As Asians or more particularly as Buddhists our notion of rights is somewhat different. Our conception of rights is more profound that the legal notion of punishment behind the right. We talk of rights as fathers, brothers, neighbours, citizens and countrymen who have obligations to one another which are moral. Sri Lankans, the Chinese, the Vietnamese, the Indians and many other civilizations have been socialized into these moral values. They were prior to the notion of rights to us. At least prior to the legality given by the West. Asian values were there before the Western rights, if I may put it that way.

As many have pointed out these were civilisations exuding humanism par excellence. The Buddhist king Asoka whose lineage to which Sri Lankans claim a linkage had these written on the rock inscriptions which show humanism at its best. ‘Wherever medicinal plants have-not been found they have been sent there and planted…. Wells have been dug along the roads for the use of man and beast’. And in another out of numerous inscriptions he writes, ‘I have had this inscription on righteousness engraved that all my sons and grandsons may consider the only valid victory [is] the victory of righteousness and that all their pleasure may be in righteousness….’ In an edict of King Kalinga it is written that ‘as I wish all happiness and welfare in this world for my own children, so do I wish it for all men’. What I want to emphasize is that the Westerner may have brought clarity and legality to the human rights discourse but the Asians had them built into the value system which suggests that they are deeply etched in their hearts.

So please back off. When you say 20,000 lives were lost you are lying, to make it credible you should say 19,999. That gives at least the impression that you have counted them in the swamps, lagoons and jungles late that night with torches (and energizer batteries). When we ban Mr Page and Ms Colvin it is because you as journalists are not telling the truth. When the NGO officers work against our state we ask them to pack their bags just like the way that you refuse even genuine asylum seekers.


When our President tells you that the IDP’s are in safe hands he means it. We need no outsiders to monitor it for we have not been found wanting by reporters who talk the truth. We are going to make you run with tails between legs when IDP’s are sent to their homes as promised. So please be patient. It is only 2 weeks since victory and, I beg to remind you, large numbers of people. So please add properly this time (not in the manner you added 20,000 deaths). Why we are not keen about aid workers is because we have that expertise and moreover they are very expensive and all that aid leaves nothing for the IDP’s after they are paid. Please send the money because you seem to be really concerned and we will send you an audited statement. So please leave us alone and let us be friends as before.

We have valued all people as of equal worth and dignity, never as means to an end. We did not invent the division of the world into whites and blacks. We did not create terrorism. Our motto throughout history was peace. Our history is without a blemish and we like to keep it that way amidst your taunts and rants.

Check Also

Mutanabbi Street slowly re-emerges, 20 years on from Iraq war By Abdulrahman Zeyad and Alannah Travers

The booksellers of Baghdad’s Mutanabbi Street have faced invasion and bombings, two decades on from …

One comment

  1. Interesting article. The double standards shown towards Sri Lanka over human rights have been shocking. The double standards shown historically by the West were also shocking – about which Dr. C brings out interesting details. But the philosophers of the Enlightenment thought of human rights as something to which all human beings were entitled. That position has been accepted by all members of the UN, all of whom subscribe to the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. Sir Zafrullah Khan, eminent Pakistani jurist and an important personage at the UN in its early days, wrote a brief study in which he showed that there was very little in the Universal Declaration that was incompatible with Sharia law

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Follow by Email