INTERVIEW. Dinushika Dissanayake is a lawyer and has practiced in the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal in Colombo. As both a professional and an activist, she personally works for a transitional justice in Sri Lanka and for the respect of human rights in South Asia. On 18th December 2018, she was awarded the Chirac Prize for conflict prevention, which honours civilian women and men who are fighting, daily and despite the threats, for peace and dialogue in their country.
How did you start the actions you were awarded for yesterday?
I think the award was because of different work I have been engaged in, and I can share with you one of those initiatives, on guaranteeing access to the law in relation to land resources in Sri Lanka. It all started in 2014, when I was leading the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Program at the Law and Society Trust (LST). My team and I decided to simplify the laws related to land, for people to better understand what their rights are. The different laws are so complicated that even a lawyer finds it difficult to understand. Some of these laws are over one hundred years old and they have been amended many times. So, we made a small 10-page handbook which simplified the laws on land and how the rights are protected. Then, we organised workshops in different parts of Sri Lanka, and used this book to train people on what their rights are, and how to demand their rights from government officials and from police. We supplemented this by also pinning posters in government offices. These posters showed what your rights were and what the State can and cannot do. Simple things like, if your land is required for acquisition by the state, you need to be notified of the reason why. No one can come and just take your land. It has to be for a public purpose and what is a public purpose is also defined by the law and legal interpretation by courts. These simple explanations would make people feel more empowered and more able to demand their rights. We also contacted lawyers who were willing to provide legal advice or appear pro bono for people whose land has been grabbed or illegally acquired, so whenever we heard of someone who needed help, we connected them with these lawyers. During our workshops, many of the questions that people had could be answered by the lawyer who was conducting the meeting.
We also worked very closely with local government officers and land officers, to make sure that more land is distributed in parts of Sri Lanka. As you know, after the war, a lot of people were left landless. Their land was taken by the military and by other state agencies and they are still waiting for it to be released. So, as part of our program, we ask local government officers to distribute land, according to the law. In Sri Lanka, land can also be distributed to the landless according to a process provided by law. We advocated for this process to be initated at local level, which has resulted in land permits being issued to families that have no land at all. As of, today, we estimate that around 10 000 land permits have been issued in the areas in which where we work, which means that 10 000 families who were landless previously now have an access to land. However the land question is still a huge issue in Sri Lanka, and although a part of the land held by the military have been released, there remains large tracts of land which must be released.
What difficulties do you encounter when you are working on that topic?
Lands are historically been a source of conflict in Sri Lanka. From British colonial times, land has been used as a tool to oppress people and to take people’s rights away. In an agrarian society, people are very attached to land. Land is not just a resource, it is also dignity. Land is life, in a way, for people. So, when it comes working on land rights, there are often challenges. From the military who don’t want to give the land back, from the communities who have benefited from land grabs, from big businesses who have interests in keeping land away from people… We have to navigate through these different actors who are opposed to simplifying the law. We as civil actors have to empower people to have access to land. But I think that, because we work at the very local level, our action did not attract a kind of opposition that other land activists have faced. Some human rights defenders have to face numerous threats because they challenge military leader’s land grabs, for example, which we have not had to directly deal with since our work is closely associated with advocacy targeting local land officers and other local officers.
What do you think about today’s situation in Sri Lanka?
As 2019 dawns for Sri Lanka, we can only hope that we have learnt from our past mistakes. The recent political turmoil in October 2018 makes it all the more important that we consolidate our democratic gains and entrench the rule of law in all our public institutions.. Since 2015, a lot of investment has gone into the independence of the judiciary and into building institutions within the public sector to do that job objectively. As a result, the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal helped democracy and protected rules and laws at a very dark times in our history in November and December 2018. But, we are not still sure the storm has passed, because the causes of the political instability have not been addressed. And, as human rights defenders, we are worried we might return to a situation where human rights are not protected. There are many things that improved in the last three years : freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and association were protected. These were significant steps taken towards guaranteeing human rights but, some very very important steps, for example accountability for crimes committed during the war, for enforced disappearances, have not happened. For the last three years, despite assurances on investigation and prosecution on grave human rights violations, we are yet to see those prosecutions take place. We still don’t know where some of the disappeared have been taken. What happened to them? Who is responsible? In some of these cases, there appears to be progress in investigation and even a large amount of evidence that has been unearthed; but there has not been prosecutions so far. So, there is a lot more to be done and on March 2019, when the UN Human Rights Council reviews Sri Lanka, will be an important milestone for human rights guarantees in the country.
What are your projects for future?
I presently work at Amnesty International. Some of our missions revolve around human rights abuses in all the South of Asia. For Sri Lanka, we are continuing our work on accountability, through the transitional justice framework the government of Sri Lanka committed to in 2015. In other parts of South Asia, we are working on enforced disappearances and on guaranteeing justice to families of the disappeared. I personally worked very hard on a political case in the Maldives – a young man was imprisoned for three years on false charges. The Maldivian courts have now released him, and he arrived back in Sri Lanka in November 2018. Some of the work we are interested in, include research on the interdisciplinary nature of human rights. How do the civilian political rights violations – like a disappearance – impact economic, social and cultural rights? How does it affect people’s rights to education, to health, to live in dignity? I think it is also a very good time to reflect on some of these rights given, when we celebrate 70 years since the promulgation of the Universal Declaration of Rights. It seems that the world has forgotten some of the promises in the UDHR, especially on guarantees of human dignity and equality. Governments are increasingly protecting certain civilian political rights, but pay less attention to protecting economic, social and cultural rights. In the name of development, resources allocated to health, to education, and even to people’s access to land or natural resources, have been denied or restricted. So we find that big businesses and private investment are being prioritised, often over people’s rights. Right to housing over urban development goals for example. In many big cities across Asia, the cost of living is rising : what does it mean for people who have to left their land because the land is take over and privatised? Where do they live? Do they move to slums? Where is human dignity in that?
What will you do with the Chirac Prize for conflict prevention?
Something that often frustrated me, when I was doing research on human rights violations, was to meet people, communities, to see their needs and be unable to support them. So, I would like to use this award as a tool to help those people. I will set up a trust fund and annually choose one and more causes to support. For example, to file a fundamental rights application before the Supreme Court, or to file a habeas corpus action to find out what happened to a disappeared person – therefore, to support the family so that they can continue to agitate for justice; or even, to send a child to school, if the father or the mother has been disappeared. The idea is to provide a helping hand, a source of income during the absence of the breadwinner for a time, until they can get on their feet again. I really hope this trust fund will be able to meet the aspirations of the Chirac foundation as well, and to address some of the root causes of conflicts in Sri Lanka.
Winning this award was such a privilege. It also gave me a lot of courage. Often, when you work in human rights, it is not acknowledged, it is not appreciated. To be recognised like this, for a work that has been done behind the scene, just helping people in a day-to-day basis, it’s really humbling. I feel really really privileged to have won this award. I only hope I can continue this work and do justice to the recognition the Chirac foundation has given me.
Interview on 19th December 2018
Photo : © Michèle Garrec