“I was on the path to pursue what I now think would’ve been a very dull career in law! During my final years of being an undergrad at university overseas, I grew interested in international human rights. The war, back in Sri Lanka, was in its final stages so it was a no-brainer why human rights piqued my interest. It was a time when there were limited resources to investigate and speak out about serious human rights violations within Sri Lanka. As a result, information about what was happening on the ground was limited.
In the months following the end of the war, I joined several field visits to the war-affected areas as an intern with a local human rights organization. Those visits gave me perspective. More than a decade later, I can say that it’s a privilege and a luxury to be able to do the work you love as a profession.
If you dig deep, you’ll find that the stigmatization and demonization of NGOs is a state-construct. The easiest way any government can stifle criticism is to shoot the messenger by trying to vilify, discredit and shun organizations who speak about the inconvenient truths. It takes persistence and a lot of resources to investigate, expose, raise awareness and advocate for change. In these efforts, destigmatizing the messenger becomes a secondary objective. Most NGOs are not about being anti-state, so much as it’s about being pro-people. In an ideal world, governments would welcome this over their own political objectives.
If we’re looking particularly at the post-war period, there’s been several missed opportunities in post-war reconciliation. Immediately following the conclusion of the war, people were placed in internal displacement camps, ostensibly for screening and to make their villages safe for return through demining etc. When people were finally permitted to go back to their homes that they had to flee from, their homes were barely standing. In some cases, their private land was taken for military occupation without any process or compensation.
They also couldn’t find their family members who were forcibly disappeared, recruited by combatants, separated at the point of entering displacement camps or gone missing during the chaos of war. A human, proactive and honest effort to resolve these very real issues could have created an environment of trust, demonstrating intent to break away from past practice. It’s a real pity that it’s been more than ten years since and what’s happening is the opposite of this.
The prospect of change drives me. Human rights activism can bring about incremental change to one person or many. It takes a really long time for very small wins. When you’ve hit a brick wall, where nothing seems to be moving forward that’s an indication for you to re-strategize. It’s also essential to acknowledge the vast ethnic, religious, social and economic privilege that some of us have to be able to do the work we do in a way that many others can’t. That’s why I feel there’s a responsibility to use that privilege to fight for what’s fair and just.
You don’t have to pursue a career in human rights to be an activist. All you need are people who empathize and care enough to speak out and take action. If you’re considering making it a full-time job, it’s always good to keep in mind that change is slow, but we need to keep at it because giving up is a luxury we can’t afford. Remember, as Martin Luther King Jr said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
Photography by Amitha Thennakoon. Art & Direction by Ricky De Silva. Videography by StoryWorks.