Basil Fernando / AHRC
( 2014 , Chine )

… pour son travail exceptionnel et sans relâche pour documenter et soutenir la mise en œuvre des droits de l’homme en Asie.

People want change. People demand that their human rights are respected by their governments, not by words but by genuine improvement of the public institutions...


Basil Fernando est un éminent défenseur des droits de l’homme en Asie. Tout au long d’une carrière s’étendant sur trois décennies, il a contribué de manière décisive à relier combats pour les droits de l’homme menés à l’échelle du simple citoyen aux institutions œuvrant pour des réformes structurelles à l’échelle politique. Basil Fernando et l’Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) qu’il a dirigée pendant presque vingt ans ont développé l’un des systèmes d’« Appel d’Urgence » les plus sophistiqués au monde. A travers son Ecole des Droits de l’Homme et ses initiatives pédagogiques, l’AHRC a initié de nombreux avocats et militants aux principes du procès équitable et de la règle de droit. Ce faisant, ils contribuèrent considérablement à l’avancement d’un mouvement asiatique œuvrant à la réalisation des droits de l’homme pour tous.

Contact

Asian Human Rights Commission

Unit 1 & 2 12/F.
Hopeful Factory Centre
10-16 Wo Shing Street
Fotan, N.T.
Hong Kong, China

http://www.humanrights.asia/

Biography

From Sri Lanka to Hong Kong: Basil Fernando’s early life

Basil Fernando was born on 14 October 1944 and graduated in law from the (then) University of Ceylon in 1972. After graduation, he taught English as a second language at university level for 8 years, before becoming a practising criminal lawyer in 1980.

Fernando became concerned and began resisting the pernicious politicisation and corruption that was becoming common in the public justice system in Sri Lanka, undermining the legal profession. In 1989, when tens of thousands of people had already “disappeared”, his name was placed on a death list, forcing him to flee to Hong Kong. Fernando worked for a UNHCR sponsored project for three years as a Counsellor for Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong.

Subsequently, between 1992-94, he worked for the Human Rights Component of the UN Transitional Authority of Cambodia and UN Human Rights Centre as a Senior Officer. These experiences helped shape the approach to human rights that Fernando adopted when he accepted Directorship of the Asian Human Rights Commission, and the associated Asian Legal Resources Centre, in 1994.

Asian Human Rights Commission: a new approach to human rights work

Basil Fernando was the Asian Human Rights Commission’s only full-time employee when he joined the organisation in 1994. His approach to human rights was a radical departure from most human rights work in the region at the time. He focused on assisting victims of human rights violations and activists fr …

Basil Fernando was born on 14 October 1944 and graduated in law from the (then) University of Ceylon in 1972. After graduation, he taught English as a second language at university level for 8 years, before becoming a practising criminal lawyer in 1980.

Fernando became concerned and began resisting the pernicious politicisation and corruption that was becoming common in the public justice system in Sri Lanka, undermining the legal profession. In 1989, when tens of thousands of people had already “disappeared”, his name was placed on a death list, forcing him to flee to Hong Kong. Fernando worked for a UNHCR sponsored project for three years as a Counsellor for Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong.

Subsequently, between 1992-94, he worked for the Human Rights Component of the UN Transitional Authority of Cambodia and UN Human Rights Centre as a Senior Officer. These experiences helped shape the approach to human rights that Fernando adopted when he accepted Directorship of the Asian Human Rights Commission, and the associated Asian Legal Resources Centre, in 1994.

Asian Human Rights Commission: a new approach to human rights work

Basil Fernando was the Asian Human Rights Commission’s only full-time employee when he joined the organisation in 1994. His approach to human rights was a radical departure from most human rights work in the region at the time. He focused on assisting victims of human rights violations and activists from within the communities who were supporting the victims, rather than propagating human rights from urban centres. Moreover, he began analysing precisely why and how principles of human rights were not being incorporated in, and implemented through, national public justice systems. Also, he began engaging in lobbying and advocacy from outside the country where human rights abuses were taking place in ways that supported and protected victims and informants. To achieve this, Fernando began building up AHRC’s capacity and the capacities that would allow such work to be done in the countries in which AHRC became involved – by recruiting and training staff and empowering partner organisations.

The AHRC today works actively in 12 Asian countries: Bangladesh, Burma, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Nepal, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and the Philippines. Fernando stepped down from the position of Executive Director at AHRC in 2010 and today serves as its Director of Policy & Programmes.

Documenting human rights violations & promoting suitable solutions

Basil Fernando and his colleagues at the AHRC have painstakingly documented human rights violations in the countries in which they work, and published them in AHRC’s Annual Reports. Fernando and the AHRC team have produced several monumental works, which include the book Narrative of Justice in Sri Lanka told through stories of torture victims that documents 1,500 cases of police torture in Sri Lanka between 1998 and 2011, and article 2, a quarterly journal that analyses recent developments in the implementation of human rights standards in Asia. Torture – Asian And Global Perspectives and Ethics in Action are also regular publications. The AHRC, under Fernando’s guidance, has done extensive work in exposing and reducing the number of forced disappearances and in assisting victims. It has documented a number of disappearances in a “Cyberspace Graveyard”, available at www.disappearances.org

Given the absence of a governmental charter on human rights in Asia, and cognisant of the arguments against human rights on the basis of cultural relativism, the AHRC launched a series of consultations, which lasted several years, to develop consensus for a human rights charter.The Asian Human Rights Charter, a people’s charter representing the consensus of Asian civil society, which resulted, was adopted in South Korea in 1998. While subscribing to the universality of human rights, it demonstrates Asia’s particular approaches being used in framing human rights, and is available in several languages. Efforts towards drafting an Asian Charter on the rule of law are ongoing.

Initiating an Asia-wide campaign against torture and ill-treatment, as an answer to widespread use of torture in Asian countries, has become one of AHRC’s core activities. This has resulted in the formation of the Asian Alliance Against Torture and Ill-Treatment (AAATI), which also holds meetings for parliamentarians from Asian countries to encourage them to play an active part in eliminating the use of torture.

The AHRC urgent appeals system

During Fernando’s leadership, the AHRC developed one of the most extensive urgent appeals programmes in the Asian region to assist persons who suffer human rights abuses. This programme is arranged so complaints can be received quickly, speedy interventions can be made at local, national, and UN levels, and the information can be disseminated to a large audience across the world. Over 350 urgent appeals from different Asian countries are received and acted upon by the AHRC annually. The appeals system has successfully led to the release of many ordinary people, saving them from suffering further human rights abuses.

Human rights education

The AHRC under Fernando’s watch has established a human rights school with a view to developing a new form of human rights education based on the application of human rights principles to current problems, adopting the Danish Style Folk School method of education through dialogue. The school holds live sessions in different countries in the region, and also by way of a correspondence school, disseminates lessons to local human rights organisations and also makes the same available on the Internet. The human rights school has been widely subscribed by the global human rights community, with over 200 persons accessing the modules every month.

In 1995, the AHRC also commenced a direct programme to train Chinese lawyers on the principles and proof of fair trial. This training programme has been ongoing annually, and the AHRC has managed to make a significant impact in promoting the rule of law in China, establishing partnerships with a remarkable number of lawyers, law teachers, academics, and activists.

On the basis of a large body of data gathered over many years, the AHRC has identified that archaic and extremely backward public justice systems, i.e. police, prosecution, judicial and prison institutions, are the major obstacle to the implementation of human rights in Asian countries. In order to overcome this major obstacle the AHRC has made advocacy for re-engineering of justice systems another key focus of its work.

Recognition

Basil Fernando is a Senior Ashoka Fellow and a Sohmen Visitor of Law at the University of Hong Kong. He received the Gwangju Prize for Human Rights in South Korea in 2001. He is also a reputed poet and creative writer, who writes in his mother tongue Sinhala and in English.

 
 

Interview conducted in September 2014

What or who inspired you to dedicate your life to promoting and defending human rights?

I was influenced by my father, who taught us to be truthful, always. ”If I am wrong, have courage to point that out,” he used to say. My mother taught us courage through her way of living. “Being an example is better than giving advice” was the motto of the primary school I attended, and “Duty first” the motto of the secondary school.

I have also been inspired by the radical teachings of the Second Vatican Council and the radical teachings of Gautama Buddha, who caused one of the greatest socio-religious moments in India, opposing deeply entrenched caste-based discrimination. The life work of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the great Indian statesman who was one of the leaders of the modern Dalit movement, and the Danish folk school movement inspired by N.F.S Grundtwig, has also deeply influenced me.

A push factor for my involvement in human rights was the collapse of my own country, Sri Lanka, into a prolonged period of violence and repression, beginning in 1971 due to a disproportionate state reaction to a minor rebellion in the South, and then into period of extreme violence in the North and the East which impacted in causing serious insecurity for ordinary folk living in all parts of the country. This period also saw an immense constitutional crisis, which upset the basic legal structure of the country. This has deprived ordinary citizens of a protective environment. Being a lawyer by profession, and a poet, I deeply felt and shared the helplessness of the ordinary folk living under such dangerous circumstances. In a book published this month in my first language, Sinhala, entitled A confession of a lawyer, I have tried to point out the crisis of the public justice system in Sri Lanka, which, among other things, has undermined the professional role of lawyers to discharge their duties to their clients. The clients who are most helpless are the victims of human rights abuses, who have no legal avenues through which to pursue redress for their losses and grievances. A culture of impunity creates a culture of helplessness for the ordinary folk, and particularly the poor.

I felt this strongly during my nearly three years of work in Cambodia, where I went as a senior UN officer in the early 1990s. What the Cambodian people have undergone is beyond imagination and is hard to express. One of the continuing problems in Cambodia is the loss of a functioning public justice system.

How did your experiences shape your approach in addressing human rights violations?

All such experiences, which are also echoed in almost all Asian countries, compelled me and my colleagues to look for new approaches to protect and promote human rights. Our search led us to highlight the content and meaning of Article 2 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which requires all states to take legislative, judicial and administrative measures to implement human rights. This article is commonly violated in almost all Asian countries. The sharpest expression of this violation is the virtual absence of functional public justice systems. If human rights is to be taken seriously by the people, creating functional public justice institutions is the most important task to be faced.

It is to this work that our Asian Human Rights Commission is committed. It is a difficult objective to pursue. But it is a necessary objective, if people are to live human lives. The de-humanization that we have all around is the result of many failures to pursue justice. Injustice and dehumanization mean the same thing.

We are constantly being inspired by the courage and the tenacity of the victims of human rights abuses; the victims of torture and extra-judicial killings, victims of slave like working and living conditions, women who suffer grave form of violence in the name of traditions and culture, the family members of the disappeared, and particularly the poor everywhere. The tenacious fight for survival of all these persons, often the wretched of the humanity, is the greatest cause for hope and the greatest inspiration for human rights work to protect and promote human rights. This work needs to be done.

More interviews

“Human rights protection lacking in Sri Lanka” Interview with Basil Fernando by Melani Manel Perera – October 2010. Read the interview here.

“Caste origins of authoritarianism in Sri Lanka-Part 3” Interview with Basil Fernando by Nilantha Ilangamuwa of the Sri Lanka Guardian. Available here.

Fernando’s analysis of rule of law and human rights

Publications

Articles

Articles from AHRC can be accessed on their website.

Articles written by Basil Fernando

“SRI LANKA: Development and law – noon-day darkness in the country” – AHRC – 20 April 2011. Available here.

Articles about Basil Fernando

“Sri Lanka mass grave called ‘a crime site'” – Al Jazeera – 18 February 2013. Available here.

Books written by Basil Fernando

Sri Lanka Impunity, Criminal Justice & Human Rights. The Asian Human Rights Commission, March 2010.

Demoralization and Hope. The Asian Human Rights Commission, August 2010.

The Phantom limb—Failing Judicial Systems, Torture and Human Rights Work in Sri Lanka. The Asian Human Rights Commission Hong Kong and the Rehabilitation and Research Centre for Torture Victims (RCT), Denmark, November 2009.

An X-ray of the Sri Lankan Policing System & Torture of the Poor. The Asian Human Rights Commission, September 2005.

The Right to Speak Loudly: Essays on Law and Human Rights. Asian Legal Resource Center, Hong Kong, 2004.

Sri Lanka: Disappearances & The Collapse of the Police System. The Asian Human Rights Commission, 1999.

The problems facing the Cambodian legal system. The Asian Human Rights Commission, July 1998.

Modernization versus Militarization in Sri Lanka. Asia Monitor Research Center, 1991.

For the latest AHRC publications, check this pdf.

History and Achievements of AHRC and the Asian Legal Resource Centre, 2014, can be downloaded via this link.