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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2492

Amnesty’s Cricket Ball Campaign, Human Rights and Possible Cultural Prejudice

Professor Laksiri Fernando - University of Colombo

Amnesty International’s recent ‘cricket ball campaign’ against Sri Lanka during the World Cup in the West Indies has raised two key issues in respect of human rights campaigning in general. The first is whether it is correct to use any forum to launch human rights campaigns even if the issues are correct? The second is about the ethical validity of the ‘use of shaming’ as a weapon in human rights campaigns by Amnesty or any other.

While cricket or any other sport should be kept out of politics or any other controversy, human rights championing should be free from cultural prejudice and hence ‘shaming’ should not be its weapon. Amnesty or any other international organization (in the First World) who wishes to campaign on human rights in Sri Lanka or in any other country (in the Third World) should employ more open, direct and frank methods. The differences of the ‘Worlds’ cannot easily be ignored.

There is no question that Sri Lanka has been a critical country in human rights violations in the past as well as at present due mainly to the ‘ethnic conflict,’ war and terrorism. Many of the other structural violations are related to the underdeveloped socio-economic conditions for which many of the developed countries are also responsible directly or indirectly. In that respect, the British legacy of colonialism cannot easily be ignored in assessing Sri Lanka’s present predicaments.

The Larger Context

It is only in recent times that Sri Lanka has been in a position to rise above its difficulties partly thanks to ‘globalization’ in contrast to colonialism. But for the curse of unresolved ethnic conflict, war and terrorism the country is still lagging far behind compared to other countries in the region. Sri Lanka at present (and at best) is a mix bag with several developments and perennial underdevelopments. Sri Lanka’s performance in cricket or its difficulties in curtailing human rights violations should be viewed in this paradoxical context. This is, however, not to say that human rights violations should be taken lightly or ignored by the government, the civil society or the international community.

But where do the violations come from? Are they related to cricket? While the answer to the first question can admittedly be controversial on personal or professional opinion, the answer to the second cannot at all be ‘yes.’ Then why did Amnesty select the world cup for its ‘cricket ball campaign? Already a conspiracy theory has been put forward as an explanation. This theory has taken credence after an LTTE supporter invaded the cricket grounds when Sri Lanka was playing against Australia on 16 April. My explanation, however, is different. The purpose is not to defend Amnesty from the conspiracy theory, but to see the question from a different angle.

Like many other Western based human rights organizations, Amnesty has a perennial weakness by being driven mainly by the so-called lobbying. Amnesty does undertake research, but many of their campaigns are decided by lobbying or impulsive decisions on the so-called effectiveness. Therefore, those who have the capacity or the determination to lobby undoubtedly make the most influence on Amnesty campaigns.

After lobbying, some of them ‘make fun’ out of their ‘effective campaigns.’ Of course the ‘cricket ball campaign’ could have been an effective one, by Amnesty standards, if not for the odds that the campaigners encountered with the ICC after protests by the Sri Lanka Cricket Board. When it comes to ‘effective campaigning,’ Amnesty behaves on the erroneous notion that ‘the end justifies the means.’ The implicit argument goes on like: if it is ‘human rights’ any type of campaigning is justified. This obviously goes against the very spirit of human rights where both ‘the end and the means’ should be justified. Simply said, there is no justification for Amnesty to bring divisive politics into cricket. In Sri Lankan idiom, it is like ‘spoiling milk by mixing cow dung.’

There is no question that in many countries, sport is considered a part of national pride. Sri Lanka is no exception. There is lot of nationalism involved in cricket. But that nationalism is not what is advocated by the ethno-nationalists on the side of the Sinhalese or the Tamils. So far cricket in Sri Lanka has been free from divisive politics; ethnic or otherwise, until Amnesty decided to spoil the game. Cricket in fact has been a uniting factor rather than a divisive one. This contrasts to the situation in many other spheres of political or social life.

For example, the Anglican Bishop of Colombo, Rev. Duleep de Chickera had strong words to say about the human rights situation in the country in his Easter Message in April 2007. He in fact blamed both ‘militarism and militant strategies’ for the deteriorating human rights situation, as he believed. But his attitude towards cricket was entirely different.

Referring to the World Cup, he has said in the same message that “we would do well to remember that it is not just the prowess of our team that is noteworthy – its visible unity in ethno-religious diversity that enhances performance” (Sunday Island, 8 April 2007). The Bishop had further pronounced that: “Made up of Sanaths and the Muralis, the Mahelas and the Dilshans and the Mahroofs, the Arnolds and the Vass,’ this characteristic of our team should spur our nation towards a similar goal of unity in diversity.” Similar sentiments have been expressed by many others, including several popular news paper editorials. Much credit should go to the Daily Mirror and the Sunday Times for systematically exposing the Amnesty’s discredited campaign.

The broader issue, however, in respect of human rights campaigning is whether it is correct for Amnesty or any other organization to utilize rather neutral fields to launch its human rights campaigns? As the ‘cricket ball campaign’ has revealed, the utilization of neutral fields is not only erroneous, but also counter productive. For example, as a consequence of the erroneous campaign, it has been quite easy for the government of Sri Lanka to dismiss the Amnesty campaign without any heeding of the ‘rules of the game.’ On the other hand, the LTTE utilized the Amnesty campaign towards its political purposes even by sending one of its activities to the cricket field.

The critics from the government side also have pointed out that ‘play by the rules’ that Amnesty talks about is only aimed at the government, where the rules are by and large followed, but not at the LTTE, which is a ‘rule unto them.’ As Lucien Rajakaurunanayake has refracted lightly, the Umpire has proved to be a Rogue (Sunday Observer, 8 April 2007).

Cultural Prejudice?

What has led Amnesty to indulge in this ‘blunder’ is the important question.

Amnesty International has been utilizing what has been called ‘shaming’ as its main weapon from its inception in 1961. This is based on the notion of ‘shame,’ most obviously understood erroneously in the context of cultural and national competition internationally. There is a considerable difference between ‘shame’ and what can be called ‘shaming.’ Shame is a moral principle that a person or a group of people should or is abide by given its cultural and religious upbringing. ‘Shaming’ on the other hand is an act of an external agency to make the ‘alleged perpetrator’ of a violation or a wrong doing feel shameful or ashamed.

There is no question that ‘shame’ is an important internal moral tenet that can prevent a person or even a government from wrong doing. This is supposed to apply in human rights violations in the world context as in the case of other moral violations in a local context. This supposition is fairly correct on several conditions. The main condition of course is whether we have a fair agreement on what is correct and what is wrong in respect of human rights. The second is the concrete political or social conditions within which the application of human rights practices take place. Even if the first condition is favorable, the second might prevent the practice of human rights; for example under war in the case of civil and political rights or under poverty in the case of economic or social rights.

The important question is how to prevent such violations or change the conditions under which such violations occur? There may be several answers one may ponder on the question/s. However, Amnesty’s campaigns such as the ‘cricket ball one’ would not come anywhere near the above objectives.

The primary aim of the Amnesty campaign has been undoubtedly ‘to shame’ the government, but not the LTTE. Amnesty like many other organizations have shown a perennial weakness in disfavoring Third World or non-Western governments and in fact favoring the anti-government entities. It is partly this situation on the part of the international community or its various organized bodies such as Amnesty that has largely prevented the resolution of the conflict in Sri Lanka by perpetuating or justifying the extremist (or terrorist) positions of the LTTE.

Leaving aside the specific Sri Lankan situation; the question is whether Amnesty has any moral authority ‘to shame’ others. Posing this question, however, should not be taken as an objection to Amnesty’s or any others’ scrutiny or monitoring of human rights violations in the Third World countries and making more direct, frank and genuine efforts in criticizing or condemning those violations. Mostly they should do, however, is to assist the governments and the civil society sectors without partiality to rectify the political, social and structural conditions that perpetuate those violations.

What are unacceptable are the indiscriminate campaigns in neutral fields such as sports and the utilization of cultural prejudices in shaming those societies wholesale like indulging in ‘collective punishment.’ A similar observation was made almost six years back by Alan Watchman when he raised the question: “Does the diplomacy of shame promote human rights in China?” (Third World Quarterly, 2 April 2007). He in fact highlighted the quite counter productive results of those so-called shame campaigns against China in his valuable article. Of course there are others who continue to defend the ‘shame method’ as an effective tool in international human rights campaigning (Robert F. Drinan, The Mobilization of Shame, Yale University Press, 2002). What is obvious is the cultural prejudice against Third World countries and their societies that transpires among those who defend the shame weapon.

Coming back to the Sri Lankan case, the cultural prejudices of the Amnesty’s ‘cricket ball campaign’ became revealed when South Asian Group Leader, Sarah Oliver, wrote to its Sri Lankan coordinator that “it should be easy and fun” to launch the shame campaign against Sri Lanka (The Sunday Times, 8 April 2007). It is a well known fact that Amnesty uses mostly young and inexperienced people in their ‘shame campaigns,’ those who even do not have any knowledge of the countries that they campaign on. Amnesty also has a strange principle not to involve or consult those who are living in the target country. Invariably most of the Third World campaigns are conducted by the First World people and obvious cultural prejudices intervene.

The ‘shaming’ of course has a long tradition both in the East and the West going back to the pre-modern periods of history. In many countries, ‘shame’ was used not only as a deterrent but also as a punishment for alleged violations long before humane and refine methods were invented. It was also largely against the so-called lower caste or lower status people that ‘shaming’ was used.

What is important at present is for Amnesty to take cognizance of the possible cultural prejudices that can intervene in the so-called shame campaigns. There may be some truth that Amnesty’s past shame campaigns have deterred some perpetrators; but definitely not all or the others. Shaming is a violation of dignity whether of a perpetrator or not. That is the way many of the Third World countries rightfully would consider the campaigns. Dignity is a major principle of human rights themselves. How could human dignity be transgressed to achieve a human rights result?

How does Amnesty account for the strong opposition that it generates in the Third World or Asian countries for their ‘shame’ campaigns? Of course Amnesty could consider that opposition as part of the ‘perpetrator’s guilt.’ But there is another side to the truth. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission have invented completely a different approach to ‘shaming.’ That is to openly deal with the truth on a moral basis and to constructively engage in uncovering the causes rather than merely castigating the alleged perpetrators. Of course the Commission morally compelled many perpetrators to reveal the truth and opted to recommend punishments without allowing impunity.

What Amnesty should do in countries like Sri Lanka is to constructively engage with the governments and the civil society sectors without trying to shame, demand or dictate. After all it is the legitimate governments and not terrorist outfits that would be amenable to human rights appeals or concerns. There is a considerable reluctance on the part of many Western based human rights organizations to directly deal with the Third World governments. This reluctance often emerges from cultural prejudices, in my experience, which invariably lead to their ill-famed ‘shame campaigns.’

Sermonizing might be easy in human rights; but practicing them without violating the principles appear to be difficult even to Amnesty as revealed by the ‘cricket ball campaign.’

- Asian Tribune -

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