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Clarion call for a global transformation

In the preamble to his address to the 63rd Session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York on September 25, 2008, President Mahinda Rajapaksa quoted Sir Isaac Newton when he said: “we build too many walls and not enough bridges”.

This is a statement of diligent statesmanship which set the stage for a speech that contained a nuanced call for cooperation, solutions and understanding in a world bewildered by its own pace, success and double standards.

From an intellectual standpoint the President’s choice of sage was right on the money, as it was Newton who said: “I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people”.

Getting back to the President, his opening words succinctly addressed the issue, that through a global forum such as the United Nations, we must resolve problems and eschew violence, revenge and blame.

He also made it clear that his commitment is toward rehabilitation and reconstruction and that military operations should be launched only to exert pressure on those who believe in military action to destroy society.

His clarion call to the international community to break the cycle of conflict that plagues the world by focussing on development, and the final words of his speech - that the current session of the General Assembly should be the beginning of a new chapter rather than just another session - is reminiscent of the words of President Franklin D. Roosevelt who, immediately after World War Two, called upon the world to build enduring institutions of peace which should not be endangered by petty considerations or weakened by groundless fears.

President Rajapaksa drew the attention of the Assembly to the fact that terrorism threatened civil society and the rule of law, while observing that, although the UN system had set up various mechanisms to counter this threat, the capacity of the world body to address this challenge effectively had been brought into question.

There was also a subtle nuance on the importance of non- intervention and the sovereignty of a State when specifically singled out the Palestinians who are striving for an independent State and mentioned that the world community must help them to manage their country without any undue influence.

There was also a gentle admonition to the United Nations - that its primary function was to render assistance for the well-being of its member States. While recognising that the UN has only achieved limited results due to resource constraints, the President cautioned against poor coordination, ineffective design and inept staffing.

He reminded the Assembly that Sri Lanka is a party to 11 of 13 UN Conventions for the suppression of terrorism and urged the international community to proceed swiftly with the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism, emphasising that discussions and negotiations with regard to this important treaty should be concluded soon.

Arguably the most compelling message in the President’s speech, particularly in the context of the global relevance of the Assembly was the link drawn between the 10 year vision in Mahinda Chintana and the United Nations’ Millennium Goals.

This is a very astute and appropriate analogy as the UN Millennium Goals aim to cut poverty by half, ensure every child has the chance to go to school and live a long and healthy life, promote gender equality, combat disease, ensure environmental sustainability and develop a global partnership for development.

Mahinda Chintana, the vision of the President of Sri Lanka and arguably the most profound political statement released in recent times in Sri Lanka, is a systemic thought process that addresses the entire system of society.

It goes right across the board, from primary education to job creation to providing for physically and mentally challenged persons and onward to securing equality of pay for males and females.

It cuts across the entire value chain of social requirement and ensures that democracy is driven by values established by the leadership.

Perhaps the most important element of this philosophy is that it pursues a value-based democracy ruled by the people where development is not merely concerned with material well-being and economic affluence, but covers in a broad sense all forms of human progress and a better quality of life.

In this broad sense the UN Millennium Goals and Mahinda Chintana are soul mates, making the Sri Lankan political process an inextricable link of the global political process represented by the UN Goals.

It is also noteworthy that President Rajapaksa reiterated the importance to Sri Lanka of Metta and Ahimsa or loving kindness and the respect for life, a fact which he mentioned during his speech two years ago to the 61st General Assembly on September 20, 2006.

With this statement, the President advised the Assembly of nations of the thousands of years of Sri Lankan values which are based on understanding, forgiveness, kindness and non-violence.

In this context the President emphasised the value placed by Sri Lanka on human rights, mentioning that Sri Lanka occupied an important place in the UN Human Rights Council.

The President conveyed the message that, in a modern world of strife and conflict, the protection of human rights is the most significant and important task for a modern State, particularly since multi ethnic States are the norm in today’s world.

This brings us to the realisation that the traditional nation State in which a distinct national group rules over a territorial unit is fast receding to history.

Globalisation and increased migration across borders is gradually putting an end to the concept of the ethnic nation State, although resistance to reality can be still seen in instances where majority or dominant cultures impose their identity and interests on groups with whom they share a territory.

In such instances, minorities frequently intensify their efforts to preserve and protect their identity, in order to avoid marginalisation.

Polarisation between the opposite forces of assimilation on the one hand and protection of minority identity on the other inevitably causes increased intolerance and eventual armed ethnic conflict.

In such a scenario, the first duty of governance is to ensure that the rights of a minority society are protected.

In my view, President Rajapaksa’s speech at the General Assembly contains both a profound global message as well as a compelling national statement. It is that an honest leadership has to be truly sovereign, democratic and able to keep its promises.

The development brought about by an honest democracy could not be measured merely by the increased per capita income of the citizens of a country, but also by their political and economic freedom and their equal enjoyment of the fruits of growth.

Both democracy and development denote a continuous change which is brought about over a sustained period of time through indigenous efforts. Sustainable development, achieved through democracy must in essence be rooted in local conditions and emerge from real forces within a society.

It also tells us that the protection of human rights is the most significant and important task for a modern State, particularly since multi ethnic States are the norm in today’s world

Leaders have to be assisted in these noble tasks and this brings to bear the important dimension of the duties of a citizen. President John F. Kennedy is best known for his quote: “Ask not what the country can do for you but what you can do for your country”. This captures in essence the other side of human rights law.

Thomas Jefferson wrote: “What duty does a citizen owe to the government that secures the society in which he lives? What can it expect and rightly demand of him in support of itself? A nation that rests on the will of the people must also depend on individuals to support its institutions in whatever ways are appropriate if it is to flourish.

Persons qualified for public office should feel some obligation to make that contribution. If not, public service will be left to those of lesser qualification, and the government may more easily become corrupted”.

It is quite timely that President Rajapaksa asked that the 63rd Session of the General Assembly be a new chapter. From the perspective of human rights, there will always be wrongs, therefore there must always be rights”. This should indeed be the principle for a new beginning.

The author is a senior official at the United Nations in Montreal.

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