Sri Lanka, CAHR, Autumn 2012
My name is Ruki Fernando and I am from Sri Lanka. I have been involved in human rights and social justice issues since 1997, working with church groups initially and then with secular groups. Until about 2004, my work was mainly focused on human rights education. My work from 2005 to 2006 with FORUM-ASIA, a regional (Asian) human rights organization, entailed protection of human rights defenders, documentation and advocacy work.
But real frontline human rights work that put my life on the line and dealt directly with situations of life and death started when I came back to Sri Lanka in early 2007 as the war and attacks on human rights defenders was escalating. I became involved in documenting human rights violations such as enforced disappearances, freedom of expression, attacks on human rights defenders, land grabbing, rights of displaced and resettled people, etc. I tried publicizing these violations through my own writings, interviews, by formal reports and also providing information to other organizations and journalists and engaged in lobbying and advocacy with government ministers and officials, diplomats, UN staff and experts. I have also been involved in organizing campaigns such as protests, vigils, exhibitions, and commemorations. I spent a lot of time training local human rights defenders on basic concepts and skills. One of the most dangerous and challenging parts of my work in the last three years has been protecting human rights defenders, journalists, ex-detainees, and returning refugees facing threats and attacks. I worked closely with victims and their families, supporting them in their struggles for justice locally and internationally, linking them to other families and to local and foreign journalists, and organizations. I also undertook visiting those detained unjustly in prison and observing court trials, and organizing an informal network of volunteers such as lawyers and Christian clergy to engage in similar work.
Like most human rights defenders in Sri Lanka, my work had put me at risk, particularly due to the work in war affected north and east of Sri Lanka, sensitive individual cases I was dealing with, reports and articles I wrote, interviews I gave and international advocacy I was engaged in.
I have been writing regularly for online citizen’s journals and some articles have also been carried in national newspapers. Many drew harsh criticism, including from military, implying I was supporting “terrorists”. Most articles dealt with unreported and underreported issues, based on my first-hand experiences on the frontlines of the war zone and direct interactions with activists and victims of human rights violations.
Like most human rights defenders in Sri Lanka, my work had put me at risk, particularly due to the work in war affected north and east of Sri Lanka, sensitive individual cases I was dealing with, reports and articles I wrote, interviews I gave and international advocacy I was engaged in. I was compelled to live in exile for several months. I believe my links with the Catholic Church, diplomatic community, international organizations and my being staff member of a small, but well known human rights organization would have contributed to my safety. Having to leave the organization after 5 years in April 2012 had increased my vulnerability. Five and half years of intense activism in the face of such risks and pressure, had also left me exhausted, emotionally drained and stressed.
I have not been able to find any time for reflections or a break, due to pressing human rights concerns. I believe this fellowship at CAHR will offer me much needed respite and distance for me to engage in work I had been putting off, away from the “frontlines” and associated pressure, stress and risks. Without worrying about whether I’m followed, whether my phone is tapped and even worst case scenarios. I would like to use my time at York to reflect on my own work experiences and to write up some of these experiences in manual form, using also the many training programs I have been conducting in the last few years. I also want to use this time to conceptualize some new initiatives I’m keen to pursue from 2013.
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