2021 Jul 23
As most children are taught, there are certain human rights you are entitled to when you’re born. While you’ll grow to be aware of them, it is an unfortunate truth that your ability to exercise all of these intrinsic human rights will occasionally be challenged, and sometimes be entirely violated.
This is when the principle of ‘inalienable rights’ comes into play – the concept of fundamental individual rights held by a person which are not enforced by law, custom or religious belief. They cannot be taken or given away. They are yours; they are part of what it means to be human.
As early as the 18th century, the United States’ Declaration of Independence famously laid out inalienable rights as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Over time, as the concept evolved and became increasingly convoluted, these rights were formalised as written laws. At the international level, the widely-invoked 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights meant that certain human rights were defined and enacted by written laws and rules, and declared by a sovereign body.
As a result, rights evolved into certificates and licenses that were emblematic of the principles they represented. For instance, a sovereign body – your country and government – issues proof of life, of identity, and of property rights. In practice, this process of legal documentation means that people may feel as though countries can effectively take their inalienable rights away. Too often, human rights are confused with privileges- but they are not.
Put simply, inalienable rights are inherent to your dignity as a human being. In order to resist having your rights threatened, infringed upon, or violated, you need to know what they are.
Life: To be secure in one’s country
While this means that no one has the right to threaten your life, what is also implicit within this inalienable right is that the sovereign body – the Government – holds the responsibility of protecting human life, regardless of race, religion or socioeconomic background. This means that the Government should ensure its citizens live without the presence of fear, and hold those who violate the right to life accountable.
In this context, the issue of police brutality becomes especially poignant. To fear for your life is one thing, but to fear those who have sworn to protect and defend you is another entirely.
Police brutality – the excessive, illegal use of force against civilians by police officers – directly violates an individual’s inalienable right to life and security. After incidents which sparked a global outcry against police brutality – such as the murder of George Floyd in the United States – the issue needs to be given greater attention in a Sri Lankan context.
Police officers are only ever allowed to use lethal force when strictly necessary or as a last resort – the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials (BPUFF) are the key international instrument that deals with police use of force. The most important thing to remember is this: it is the utmost obligation of state authorities, including police, to respect and protect the right to life.
Recent incidents of police brutality, despite barely scratching the surface of the country’s history of human rights violations against citizens, have begun receiving widespread social media coverage in Sri Lanka. Recordings have emerged of a lorry driver being brutally assaulted by a traffic policeman in Pannipitiya, and a father being beaten and left to die under the instructions of police officers in Weligama. Importantly, these civilians were not armed and did not pose a threat.
Without accountability for these atrocities, and without proper knowledge of one’s own inalienable human right to life and security, Sri Lankan society is fated to normalize and permit incidents of police brutality.
Liberty: The right to freedom
Although the concept of liberty applies to a broad range of rights and laws, the core principle is the same – it is the expression of a person’s free choice to live as they please. It would be especially apt to discuss how members of the LGBTIQ+ community have seen their inalienable right to liberty violated and their freedom of expression restricted.
Despite the fact that Sri Lanka is one of the 69 countries that criminalise homosexuality, Lawyer and LGBTIQ+ Rights Advocate, Aritha Wickramasinghe, has stated repeatedly that Sri Lankan law does not expressly criminalise homosexual relationships. The law actually prohibits “carnal intercourse against the order of nature between man, woman and animal” and “gross indecency between persons”, which are broadly interpreted as homosexuality.
This serves as an indication of how, through a State or governing body, the law can be used as an instrument to restrict the right to freedom of expression, and can place limits on an entire community’s inalienable right to liberty.
The Pursuit of Happiness: To right to work
While, in the modern day, the right to work does not seem to be one that is often challenged, this is not true for all social groups in the country – especially not for women.
Women in Sri Lanka are not completely entitled to the right to work – legal barriers prevent them from achieving the same equal status in the workforce as their male counterparts. Outdated legal barriers hinder women’s right to work. For instance, The Shop and Office Act mandates that women are not allowed to work past 8 pm, which limits their ability to work overtime. Such archaic legal restrictions stem from the cultural norms that dictate that a woman should stay home to look after her children, again impeding her right to work.
This is proven by the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report (2021). While Sri Lanka ranks quite high in the areas of health and educational attainment, it does poorly in the area of economic participation.
This presents a pressing human rights issue because the right to work is intrinsically tied to an individual’s empowerment – and thus directly threatens your inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness.
What can you do?
Educating yourself on your inalienable rights, which are the entitlements of being human, can be an incredibly empowering process. It is important to remember that while your inalienable rights can be denied and violated, they can never be taken away.