The McGurk effect

“My Gold Father President Mainda Rajapaksha, Don’t Distap Obama?” is one of my favourite posters from the many held up last Monday as part of a rally against the proposed US resolution at the Human Rights Council in Geneva on Sri Lanka. I have no idea what that poster means, nor I suspect, does the man holding it up. Given that, at best, a mere handful of the thousands who attended the two rallies on Monday would have read the LLRC’s final report or recommendations, since months after publication in English they are unavailable in Sinhala or Tamil, it is largely ignorance, deftly exploited by politicians, that fuel rallies against measures to hold government accountable for what it has done, and not done.

But let’s not discount popular perception, brought out poll after poll, that international raps on our sovereign knuckles only serves to bolster populist fervour amongst the government’s vote base. Knowing this, any sitting of the Human Rights Council in Geneva is a ripe moment for quarters in government and other self-styled patriots to indulge in the vicious riposte, vehement denial, conspiracy theories and just general hate against anyone in Sri Lanka who flags outstanding and outrageous human rights violations and concerns.

Incredibly, the circus just keeps going on. It is, for example, unclear what our foreign policy is beyond last minute negotiations to thwart inconvenient resolutions. Samia Yakub is not a Sri Lankan citizen. She isn’t on the staff of our Foreign Minister, or even the Presidential Secretariat. Yet we have seemingly outsourced our foreign policy to the extent that Samia, an employee of Bell Pottinger, sent out in December 2010 a press release on behalf of our President, from her own email account. We have a High Commissioner in Geneva who today condones a systemic failure of the rule of law far worse than what she spoke out courageously against in 1987, at the Human Right Council’s precursor, the Commission on Human Rights. When the UN’s Panel of Experts came out with their damning report, our Foreign Minister over the course of 24 hours first said that Sri Lanka would respond in detail, and then told mainstream media it would not. At the time, it was impossible to ascertain with any authority what the government’s stand on the report was. Ditto with the government’s response to the Channel 4 video. In Geneva last year, after a special screening of the documentary, Sri Lanka’s Deputy Solicitor General completely contradicted the Attorney General over the authenticity of the video. This year, government representatives will present Sri Lanka’s National Action Plan on Human Rights in Geneva before it is tabled and debated in our own Parliament. Bizarrely, we outsource official responses on debates regarding the freedom of expression at the current HRC sittings in Geneva to – drumroll – the Chinese!

These are just a few examples from memory. The hypocrisy of government over human rights is a matter of public record, but out of fear and fatigue, few continue to robustly debate. Supporters of the regime – the majority – see and hear what they want to. It’s a cognitive disconnect from inconvenient facts. The McGurk effect is when we hear something that really isn’t present, and no matter how much we know it’s untrue, we still continue to hear it. Often married to ‘traitors’, human rights is a term so vilified, appropriated and abused that its currency within the country has depreciated far more than its value is recognised and projected from outside. You hear the term, and you immediately revolt and react against it no matter what is said. Almost no space for constructive debate on human rights exists in Sri Lanka today.

This is a real problem, and one tipped in the government’s favour. No tweet storm, no submission to the HRC, no Op Ed in the Guardian is going to address it in the short term. Certainly, concerns over fundamental rights will grow, despite the government’s hubris, hate and harm. Yet the challenge remains to anchor them domestically to a wider public consciousness, and outrage.

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Published in The Nation, 3 March 2012.

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