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‘Activism Can Only Be Learnt the Hard Way’ – Interview with Ruki Fernando, Advisor INFORM Human Rights Documentation Centre

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In January 2016 FORUM-ASIA elected a new Executive Committee. Over the last months, through interviews like the following one, we have introduced the different individual human rights defenders to you who will be part of the Committee for the coming three years. This time we talked to Ruki Fernando, from Sri Lanka, who is a first time member of the Executive Committee.

Ruki Fernando is a prominent human rights defender from Sri Lanka, who has been involved in human rights and social justice since 1997, working with church groups initially and then with secular groups. He has been working with leading Sri Lankan human rights organisations such as the Law & Society Trust and INFORM Human Rights Documentation Centre. Ruki has also worked two years, from 2005-2006, as coordinator of FORUM-ASIA’s Human Rights Defenders Department.

Through this interview we try to get to know Ruki a little better, by asking him how he became involved with the human rights movement, what motivates him, and much more.

How did you become involved in the human rights movement? And how did you become involved with FORUM-ASIA?

I became interested and involved in social issues, as a teenage student. It was in the middle of an insurrection by Sinhalese youth in Southern, Central, and Western parts of Sri Lanka. I was a member of the Young Christian Students (YCS) movement. We were involved in discussions, charitable deeds and symbolic peace building activities. I realized that I was deaf, dumb and blind to much of the atrocities that were happening around me. Later, it was interactions with survivors of violations, families of victims, those whose lives were under threat, and visits to places of violations that threw me into to the deep end, and made me get involved in more serious human rights activism. These involvements and my inability to do much, also made me reach out to others who mattered and who helped, such as lawyers, journalists, government officials, diplomats, and UN officials.

My involvement with FORUM-ASIA was initially as a staff member of the Secretariat for two years. It was an experience which became very useful to my subsequent work in Sri Lanka, especially in terms of contacts, networking and opportunities to know more about Asia and the international dimensions of human rights activism. Being based in Bangkok and working for FORUM-ASIA was also an opportunity to earn more, save some money, and relax before I came back to Sri Lanka to what was perhaps the most dangerous, difficult and stressful time for activism. A time when several Sri Lankan activists were starting to leave Sri Lanka. After returning to Sri Lanka, there were times I could send a SMS message or give a call to a friend in India, Nepal or Philippines and ask whether they could host a Sri Lankan activist who had to flee due to life threats.

My time with FORUM-ASIA also helped me to be a bit more sensitive to human rights violations outside of Sri Lanka, and motivated me to try and extend solidarity and support to activists in other countries, for example by welcoming activist under threat to Sri Lanka. I also got involved in training activists in other countries and advocacy beyond Sri Lanka.

What motivated you to become involved? And has that motivation changed over the years?

The initial motivation was based on my faith as a Christian, from a perspective of liberation theology and option for the poor. That remains. But I have also been motivated by other spiritualties and secular activists around the world. More recently, I have been motivated by the struggles of survivors of human rights violations and families of victims. Their struggles have made it difficult for me to give up, even when I felt like giving up.

What excites you the most about your work and the contribution you make?

The rare occasions when me and colleagues may have contributed to save a life, got someone who is unjustly detained released, supported survivors of violations and families of victims in their struggles, raised visibility and the profile of violations that had received very little attention, and exposed human rights violations that had been swept under the carpet.

And also some broader, macro-level developments were also exiting moments, such as when the Sri Lankan people electorally overthrew the dictatorial Rajapakse regime, when presidential powers were trimmed and independent institutions strengthened through the 19th amendment to the Constitution and when the UN Human Rights Council initiated an international investigation on Sri Lanka.

Tell us about inspiring or challenging moments for you in your work in the past?

 Inspiring moments have been to be part of courageous and determined struggles for truth and justice by survivors and families of victims. And rare achievements like those I mentioned above. I was also inspired and encouraged by the huge amount of support and encouragement I received, from across the world, during the times I was facing serious threats, was in exile and was arrested under anti-terror laws.

But it was also a tough challenge to live up to. To make sure that I do enough to make sure the efforts made by so many – both friends and strangers – to protect me, free me and support me, was worthwhile. I still feel overwhelmed when I think of this challenge.

What do you experience as the main challenges as someone working on human rights?

 During the dictatorial and authoritarian regime of Rajapakses, a key challenge was security, being subjected to surveillance, restrictions, interrogations, threats, compelled to be exiled, arrested and detained under anti-terror laws etc. I had to be conscious of my own security, but also that of colleagues, survivors and families of victims of violations, eyewitnesses, interpreters and others who provided logistical help like drivers. It was a time I had to restrict and change my personal lifestyle. A time when some colleagues told me not to come to their offices. A time that some friends told me not to come for a lunch or dinner. A time some relatives and friends considered me a terrorist supporter.

There was also a sense of powerlessness and helpless one felt in interactions with survivors and families of victims. How little we as activists can do. And to persevere even when we feel we are getting nowhere. When all we could do was to document stories of abuses, accompany survivors and victims’ families. When we realised there was no redress in sight, and victims, their families, and even we were tired.

This feeling is still there today. But today in Sri Lanka, with an opening of democratic space, it is even more frustrating when we see things we can do, but are unable to do it due to lack of energy and capacity. Perhaps because many activists are overworked. And some may not be interested in certain types of low profile work, such as accompanying and supporting survivors and families of victims and painstaking documentation.

There are also large number of institutions and mechanisms being set up or proposed by the new Government. It is overwhelming to engage with them in a constructive way. Especially in a context where I myself and many activists are not convinced about the genuine commitment of the Government. Tensions and major personal and political differences amongst activists are a challenge too.

It has been difficult to maintain good personal relations. Have time for family and friends while dealing with the constant and never ending urgent demands from survivors, families of victims and other activists. It is difficult to stay motivated, to not give up hope. To overcome disillusionment, the loneliness one feels, when called a terrorist supporter, traitor or other things by relatives and friends. When there is not much support from colleagues. At the same time, I do not want to talk about frustrations too much, as it may also de-motivate other colleagues and especially survivors and victims’ families. But it is challenging to appear hopeful and positive externally, when you are frustrated and disillusioned deep inside.

How do you deal with upcoming obstacles in your work? How do you keep yourself motivated to continue?

 There are many times I felt like giving up. And I have given up on some occasions. But interactions with survivors and families of victims, and their struggles, their demands, makes it very difficult to give up. At the same time, the occasional and rare victories serve as a big boost. Love, care, support and encouragement of friends and colleagues, both immediate and from across the country, across the world, have also helped me to stay motivated. Having gotten into activism based on Christian faith, being part of Christian groups and spiritual activities also play an important role. Occasional breaks, especially with nature, even if very rare, also help.

If you could give a message to the new generation of people working on human rights or development, what would it be?

It is important to go beyond conventional human rights activities, such as research, documentation, campaigning, advocacy, legal action, and trainings. They are important, but not enough. Accompaniment and solidarity with survivors of violations and victims of human rights violations, I think, should be central to human rights activism. In my experience, simple things, like standing by their side at vigils and street protests, accompaniment to courts and other institutions, visiting them in prisons and their homes, providing moral support, helping with translations, providing material and financial support, introducing them to others who could help their cause such as journalists, matter a lot.

This is challenging and not easy. It is more time consuming, may not attract much funding, may not give one publicity, put you more at risk, and is generally very emotionally draining. But I believe it is fundamental to human rights activism, and should be given more attention.

Activism can only be learnt the hard way – by direct involvement, not just through academic studies, reading, online searches, workshops, seminars. We need to get ourselves sweaty, dusty and perhaps even bloody. It is like learning to swim and learning to drive. It can only be done by getting into the water or the vehicle. And it involves taking calculated risks to one’s physical security. And risks of being isolated by society at large, and sometimes even by relatives and friends.