What happens when an institute of higher education, endowed with the responsibility to provide everything in its power towards improving the educational experience of its students, fails to do so? What happens when an esteemed institute of learning, renowned for its fame as one of the best universities in the region, gets pulled down by petty political interest and makes decisions contrary to the spirit of education and free expression?
Such an incident is what is alleged to have occurred in the University of Colombo on December 10, 2010. A panel discussion to be held at the Law Faculty to commemorate World Human Rights Day in conjunction with the UN resident coordinator’s office was cancelled without warning by direct order of the University Council chaired by Vice Chancellor Professor Kshanika Hirimburegama. The event was supposed to feature outspoken human rights activist Sunila Abeysekara in a student discussion forum. UN Resident Coordinator Neil Buhne, who was also billed to talk, reportedly cancelled the event after the directive issued by the University Council.
The matter was picked up by members of the Friday Forum, a group of academics and human rights activists. A letter drafted to the Vice Chancellor expressed the group’s “grave concern at the decision taken by the Council of the University of Colombo chaired by the Vice Chancellor to refuse permission for Ms. Sunila Abeysekera to speak,” at the above event.
It went on to express the writers’ concern “on the ground that this decision violates basic tenets of academic freedom, which forms the cornerstone of university education, and has been upheld by the University of Colombo through many decades. We note that the relevant academic authorities, the Senate and the Faculty of Law, were not consulted.”
The letter was signed by Jayantha Dhanapala, Sri Lanka’s one time candidate for the post of Secretary General of the UN, and was dated January 17, 2011. Speaking to The Sunday Leader Dhanapala said that no response had yet come from the Vice Chancellor or members of the University Council.
Executive Director, Center for Policy Alternatives, Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu said that the notification, which was not given in writing but was informed verbally to the UN, was ‘absolutely scandalous, whatever one may think of the political views of the speakers, the freedom of speech must be celebrated.’ He added that a university must be open to exposing its students to viewpoints that may not fully agree with the status quo. He stressed that the council must take up and address this issue. Also adding that such restrictionist sentiment was probably coming from people who thought themselves ‘more Catholic than the Pope’.
Jezima Ismail, another signatory of the letter said that she fully agreed with the sentiments expressed in it and expressed the importance for a university to maintain its academic autonomy.
However, when The Sunday Leader contacted the Vice Chancellor she said that the council’s decision had nothing to do with the presence of Sunila Abeysekara at the event. “The council reviewed the event and found that it could not go ahead because the exact agenda was not submitted,” adding that all such events have to adhere to a particular process in order to get approved. When asked about the letter sent by the Forum she said “I received the letter and I think it is very wrong to say that we discussed any particular names. The issue was completely a procedural matter.” She also added that the council would respond to the letter after they review it, further saying that the University was “apolitical and open to views from all sides”.
The signatories of the letter consist of a plethora of well known academics and human rights activists such as Rt. Rev. Bishop de Chickera, Professor Savithri Gunasekera, J.C. Weliamuna, Jezima Ismail and several others. The contention is that the university cancelled the event because of the specific presence of Sunila Abeysekara while the university insists that the reasons were strictly procedural.
The Friday Forum is a self described ‘group of concerned citizens’ which has also done some work on human rights issues in the North and East.
Sunila Abeysekera is a renowned human rights activist in Sri Lanka and has been recognised for her work within the region and internationally, receiving the UN Human Rights Prize in 1998. She currently serves as Co-Chair of the UNDP’s Global Civil Society Advisory Committee to the Administrator of the UNDP.
The Sunday Leader spoke to Sunila Abeysekara about the incident that took place at the University of Colombo.
‘There were two separate activities both organised by the Law Faculty, one in collaboration with the country office, other in collaboration with the UNFPA. The latter event was taken to a different location and I spoke there. But the first event at which I was supposed to talk to a group of students was completely cancelled.’
‘I thought it was a pity students missed the opportunity. The message was verbally conveyed by the Vice Chancellor to the dean of the Law Faculty’.
When asked about why she thinks she was prevented from speaking she said ‘I can only speculate. I have no idea.’
It is particularly ironic that a person such as Abeysekara who has worked a lot on media freedom and freedom of expression should be exempt from speaking in a forum dealing with human rights. ‘It is particularly ironic that I should be cancelled because this was basically an activity of silencing.’