Vaccines Eventually, Human Rights Immediately

I appreciate British High Commissioner Sarah Hulton’s piece on the UK’s hosting of a Global Vaccine Summit.

“Developing a successful vaccine will take the collective effort of government, academia, industry, and medicine,” Hulton writes.

“The UK and Sri Lanka have long been partners in education and innovation, and the COVID-19 response is no exception,” Hulton tells us. She also reminds us that “Sri Lanka has an impressive record in many aspects of public health.” Indeed, the island nation does.

Vaccine summits are, of course, welcome. Collaboration is of utmost importance. And it’s good to see the UK playing a prominent role. However, Hulton’s op-ed is troubling in a different and perhaps obvious sort of way.

Where does Ambassador Hulton stand when it comes to human rights since Gotabaya Rajapaksa became president? Has the Ambassador looked at Colombo’s coronavirus response through the lens of rights and justice? For example, a quick perusal of the Ambassador’s Twitter feed suggests that she doesn’t really have any rights concerns in the coronavirus era. And yet there are a multitude of reasons to be concerned.

President Rajapaksa has refused to reconvene Parliament even though that’s the right thing to do. Even with the recent (and questionable) Supreme Court ruling, there are still a lot of reasons to be worried.

How long will Sri Lanka go without a functional Parliament? What about the continued and deepening militarization of Sri Lankan society? And the utter disregard for Muslim desires pertaining to burial rites? And yet there’s so much more.

The President continues to centralize power. The repression of dissent remains ongoing. The press, and this newspaper is a notable exception, refuses to speak openly and honestly about what’s actually happening. Current and former military officials have their hands in everything.

Again, the search for a vaccine is laudable. Nonetheless, I’m sure I’m not the only one wondering where Ambassador Hulton stands on a host of pressing rights-related matters.

Let’s hope that her next op-ed is more courageous — and less politically convenient.

*A version of this letter first appeared in The Daily FT.


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Taylor Dibbert

Taylor Dibbert is a writer, journalist and poet. He’s author of the Peace Corps memoir “Fiesta of Sunset," and the forthcoming poetry collection "Home Again."