UN’s Problematic and Contradictory statement about SL’s archaeology work

By Ama H.Vanniarachchy

In the recently released Annual report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and reports of the Office of the High Commissioner and the Secretary-General of its 49th session, titled Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka, it commented on the archaeological work happening in Sri Lanka, especially in the East.

The statement of this 16-page report is highly problematic as it clearly misinterprets the concept of heritage.

These statements intend to say that the archaeological heritage, especially in the East, is a reason that the minority communities living in those areas are tensed about and the archaeological conservation work can cause dispute among communities. Well, if the archaeological heritage or the DOA work causes tension and fear among the minorities in the East, the UN should be concerned about addressing that issue, instead of suggesting that the archaeological heritage should be removed or should not be protected. Also, if the UN sees the country’s archaeological heritage as a threat to peace, our concern is what the UN means by peace.

Also, as far as we generally know, the communities living in the north and east do not see the archaeological heritage as a threat or a reason to be afraid of; it was only the LTTE and a few extremist groups that did so and expressed their anger on the archaeological heritage. The general public cannot be included in these groups. However, the UN’s said report tallies with the ideologies of those who vandalise cultural heritage as they see them as a target to attack another group of people, such as the bombing of the Temple of the Tooth, Kandy in 1998 by the LTTE.

Hence, this statement by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights about Sri Lanka’s archaeological work is clearly encouraging racism and provoking hatred among communities. We suppose that in the eyes of the  UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the bombing of the Temple of the Tooth and the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas are acceptable as, by their logic (according to the UN report), these monuments were seen as a threat by the LTTE and the Taliban.

There had been a notable public outcry against this report via social media. Therefore, we bring to you some of the views of the public and also the views of a few experts in the field of archaeology and heritage management.


What the experts say

Joining us first is senior archaeologist and Professor emeritus T.G.Kulatunga.

 “This statement by the UN is clearly one-sided. Also, how can the preservation of a country’s archaeological heritage be a threat or a challenge for peace?”, questioned prof. Kulatunga. A country’s archaeological heritage is never a threat to the country; instead, it is a national treasure and Sri Lanka is blessed with an abundance of such a treasure.

He explained how in countries such as Pakistan and Indonesia where Buddhism is not a major religion, the Buddhist heritage is greatly protected and cherished. This archaeological heritage has never been considered a threat by these countries or by their communities.

The professor further said that this partial statement can be interpreted as an anti-Buddhist statement and we have fair concerns about whether it is backing the ideologies of certain extremist groups. He also questioned the transparency of the UN’s definition of ‘human rights.

Archaeologist and former Director of Conservation of the DOA, Dr. Gamini Wijesuriya said that the UN has even failed to make any recommendation which only shows the purpose of their statement above is baseless and only to provoke tension between communities and to mislead the international community.

 Does a country’s archaeological work cause disputes between communities?

Dr.Wijesuriya explained that the UNESCO World Heritage Convention ratified by 191 countries clearly states ‘Each State Party to this Convention recognizes that the duty of ensuring the identification, protection, conservation, presentation and transmission to future generations of the cultural and natural heritage referred to in Articles 1 and 2 and situated on its territory, belongs primarily to that State. It will do all it can to this end, to the utmost of its own resources and, where appropriate, with any international assistance and cooperation, in particular, financial, artistic, scientific and technical, which it may be able to obtain’. (Article 4 of the Convention) another arm of the UN makes such bizarre statements with regard to the heritage of Sri Lanka.

 Article 5

To ensure that effective and active measures are taken for the protection, conservation, and presentation of the cultural and natural heritage situated on its territory, each State Party to this Convention shall endeavor, in so far as possible, and as appropriate for each country:

1.  to adopt a general policy that aims to give the cultural and natural heritage a function in the life of the community and to integrate the protection of that heritage into comprehensive planning programs;

2.  to set up within its territories, where such services do not exist, one or more services for the protection, conservation, and presentation of the cultural and natural heritage with appropriate staff and possessing the means to discharge their functions;

3.  to develop scientific and technical studies and research and to work out such operating methods as will make the State capable of counteracting the dangers that threaten its cultural or natural heritage;

4.  to take the appropriate legal, scientific, technical, administrative, and financial measures necessary for the identification, protection, conservation, presentation, and rehabilitation of this heritage; and

5.  to foster the establishment or development of national or regional centers for training in the protection, conservation, and presentation of the cultural and natural heritage and to encourage scientific research in this field.


The DOA is fulfilling their duty

“Identification of heritage in the midst of rapid development all over the world has thus become a primary goal of authorities concerned and the government is just doing that. Government should be congratulated for such initiatives. It is being done with other land-related agencies such as Forest to ensure heritage sites are well protected.

 UNESCO says that, Heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritage are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration.

 Dr.Wijesuriya also enlightened us that UNESCO also insists that heritage is to promote understanding between people and secure peace and protect heritage from threats such as armed conflict, deliberate destruction, economic pressure, natural disasters, and climate change for which identification is the first and most important task. It does not overrule the heritage of all communities but acting according to national law for heritage and respecting them by all communities is a responsibility.


Sri Lanka’s heritage is predominantly Buddhist

Predominantly Buddhist Heritage in the country is similar to having more Christian/ Catholic heritage in Italy or Islamic heritage in the Middle East.

 “Identification of heritage takes place in different ways. They can be thematic, focus on specific geographical areas or under special circumstances for facing threats, and so on. Islamic heritage, colonial heritage, Jewish heritage, maritime heritage, and so on are among thousands of such themes and why not Buddhist heritage?”, he questioned?

Prof. T.G.Kulatunga

Dr.Gamini Wijesuriya

Voice of the People

Knows nothing about archaeology

“In my opinion, this person does not have any knowledge about Archaeology. That is the main thing I have to say. Also, the weaknesses of our authorities are responsible.”, Rashmila Bandara shared her view.

DG and UNESCO-SL must respond

Nuwan Hemachandra was of the view that “Michelle Bachelet’s report is clearly based upon a hateful, partial narration. It is evident that she and her secretariat have a poor understanding of heritage and its definitions by UNESCO. Ironically, Bachelet challenges another UN agency, the UNESCO while she represents the UN as her statement contradicts the UNESCO policies. I believe that the UNESCO office in Sri Lanka and the Director-General Archaeology should give a befitting reply to these kinds of unfair accusations.”

UNHRC’s Sri Lanka-phobia

Champa Fernando said that the UNHRC has a Sri Lanka phobia and they should pay attention to real racist and human rights violation issues happening in Ukraine such as not allowing African and Indian students into trains, who are attempting to flee the violence of war.


Interfering into the country’s internal affairs

Dr.Manoj Kumara was of the view that this is an unnecessary interference in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs. Also, as these accusations are partial and unfair, they are baseless.


Protecting my heritage is my right

Esharma Kariyakarawana explained that a country’s history and archaeological heritage are the legacies of its citizens. Also, the conservation and exploration of historical places are approved and encouraged by UNESCO. High commissioner Michelle Bachelet’s report is partial, and an example of hate speech. “That is not appropriate for her position and protecting my country’s heritage is my human right.”


Backs the Elam myth

Laleendra Sannasgamaa said that according to the Archaeology Act in Sri Lanka, the land that is declared under the act is considered the heritage of all citizens (the nation). Therefore, the heritage belongs to all communities in the country regardless of race or religion. 

This report of the UNHRC is highly problematic and the only justification we can see is that this backs the homeland myth, Elam of the separatists.

Cannot expect a fair impartial judgment from the UN

Ven. Raluwe Padmasiri thero said that this statement by the UNHRC reveals that they are echoing the voice of a veiled superior power. Therefore, we must thank Bachelet for revealing that. This report is also an eye-opener for those who expect objective, scientific, fair, and impartial judgment from the UN. The non-responsive behavior of the UN, when the Bamiyan Buddhas were damaged, is due to this distorted ideology and selective sympathy.


Hatred towards heritage

Darshana Weerasekara said that we first have to look at who dragged this matter to the UNHRC. It is clear that the politicians who support separatism are working behind this. One of the main reasons why separatists oppose the management of archaeological heritage in Sri Lanka is that by doing so, the homeland myth (the Elam) is being severely challenged and proven as false. As the vast number of Buddhist heritage scattered all over the north and east is the biggest obstacle to proving the Elam myth, separatists see them as a threat. Hence they strongly are against the archaeological work happening in these areas.

These groups also mislead and provoke the communities in these areas and further have dragged it up to the UNHRC.

The DOA’s weak communication with the communities living around archaeological sites can be seen as the main reason for the rift between the DOA and the communities. Hence it has become easier for the politicians, especially those who are separatists, to take advantage of this situation. They provoke the public and pretend to be the savior of the people who have faced unjust.

Need for a public centered conservation approach

He also said that the active participation of all respective parties, representing every one of the society, should be a part of the archaeological work in order to avoid any miscommunication. The surrounding communities should be educated about the heritage and make them involved in heritage-based economic development work. As a sustainable solution, the government should intervene more in this regard, especially the DOA. Also, the DOA and other government agencies should work together on protecting the country’s heritage.

Buddhist heritage is under threat

Lecturer Sumedha Weerawardhana said that this gives us an impression that the international community is working towards erasing the Buddhist heritage of Sri Lanka. Such partial and unfair allegations by the UNHRC illustrate how difficult it is to protect our heritage. The DOA does not have adequate funding, and human resources, nor does it show great interest; also as they lack strong management, protecting our heritage is a challenge. 

Ruins at Mulativu (Mulleduwa)

Pololnnaruwa Siva Devale

Uncategorized, Ama H.Vanniarachchy, Human Rights, Sri Lankan archaeology, SRI LANKAN HISTORY, UN Sri Lanka, United Nations Human Rights Commissioner Sri Lanka