Michael Keller (Sri Lanka)

Michael Keller (Home for Human Rights, Sri Lanka): Michael worked as a summer-school teacher, a research assistant at a counter-terrorism consulting firm, an intern at the Ecole Nationale d’Administration in Paris, and a consular intern at the US Consulate General in Naples. At the time of his fellowship, Michal was in the fourth of a five-year program at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, pursuing a BS and MS in Foreign Service. He speaks Italian, French and German.

A life of July 30, 2004

30 Jul

Sadly, for me, this was Mr. Xavier’s last week at Home for Human Rights. By the time he returns from his 3 months in Canada, I’ll be back in Washington, DC. So I thought this would be an appropriate time to write a little bit more about the Director of HHR, a man who serves as a model to dedicated human rights workers everywhere, yet who has always shied away from the spotlight.

Innasimuthu Francis Xavier, who is trilingual, has known war throughout his life. At age six, his family fled Colombo to avoid the imminent Japanese bombardment. During the 1958 ethnic riots, he informally assisted Tamil IDPs (internally displaced persons) by bringing them together from various locations in order to reduce their vulnerability to further attacks.

Though he was working as a postmaster to satisfy his father’s desire that all his children secure a pension, he studied law on the side and began practicing under a senior lawyer and MP in 1975. He focused on securing the release of Tamil youths who were arbitrarily detained under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act, handling well over 1,000 cases in just two years.

Not satisfied with playing this important role, he formed HHR with two friends in 1977, with the goal of documenting rampant human rights violations against Tamils in his birthplace of Jaffna. Until his battles with the government, the Indian Peacekeeping Force, and various Tamil militant groups finally forced him to flee to Geneva in 1987, his life was “full of danger.”

He faced unrelenting bullying and interrogations from his “three enemies,” including the intentional bombing of one Jaffna office and then the shelling of its replacement, as well as the murder of a former co-worker. The final straw was the “disappearance” of K. Kanthasamy – Mr. Xavier’s close friend and a co-founder of HHR – at the hands of a Tamil militant group, EROS (Eelam Revolutionary Organization).

In the comfort and safety of Geneva, he didn’t stop fighting. While HHR continued to operate in Sri Lanka, he went to work for the World Organization Against Torture (OMCT) and successfully lobbied for the passage of a groundbreaking UN Commission on Human Rights resolution condemning Sri Lanka’s human rights record for the first time.

His concern for his family – which had fled to Canada when he went to Geneva – led him to move to Ottawa in 1992. Still he fought. Now almost 60, he returned to school to attain his accreditation as a barrister and then established a law office, working exclusively on behalf of asylum-seekers from countries such as Iraq and Ethiopia.

In 2002, Mr. Xavier returned to Colombo to once again serve as the Director of Home for Human Rights. At age 71, he is the busiest person I know. He shuttles between Canada and Sri Lanka every three months, handling torture cases one week and refugee cases the next. And he is not yet content.

He is pushing HHR to expand and move beyond the protection of only political and civil rights into the defense of economic, social, and cultural rights. He is privately raising funds to rehabilitate the lives of several dozen IDPs living in several miserable little villages. And he is fighting for “a change of heart in civil society, so that people will begin respecting each others’ rights.”

Though he still thinks I attend the imaginary “George Brown” University, the man has treated me like a son. He is living proof of perseverance amidst chaos, of compassion in the face of aggression, and he has certainly gained this intern’s admiration.

I could write much more about the uncommonly brave and kindhearted Francis Xavier; about the fact that he’s hired people off the street, that he’s supported Sinhalese cases, that he’s been trying in vain to have the government remove the mines from around his house, or a million other things, but I’ll end this here, knowing that words can’t convey the light in someone’s eyes.

Posted By Michael Keller (Sri Lanka)

Posted Jul 30th, 2004

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