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.

Major Challenges

24 Jun

I’ve been working at Home for Human Rights for less than a week, yet I feel as though months have already passed by. After only a few days, my pre-arrival expectation of HHR as a small-scale, amateur NGO was gladly disproved; a few more days and I felt at home here (especially with my bed just two rooms away).

As a Sri Lankan might say, HHR is “big time”. In 25 years, it has progressed from a one-man operation to a versatile organization that employs over 40 people in 5 locations. In addition to the relatively new documentation program that I discussed in my previous posting, HHR focuses on 4 primary areas.

The women’s desk, established in 1995 by Mr. Xavier’s wife, Thilaka, runs support groups for female victims of violence and female-headed households, provides legal services to community-based organizations, documents cases of violence against women, funds research into possible forced sterilization of hill-country Tamils, and runs one-day legal literacy workshops for community leaders.

Meanwhile, a medical program provides funding for the rehabilitation of victims of the Sri Lankan police force’s most efficient information-gathering tool – torture.

Additionally, HHR’s education program runs workshops that train community leaders in various regions to, in turn, educate their neighbors about human rights laws and the legal options available to victims of state abuses.

Finally, the legal desk works to assist victims of human rights violations by providing representation and legal advice, starting at remote local courts and working up to the Supreme Court level. It also presents cases to the Sri Lankan government’s Human Rights Commission.

Working at such a well-established NGO with such competent people is a pleasure. At the same time, it makes my job much more difficult. Home for Human Rights’ survival through war and during times of pressure from two states (Sri Lanka and India) and one militant group (the LTTE) means that it has little motivation to change.

As Mr. Xavier recently told me, “We have survived for 25 years; we know how to do things here.” He equates advocacy with “propaganda” – political work extending beyond HHR’s mission, which has always been to gather information on government abuses and use it to challenge the authorities by means of their own (admittedly biased) legal system.

For HHR’s founder, “the facts are sacred”; no need to color them through advocacy work. I suggested to him that the facts, once made widely available to the media and the public, would clearly speak for themselves, but I’m not sure if my message got through. In my first conversation with him, the Deputy Director echoed Mr. Xavier when he bluntly replied “We don’t need any more publicity” after I’d explained AP’s mission to him.

How, then, am I supposed to carry out my job and publicize the work of a human rights NGO that is already successful and sees no benefit in websites, newsletters, networking, lobbying, and the other essential elements of modern civil society? I have yet to answer this question, and so I plan on going forward with my projects in the hope that, before HHR realizes it, communicating with the outside world becomes as routine a practice as tea-time.

Posted By Michael Keller (Sri Lanka)

Posted Jun 24th, 2004

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