Basil Fernando / AHRC

(2014, Hong Kong SAR, China)

… for his tireless and outstanding work to support and document the implementation of human rights in Asia.


Basil Fernando is a leading Asian human rights defender. In a career spanning three decades, he has been pivotal in linking ordinary citizens striving for human rights principles at the grassroots to institutions working for structural reform at the policy level. Fernando, and the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) that he led for nearly two decades, have developed one of the world’s most sophisticated “Urgent Appeals” systems. Through its Human Rights School and training initiatives, the AHRC has educated countless lawyers and activists on the principles of fair trial and the rule of law, thereby greatly advancing an Asian movement working towards the realisation of human rights for all.

Contact Details

Asian Human Rights Commission
Unit 1 & 2 12/F.
Hopeful Factory Centre
10-16 Wo Shing Street
Fotan, N.T.
Hong Kong, China



From Sri Lanka to Hong Kong: Basil Fernando’s early life

Basil Fernando was born on 14 October 1944 and graduated in law from the (then) University of Ceylon in 1972. After graduation, he taught English as a second language at university level for 8 years, before becoming a practising criminal lawyer in 1980.

Fernando became concerned and began resisting the pernicious politicisation and corruption that was becoming common in the public justice system in Sri Lanka, undermining the legal profession. In 1989, when tens of thousands of people had already “disappeared”, his name was placed on a death list, forcing him to flee to Hong Kong. Fernando worked for a UNHCR sponsored project for three years as a Counsellor for Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong.

Subsequently, between 1992-94, he worked for the Human Rights Component of the UN Transitional Authority of Cambodia and UN Human Rights Centre as a Senior Officer. These experiences helped shape the approach to human rights that Fernando adopted when he accepted Directorship of the Asian Human Rights Commission, and the associated Asian Legal Resources Centre, in 1994.

Asian Human Rights Commission: a new approach to human rights work

Basil Fernando was the Asian Human Rights Commission’s only full-time employee when he joined the organisation in 1994. His approach to human rights was a radical departure from most human rights work in the region at the time. He focused on assisting victims of human rights violations and activists from within the communities who were supporting the victims, rather than propagating human rights from urban centres. Moreover, he began analysing precisely why and how principles of human rights were not being incorporated in, and implemented through, national public justice systems. Also, he began engaging in lobbying and advocacy from outside the country where human rights abuses were taking place in ways that supported and protected victims and informants. To achieve this, Fernando began building up AHRC’s capacity and the capacities that would allow such work to be done in the countries in which AHRC became involved – by recruiting and training staff and empowering partner organisations.

The AHRC today works actively in 12 Asian countries: Bangladesh, Burma, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Nepal, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and the Philippines. Fernando stepped down from the position of Executive Director at AHRC in 2010 and today serves as its Director of Policy & Programmes.

Documenting human rights violations & promoting suitable solutions

Basil Fernando and his colleagues at the AHRC have painstakingly documented human rights violations in the countries in which they work, and published them in AHRC’s Annual Reports. Fernando and the AHRC team have produced several monumental works, which include the book Narrative of Justice in Sri Lanka told through stories of torture victims that documents 1,500 cases of police torture in Sri Lanka between 1998 and 2011, and article 2, a quarterly journal that analyses recent developments in the implementation of human rights standards in Asia. Torture – Asian And Global Perspectives and Ethics in Action are also regular publications. The AHRC, under Fernando’s guidance, has done extensive work in exposing and reducing the number of forced disappearances and in assisting victims. It has documented a number of disappearances in a “Cyberspace Graveyard”, available at

Given the absence of a governmental charter on human rights in Asia, and cognisant of the arguments against human rights on the basis of cultural relativism, the AHRC launched a series of consultations, which lasted several years, to develop consensus for a human rights charter. The Asian Human Rights Charter, a people’s charter representing the consensus of Asian civil society, which resulted, was adopted in South Korea in 1998. While subscribing to the universality of human rights, it demonstrates Asia’s particular approaches being used in framing human rights, and is available in several languages. Efforts towards drafting an Asian Charter on the rule of law are ongoing.

Initiating an Asia-wide campaign against torture and ill-treatment, as an answer to widespread use of torture in Asian countries, has become one of AHRC’s core activities. This has resulted in the formation of the Asian Alliance Against Torture and Ill-Treatment (AAATI), which also holds meetings for parliamentarians from Asian countries to encourage them to play an active part in eliminating the use of torture.

The AHRC urgent appeals system

During Fernando’s leadership, the AHRC developed one of the most extensive urgent appeals programmes in the Asian region to assist persons who suffer human rights abuses. This programme is arranged so complaints can be received quickly, speedy interventions can be made at local, national, and UN levels, and the information can be disseminated to a large audience across the world. Over 350 urgent appeals from different Asian countries are received and acted upon by the AHRC annually. The appeals system has successfully led to the release of many ordinary people, saving them from suffering further human rights abuses.

Human rights education

The AHRC under Fernando’s watch has established a human rights school with a view to developing a new form of human rights education based on the application of human rights principles to current problems, adopting the Danish Style Folk School method of education through dialogue. The school holds live sessions in different countries in the region, and also by way of a correspondence school, disseminates lessons to local human rights organisations and also makes the same available on the Internet. The human rights school has been widely subscribed by the global human rights community, with over 200 persons accessing the modules every month.

In 1995, the AHRC also commenced a direct programme to train Chinese lawyers on the principles and proof of fair trial. This training programme has been ongoing annually, and the AHRC has managed to make a significant impact in promoting the rule of law in China, establishing partnerships with a remarkable number of lawyers, law teachers, academics, and activists.

On the basis of a large body of data gathered over many years, the AHRC has identified that archaic and extremely backward public justice systems, i.e. police, prosecution, judicial and prison institutions, are the major obstacle to the implementation of human rights in Asian countries. In order to overcome this major obstacle the AHRC has made advocacy for re-engineering of justice systems another key focus of its work.


Basil Fernando is a Senior Ashoka Fellow and a Sohmen Visitor of Law at the University of Hong Kong. He received the Gwangju Prize for Human Rights in South Korea in 2001. He is also a reputed poet and creative writer, who writes in his mother tongue Sinhala and in English. 


Award Acceptance Speech by Basil Fernando

1 December 2014

Honourable guests,
Members of the Swedish Parliament,
Ladies and gentlemen,

I am humbled and honored to be one of the recipients of the Right Livelihood Award – both for myself as well as for the organisation that I represent – the Asian Human Rights Commission.

Some two decades back, the Asian Human Rights Commission was confronted with the problem of widespread impunity in most Asian countries: perpetrators of such grave crimes as enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, torture and illtreatment, or sexual abuse of women got away without legal consequences. It appeared we were powerless.

Then we posed ourselves a question and posted it on an office wall: “What can we do when it appears nothing can be done?” All that we did subsequently can be traced back to this question. In short, the solution we found was that “the ambulance approach” to human rights violations, must be combined with “an institutional reform approach.” Let me explain.

The first recipient of this award from my country, Sri Lanka, Judge Christopher Weeramantry, stated in his address in this Parliament in December 2007 that “the gulf between law and reality, between professions of good intentions and the practice of them, between what is proclaimed in the books and what is practiced in the field has grown to abysmal proportions.” Our work reveals that this ‘abysmal gap’ is greater and far more starkly visible in the developing countries.

The work we have done began with a personal experience of mine, that of being confronted with the imminent risk of disappearance as a result of the work I did as a lawyer, just the ordinary duties on behalf of my clients. Knowing the pattern of what was going on, I knew my turn would soon come. Therefore, as the time was extremely limited, I left my country in the shortest time possible.

I tried to grasp the problem of the certainty of a disappearance where innocence is not a defense. Then I tried to understand the problem of protection of citizens, which is the duty of the State. I realised that it is not the laws set out in the books that protect people. We have such laws in abundance, but the existence of those laws did not prevent widespread lawlessness. The presence or absence of protection is determined by and dependent on functioning institutions of justice, meaning a functional police system, prosecution system and judicial system.

This realization I had reached was further confirmed during the period of nearly three years when I worked as a Senior Officer of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia, where I saw what Alexander Solzhenitsyn has called ‘abysmal lawlessness.’ In Cambodia the police, the prosecution system, and the judiciary were all aligned against the people and liberty was criminalised. When the responsibility of leading the Asian Human Rights Commission fell upon me in 1994, I was determined to pursue this single issue of protection, with the goal of trying to articulate the problem as clearly as we could, as well as seeking ways to solve this problem. In essence, that is what we have done and are doing.

The method we have adopted is, first of all, to meticulously document the individual violations and to tell the story of each individual as to what happened to them when they sought justice. We called this the “story approach,” as opposed to the then prevalent “statistical approach.” Then we tried to support as many victims as possible by issuing urgent appeals, by helping in litigation and by providing psychological assistance, thereby actually learning victims’ agonies and frustration.

This way we saw the appalling condition of the policing, prosecutions and judicial systems that prevailed in almost all countries in Asia.

We also observed that the beneficiaries of a bad system of justice are the criminals. When criminals benefit from this type of policing, prosecutions, and a judiciary, every aspect of life becomes directly or indirectly criminalised; the electoral system becomes so permeated with multiple forms of criminality and corruption that any aspiration for a free and fair election becomes an illusion; violence becomes entrenched into political life; public perception of politicians becomes negative and the expectation of corruption spreads into everyday life. Those who exercise the freedom of speech and publication become targets of violence and the culture of fear begins to pervade. The drug trade flourishes; money laundering and other kinds of commercial crimes become imbedded in the economy; the sex industry including trafficking of persons is facilitated; the right to life and property is threatened; murder, rape and every other form of serious crime becomes easy. Money making through the abuse of the powers of arrest and detention and fabrication of charges contaminate every aspect of the ‘justice mechanism’.

It is this problem of ‘the justice system itself being a contributor to violence’ that has been the bewildering experience of all citizens, in particular the poor, in Asia. The poor constitute the majority of the people in most developing countries. Our documentation clearly reveals that repressive political systems shape the police, prosecution, and the judicial systems in their own image so that they are used to intimidate the poor.

We observed how this situation negatively affects civic consciousness and civic activism. Neighbours fear to come to each others’ assistance. Terrorised by unjust public institutions, people begin to shun public life and thus social cooperation is crippled.

Wherever we intervene, we repeatedly hear the same question from victims and onlookers: “You tell us of human rights; where do we find them?” We see this not just as a challenge to us, but a challenge to the prevailing model of human rights practice: this model is based on the assumption that prevalent conditions relating to justice institutions in developed countries also prevail in less developed countries. This false assumption fails to recognize that what many countries in Europe and North America achieved by way of institutional redesigning in the 19th century has not yet been achieved in developing countries. Thus, there is the need to make such institutional change the prime goal of all human rights work in developing countries.

To achieve this we think that we must have an influence on the public opinion in these countries, as well as globally. So we try to share everything we learn through our documentation with a large audience by using new communication technologies. This is the strategy we follow in all of our numerous activities.

We chose to make observations about the practice of torture and ill-treatment the core of our work. The rationale for that choice is that the extent and manner of torture, and the attitudes that support such a practice, are clear manifestations of the true nature of justice institutions in a country. With the extensive knowledge gained from 12 countries in Asia, including the two largest countries, India and China, we are in a position to say that the use of torture and ill-treatment and associated extra-judicial killings of various sorts is the backbone of the practices of so-called “systems of justice.” Investigation into crimes is inseparable from the use of torture; prosecutors and judges accept such practices as an inevitable part of “the system.” And those systems resist all attempts by UN agencies and others who call for the elimination of the use of torture, and to investigate and prosecute those who violate this injunction.

The documentation available to us is adequate to illustrate this narrative vividly. The triple evils of torture, corruption, and abuse of power are interlinked and inseparable. It is not surprising that those persons from developed countries who have been brought up in an environment where the state obligation to protect persons is entrenched, are at a loss when confronted with what actually occurs in places where this triple evil determines the environment.The gap in understanding the human rights situation between many from developed countries, with notable exceptions, and those from developing countries arises from the life experiences of those living under two different political and social environments.

One of the lessons we have learned is that if the justice problem in developing countries is to be resolved everything possible must be done to create a greater dialogue among those in developed and developing countries who care for democracy and human rights. The mainstream human rights movement needs to respond positively and dynamically to the problem of institutional reforms.

Many colleagues, volunteers, supporters, and, above all, victims of all forms of violations of human rights, have joined us and have contributed to our efforts. It is on their behalf that I accept this prestigious award. The Right Livelihood Award Foundation’s recognition of our work will help spread the message of the pressing need for institutional change in the policing, prosecution and judicial systems in developing countries. I hope that the need for the institutional change of those justice systems will receive the much needed attention in Sweden and other developed countries. We can give assurance that efforts contributing to this aim will bear fruit a thousand fold.

Thank you.


AHRC: The Story of 30 Years of Commitment

The Story of 30 Years of Commitment is a documentary produced by Josefina Bergsten, which traces 30 years of work of the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) and its sister organisation, the Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC).

AHRC weekly roundup on Fernando being awarded the RLA2014

Police Torture Documentary in Sri Lanka

Produced in 2012 by the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) in coordination with Right To Life in Sri Lanka.



More videos from the AHRC can be accessed on their YouTube Channel.

Pay special attention to the AHRC weekly roundup videos, which can be watched on YouTube.


Interview conducted in September 2014

What or who inspired you to dedicate your life to promoting and defending human rights?

I was influenced by my father, who taught us to be truthful, always. ”If I am wrong, have courage to point that out,” he used to say. My mother taught us courage through her way of living. “Being an example is better than giving advice” was the motto of the primary school I attended, and “Duty first” the motto of the secondary school.

I have also been inspired by the radical teachings of the Second Vatican Council and the radical teachings of Gautama Buddha, who caused one of the greatest socio-religious moments in India, opposing deeply entrenched caste-based discrimination. The life work of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the great Indian statesman who was one of the leaders of the modern Dalit movement, and the Danish folk school movement inspired by N.F.S Grundtwig, has also deeply influenced me.

A push factor for my involvement in human rights was the collapse of my own country, Sri Lanka, into a prolonged period of violence and repression, beginning in 1971 due to a disproportionate state reaction to a minor rebellion in the South, and then into period of extreme violence in the North and the East which impacted in causing serious insecurity for ordinary folk living in all parts of the country. This period also saw an immense constitutional crisis, which upset the basic legal structure of the country. This has deprived ordinary citizens of a protective environment. Being a lawyer by profession, and a poet, I deeply felt and shared the helplessness of the ordinary folk living under such dangerous circumstances. In a book published this month in my first language, Sinhala, entitled A confession of a lawyer, I have tried to point out the crisis of the public justice system in Sri Lanka, which, among other things, has undermined the professional role of lawyers to discharge their duties to their clients. The clients who are most helpless are the victims of human rights abuses, who have no legal avenues through which to pursue redress for their losses and grievances. A culture of impunity creates a culture of helplessness for the ordinary folk, and particularly the poor.

I felt this strongly during my nearly three years of work in Cambodia, where I went as a senior UN officer in the early 1990s. What the Cambodian people have undergone is beyond imagination and is hard to express. One of the continuing problems in Cambodia is the loss of a functioning public justice system. 


How did your experiences shape your approach in addressing human rights violations?

All such experiences, which are also echoed in almost all Asian countries, compelled me and my colleagues to look for new approaches to protect and promote human rights. Our search led us to highlight the content and meaning of Article 2 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which requires all states to take legislative, judicial and administrative measures to implement human rights. This article is commonly violated in almost all Asian countries. The sharpest expression of this violation is the virtual absence of functional public justice systems. If human rights is to be taken seriously by the people, creating functional public justice institutions is the most important task to be faced.

It is to this work that our Asian Human Rights Commission is committed. It is a difficult objective to pursue. But it is a necessary objective, if people are to live human lives. The de-humanization that we have all around is the result of many failures to pursue justice. Injustice and dehumanization mean the same thing.

We are constantly being inspired by the courage and the tenacity of the victims of human rights abuses; the victims of torture and extra-judicial killings, victims of slave like working and living conditions, women who suffer grave form of violence in the name of traditions and culture, the family members of the disappeared, and particularly the poor everywhere. The tenacious fight for survival of all these persons, often the wretched of the humanity, is the greatest cause for hope and the greatest inspiration for human rights work to protect and promote human rights. This work needs to be done.

More interviews

"Human rights protection lacking in Sri Lanka" Interview with Basil Fernando by Melani Manel Perera - October 2010. Read the interview here.

"Caste origins of authoritarianism in Sri Lanka-Part 3" Interview with Basil Fernando by Nilantha Ilangamuwa of the Sri Lanka Guardian. Available here

Fernando's analysis of rule of law and human rights



Articles from AHRC can be accessed on their website.

Articles written by Basil Fernando

"SRI LANKA: Development and law - noon-day darkness in the country" - AHRC - 20 April 2011. Available here.

Articles about Basil Fernando

"Sri Lanka mass grave called 'a crime site'" - Al Jazeera - 18 February 2013. Available here.

Books written by Basil Fernando

Sri Lanka Impunity, Criminal Justice & Human Rights. The Asian Human Rights Commission, March 2010.

Demoralization and Hope. The Asian Human Rights Commission, August 2010.

The Phantom limb—Failing Judicial Systems, Torture and Human Rights Work in Sri Lanka. The Asian Human Rights Commission Hong Kong and the Rehabilitation and Research Centre for Torture Victims (RCT), Denmark, November 2009.

An X-ray of the Sri Lankan Policing System & Torture of the Poor. The Asian Human Rights Commission, September 2005.

The Right to Speak Loudly: Essays on Law and Human Rights. Asian Legal Resource Center, Hong Kong, 2004.

Sri Lanka: Disappearances & The Collapse of the Police System. The Asian Human Rights Commission, 1999.

The problems facing the Cambodian legal system. The Asian Human Rights Commission, July 1998.

Modernization versus Militarization in Sri Lanka. Asia Monitor Research Center, 1991.


For the latest AHRC publications, check this pdf.

History and Achievements of AHRC and the Asian Legal Resource Centre, 2014, can be downloaded via this link. 


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