Board Member Spotlight: Shiranee Tilakawardane

Shiranee Tilakawardane is a justice on the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka. She was the first woman appointed as Court of Appeal judge in her country, and has previously been a high court judge and an admiralty court judge. Her efforts are focused in the fields of equality, gender education, and child rights. She has been active in Sakshi of India's gender workshops for judges and the Asia Pacific Forum for Gender Education for Judges. She serves on the International Panel of Judges for the Child Rights Bureau.

The following remarks are from an interview conducted on March 9, 2006.

EC: You've been very involved in women's rights over the years; would you say that is the focus of your efforts?

imageST: I'm used a resource because of my experience with women's rights as well as children's rights. For 20 years or so, I've been working on issues around women's rights. But I must set out right at the beginning that my real interest is equality. I perceive equality as an important and fundamental aspect of impartiality, and impartiality is the bedrock of justice. If there is no equality, there is inequality; and where there is inequality, there is always discrimination and oppression. Especially in a country like ours, where you see a lot of violence, you often find that that is the underlying reason for the violence. I'm interested in bringing equality in its full perspective – that is, not just formal equality, but even substantive equality. It's important that they have victim-sensitive procedures – that the judicial system, the administration of justice, does not re-traumatize the victim when they seek to get redress from the system.

EC: You have said that in order to achieve justice, you can't really treat everyone the same. Can you elaborate on that?

ST: The Aristotelian theory was that similar treatment must necessarily render equality to all people. But enough studies have been done to show that you could give similar treatment, but at the end of it, if there's no substantive equality for the person, then you have defeated the very purpose with which you began. Sometimes, you have to have dissimilar procedures to ensure equality for all. In other words, the disadvantage has to be identified, and then the disadvantage has to be addressed and accommodated within the system of justice, so that one ultimately arrives at equality. You get a level playing field.

EC: You trace many different aspects of justice back to the concept of equality. Do you see that as the basis for justice, the notion of "If it's a violation when it happens to me, it's a violation when it happen to someone else too"?

ST: And, "If it doesn't happen to x, then it cannot happen to y." That is more the idea. If you personally are not exposed to corruption, but somebody else who's poorer and who doesn't have your power level comes in and wants something, and they have to give money for it because of the corruption that is there, then that is not equal access to the government system. It's equality in the sense of fairness to all. You can use the word equality to mean many things. At the end of the day, it is really about an impartial decision, which is the kind of decision we all want in any decision that is made for or against us.

EC: How do you see the status of equality in your country now as opposed to ten or twenty years ago?

ST: Ten or twenty years ago, people had not really understood the broader ramifications of equality; they were only looking at formal equality. That is the transition to make, to move from formal equality to substantive equality. Formal equality means it's on the books, but it is only through your procedures that one can achieve equality.

EC: What are the thoughts in Sri Lanka about what is happening in the United States and the "war on terror"?

ST: Because we have been through terrorism ourselves, we are more tolerant of it, and we are watching America make the mistakes it should not be making. In a way, we see the double standards. When we were having terrorist problems, the attitudes and the statements and the behavior patterns of countries like America were almost the opposite of what they say when they actually have to face it. In a way, we are seeing justice come out of it. When we had the same situations, they were talking about the terrorists as "freedom fighters." They were sort of giving them a platform. Today, with the zero tolerance that they have, we would have wished that was the same when we were having our problems with terrorism. But we didn't have that global support at the time.