This month LT catches up with Aritha Wickramasinghe: an international finance lawyer working at the London office of the preeminent law firm K&L Gates. It is his passion and commitment towards human rights and the pursuit of justice and equality that distinguishes him from the pack, and he is a proud Sri Lankan. What we quickly learn about Aritha is that he’s never been afraid to chase down opportunities: be it a study abroad programme in Cairo or working for the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the Rwandan Genocide in Tanzania or simply moving to Peru to learn Spanish.
Ranked No.1 in the world by the Financial Times in their LGBT power list of Future Global Business Leaders (alongside Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg who topped the Allied Leaders List and Lloyds boss, Inga Beale who topped the Business Leaders List), Aritha has always been a champion for the LGBT cause. From lobbying the British Government to recognising the rights of transgender individuals to pressuring Commonwealth nations toward decriminalising homosexuality, he is fulfilling his personal ambition to work towards a just society that does not deprive individuals of their basic inviolable rights.
You have a strong reputation as a human rights activist, how did your interest in this field develop?
I remember when I was 12, my Sinhala teacher at school recommended that I should start reading the newspaper and encouraged me to increase my awareness of current affairs. Ever since then I would be with my newspaper and cup of tea and would avidly read up on global affairs as well as local issues. It was around that time in the late ’90s when there were many news stories about child sex abuse and pedophilia in Sri Lanka. Back then the age of consent was 12 and so what should rightly be considered as pedophilia and sexual abuse of underage children prompted myself and a few friends to start a children’s rights group in school where we would educate children on their rights by going to different schools and speaking about physical and sexual child abuse. We were part of a bigger movement that was working with UNICEF, the National Child Protection Authority and Save The Children to campaign on child rights, and the wider movement was successfully able to bring about real legislative change on these issues. It was then that I was able to personally witness the potential of law to really bring about a change in people’s lives and I wanted to be able to be a part of this change.
You were recently recognised for your work on LGBT issues, can you tell us a little bit more about it?
I was recently honoured by the Financial Times in their OUTstanding list of Future Global Business Leaders. The list ranks the most influential young LGBT business leaders and recognizes them for the work they are doing to improve LGBT diversity across the world. My involvement started when I joined Clifford Chance, which was a bit of a conservative law firm. When I completed my training and qualified as a solicitor in 2012, there was a vacancy to run the firm’s LGBT network. This was quite a challenging and time-consuming role and as no one else wanted this position, I put myself forward and ran with it for three years. I made it one of the more prominent diversity networks in the firm and used the network to convince senior leaders at the firm and in the corporate sector in general of the business case for diversity. Having staff that is welcoming of all diversity strands and ethnicities helps to create a stronger workforce where employees feel accepted and are more encouraged to contribute to the firm. Apart from this I’ve also done a lot of pro bono legal work for LGBT causes. I successfully lobbied for the establishment of the Transgender Equality Inquiry at the British Parliament by the Women and Equalities Committee. The Committee accepted our submissions and in their final report recommended that the British Government to pass legislature recognising third and non-gendered persons, include an additional “x” gender marked box in passports, update the Equality Act to expressly include “gender identity” as a protected characteristic and to eventually de-gender official documents.
What do you feel is the most challenging issue the LGBT community in Sri Lanka faces?
Well, the LGBT community here faces a number of challenges. But the main one above all is the fact that homosexuality is still regarded as a crime in this country. Yes, women and ethnic minorities face a level of discrimination in this country, but only the homosexual community is at the level where they are treated as criminals under the law. This pushed many in the LGBT community underground, and when these individuals do face discrimination and harassment, they are unable to seek redress as they are worried about the legal consequences of their sexual preference, when they shouldn’t be.
What are the LGBT initiatives that you are involved with in Sri Lanka?
I work with the Human Dignity Trust which is a legal charity that is challenging anti-gay laws in countries across the
Commonwealth including Sri Lanka. We are using a number of strategies to bring about decriminalisation, including using Sri Lanka’s trade negotiations with its international partners as a tool to bring about positive, legislative change. Laws that criminalise LGBT people leave this vulnerable community unprotected by the law, fostering a climate of fear and violence. It’s also important for LGBT individuals in the country to engage more with civil society to challenge misconceptions about homosexuality and also to help people realise that one’s sexual preference is a personal matter that does not define who they are in all other spheres of life.
Personally, I also work with Equal Ground, which is a non-profit organisation that seeks to provide equal rights and opportunity to all LGBTIQ individuals in Sri Lanka.
What do you least like about Sri Lanka?
How far our country still needs to go with accepting differences and treating every citizen justly, regardless of their ethnicity, religion, gender or sexual preference. It’s sad that despite our disturbing history of a 30 year long civil war, we are still not accepting of minorities. The recent attacks on the Sri Lankan Muslim community, and not just this group but other minorities as well, shows that we are a country that seems insistent on repeating past mistakes. This is something that upsets me greatly and something that needs to change.
What do you love about Sri Lanka?
People – they are who have always kept me coming back to the country. It’s just something about Sri Lankan people; their unconditional love, integrity and humility are all so rare. It’s remarkable how Sri Lankans can keep smiling even when we’re feeling at our lowest.
Favourite Sri Lankan food and drink?
Hoppers. And I love tea – I drink it three times a day and it’s my most eagerly anticipated activity!
What are you most passionate about?
I’m really passionate about obtaining justice and equality for all individuals regardless of their ethnicity, religion, gender, and/or sexual orientation. Because at the end of the day, we are all born equal with the same rights and we all want to be treated the same as everyone else. It’s not acceptable when society can take away anyone’s rights, just because they may be perceived as different.
When I came out, some people commented that I was really ‘brave’ to be open about my sexuality to others. But it shouldn’t be considered as being brave to just be yourself; we should not be the kind of society that makes it difficult to be oneself.
Can you tell us a little bit about the Think Equal Initiative and how you came to be involved in it?
I am the Sri Lanka Country Representative for iProbono, an amazing charity that connects people and organisations that need legal help with lawyers across the world that provide it for free. ,We have 60,000 lawyers across the world with a huge presence in India. We were approached by Leslee Udwin, Director of ‘India’s Daughter’, a documentary film based on the gang rape of the Indian medical student, Jyoti Singh, to challenge the ban on the film in India. When I first met Leslee and we were discussing the astounding rates of violence against women and how despite all the laws prohibiting discrimination and abuse, this was sadly still a very much prevalent and pressing issue. We both agreed that this is something that we need to address and Leslee suggested that best way to do so would be within the education system, and at the very start of early childhood education. The Think Equal Initiative introduces a ground breaking new subject into schools that will teach children the fundamental human values of empathy, compassion and equality. This initiative is backed by the UN and has gained much traction, with the support of global ambassadors and patrons including Meryl Streep, Lord Verjee, Sean Penn and Sir Ken Robinson. 15 countries will be piloting this project from next year, and I’m so excited that Sri Lanka will be the first country to kick-start the initiative in a school in the Kurunegala district.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
Definitely back in Sri Lanka, you can’t keep me away from this country for too long! I hope to work in the law sector as well as to continue being involved initiatives that are working towards creating a more just and equal society back home.