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The National Action Plan for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights 2011 – 2016 as well as the full series of  Sri Lanka Rights Watch are available at the Peace & Reconciliation Website.

One of the most important commitments of the National Human Rights Action Plan, as agreed by Cabinet, is the adoption of legislation to ensure the right to information. Not only is this an obligation to our citizens, on whose behalf government acts, it is also practically desirable. In this modern day and age, when disinformation can be circulated so easily, and not necessarily out of malice, but through carelessness and ignorance, it would be helpful for government to have the facts readily available in clear and comprehensible form.

How useful this would be became even more clear to me when listening to the falsehoods and incomplete information purveyed by those critical of Sri Lanka at the recent discussion based on the Channel 4 documentaries that took place in London at the Frontline Club. Callum McRae, who had made them, declared that over 11,000 former LTTE combatants were still in custody, and could not be visited.

This is nonsense, for almost all combatants have been released, and throughout their stay they were visited regularly by their relatives. I did at one stage suggest to the Bureau of the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation that they maintain a data base of all those still in detention, with dates of visits, since I was told that none had not been visited. I suppose that would have been too complicated, but some sort of information sheet could have been prepared, and shared perhaps with the Human Rights Commission, to make it clear that there was nothing to hide.

One point we suffered from, and which I believe was a mistake, was that the ICRC was not permitted to visit. This decision sprang I believe from the view that the ICRC had been exceeding its mandate. Nevertheless, we should have made it clear that the ICRC had been involved in the registration process of

these youngsters until almost the very end. In wanting to assert our independence in this respect – which is not necessary, for the ICRC functions with scrupulous respect for the independence of those parties that have invited its assistance – we ignored this fact, whereas Wikileaks indicates that the ICRC had told the Americans in Geneva that ‘ICRC has been visiting regularly 11,400 people arrested and interned in 10 camps as suspected LTTE fighters’.

I myself had thought that the ICRC visits to the former combatants had stopped earlier, so I was pleasantly surprised when this particular Wikileaks cable was brought to my notice. What I did know was that throughout this period ICRC had had access to all those held in detention at Boossa and elsewhere, including those former combatants who had been thought hard-core, and who had therefore been transferred to Boossa (though most of them were soon transferred back, when government decided that more rehabilitation was preferable to any punitive action).

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The National Action Plan for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights 2011 – 2016 as well as the full series of  Sri Lanka Rights Watch are available at the Peace & Reconciliation Website.

After several discussions with government officials on the implementation of the National Human Rights Action Plan, I reverted last week to what we had begun in the Reconciliation Office in February, before I was asked to convene the Task Force on the Plan. This was a series of consultations with Civil Society on the Plan, and as mentioned previously, a number of good ideas had come up with regard to areas of particular concern, Women and Children, the Law’s delays and Prisons.

It is always refreshing to get a different perspective on the measures to be taken, and I was reminded again of the need to consult regularly with civil society, since it is easy for bureaucrats to lose sight of the fact that the rules and regulations they work by were initially created principally to provide a better service to the public. Rarely do bureaucrats summon up a sense of indignation about abuses that occur, and I feel this is essential if action is to take place with the speed that is needed.

Facilities for children in remand are a disgrace, but those responsible for implementing them seem totally to have forgotten the clear rulings given by Justice Shirani Thilakawardana in this regard. Following her ruling, there should have been a thorough overhaul of the Probation Department, with clear guidelines issued as to daily duties, but this has not happened. Though the National Child Protection Authority does its best now, and the new Secretary to the Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and Child Development has been a tower of strength, the structural reforms needed, with procedures for monitoring and reporting on a regular basis, have not been set in place.

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Text of a talk by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha
at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies, June 18th 2012

One of the saddest aspects of the last three years has been the corrosive distrust between all political players. This is almost relentlessly exacerbated by several factors. The first, and perhaps the most worrying, is what I term a failure of rationalism, the practice of judging situations not in terms of evidence but rather through emotions. This contributes to a tendency to interpret ambiguities in line with fears rather than hopes.

Then there are what might be termed political factors. Perhaps the most obvious of these is the tendency of extremists on all sides to act and speak in a manner that worries those on the other side or sides. The second factor here is the failure of moderates on all sides, who I believe constitute the majority, to rein back their extremists. Combined with this is the tendency of a few of these last to adopt the rhetoric of the extremists so as to keep on the good side of what they believe might become the support base of the latter.

Associated with these are psychological factors. Thus there is a tendency to expect the other sides to control their extremists, whilst expecting them conversely to understand the compulsions that lead one to excuse and even perhaps condone one’s own extremists. And linked to these are supposed strategic factors, most obviously in terms of the belief that others are not sincere in their negotiating positions, and therefore one must demand much more than one really needs, in order to end up with an acceptable via media.

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The National Action Plan for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights 2011 – 2016 as well as the full series of  Sri Lanka Rights Watch are available at the Peace & Reconciliation Website.

The Task Force held another consultation last week with regard to safeguards against Torture. We had gone into this at some length at a meeting of all Ministries particularly concerned with Rights Protection, and this had been followed by a discussion chaired by the Inspector General of Police, which had however also dealt with other matters such as the dissemination of information regarding police duties and responsibilities.

.. to make sure that there was provision for observation with regard to anyone the police took in ..

It was thought best, following that meeting, to have a smaller consultation as to particular issues, and we were helped immensely by the presence of those in the Attorney General’s Department who had been dealing with torture problems for a long period, extending back to well before I became Secretary to the Ministry of Human Rights and began to study the problem, following the extremely helpful visit of Manfred Nowak, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture.

Unfortunately the former Attorney General, Mohan Pieris, could not attend the latter consultation though we had actually shifted the date to accommodate him. This was a pity because he had been full of good ideas at the meeting chaired by the Inspector General of Police, and agreement had been reached in a number of areas which he agreed to pursue to ensure quick action.

Amongst his innovative ideas was the concept of Duty Attorneys to be available at all police stations to which anyone was brought for questioning. At present there are State Counsel assigned to I believe every High Court area, but their duties are not clear, and they certainly do not perform the watchdog role that is required as a protection against possible abuse while people are being questioned.

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I have been deeply impressed over the last few weeks by the quality and commitment of police officers in the North. This has not been true in all cases, and indeed on a couple of occasions the police failed to attend the meetings of the Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committees to which they had been invited. But on at least one occasion it turned out that the Divisional Secretary had not ensured that the invitation had been delivered, having entrusted the job to a Grama Niladhari who had far more important things to think about.

The police turned up promptly however the moment they were called, and it turned out too that, despite a poorly manned post, just one in Dharmapuram for the whole of the Kandaweli Division, they had dealt promptly with complaints, using the services of the larger station at Kilinochchi. Problems arose only because there was inadequate liaison between local officials and the police, and for this purpose it seemed best to maintain daily contact, with regular meetings once a week to discuss protection issues.

After all, according to their list of duties, Grama Niladharis are the first point of contact for the public when protection issues arise, and in the old days it is possible that the prestige of the postholders allowed them to settle many disputes without recourse to higher authority. In today’s world however, much less obsequious to what should be moral authority, there is need of reinforcements, and the Grama Niladhari and the police should liaise closely, with the involvement also of the other protection mechanisms put in place by the state, Probation and Social Service Officers, Counsellors, and those concerned with Development of Women and Children.

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One of the issues that comes up again and again in the Human Rights Action Plan is the need for reforms in education and training. This is obviously connected with the ‘variance in the quality of education’ in different areas, which entrenches iniquity, but in addition there are several instances in which the Plan notes the need for different and better training, so as to produce personnel able to promote rights based action.

Workshop organised by the Young Liberals

That the public at large understand this issue became clear to me when I participated in a workshop organized by the Young Liberals. This was a satisfying experience because, after some years away from teaching, it was refreshing to have a range of young people addressing issues and ideas with enthusiasm and keen interest. I should note that I have felt a similar satisfaction at the openness with which participants at our Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committee meetings raise issues, but the additional bonus of having fresh ideas from youngsters on an intensive scale was particularly rewarding.

When asked to highlight three areas in which reforms were urgently needed, all groups put educational reforms at the top of the list. A couple of groups fleshed this out in referring to the need for reform not only of basic education but of all types, and in suggesting that we needed to go beyond traditional.
This would have pleased the Secretary to the Ministry of Science and Technology, perhaps the most experienced public servant we have in the field of plan formulation and implementation and above all monitoring, who commented, at the special consultation the Task Force on the Action Plan held on education, that it was essential that we start thinking outside the box.

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C A Chandraprema’s book on the war against the LTTE is an immensely interesting read. I had wondered how effective he would be as a writer of a sustained narrative, for his columns, though informative, can sometimes be turgid and repetitive. But his book combines a racy narrative with convincing detail, and I think makes clear the immense achievement of the government in dealing with the LTTE.

He also makes clear the reason for his title, and the importance of Gota, as he calls him, being in the right place at the right time. There were several innovations Gota introduced, which proved crucial, such as

  1. Ensuring the forces were well manned and well equipped
  2. Providing leadership that developed and maintained confidence
  3. Introducing innovative strategies and encouraging flexible tactics in the field
  4. Establishing mechanisms for cooperation and the sharing of information
  5. Streamlining procurement and preventing wastage and corruption

The last of these was particularly important, because the forces had been demoralized previously by the corruption that had become endemic, with officials responsible for procurement using companies run by their families. This had begun with Mr Menikdiwela, Secretary to President Jayewardene, whose son dealt in arms, but succeeding governments were no better. Unfortunately Chandraprema does not always name names, but I believe a schedule of arms dealers with relationships to government officials, should be made public. The way in which Gota changed the system was impressive, and I recall the tremendous surge of confidence which officers at Diyatalawa, generally amongst the brightest in the army, evinced when it became clear that arms were being bought for the soldiery, not the dealers and their chums in the forces.

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Speech of Prof Rajiva Wijesinha at the session on
Clauses for a Sustainable Political Relationship in Trade Agreements: Effective Against Possible Threats to Democracy?
At the Summit of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats with the
Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, Brussels, June 2012

To cite the preamble to this dialogue between Asian and European Liberals, we agree that, ‘from a liberal standpoint, it is mutually beneficial for countries to engage in trade, and free trade is one of the means to lift countries out of poverty.’ Unfortunately this ideal is under attack for a variety of reasons, and most of the attacks come, it should be noted, from powerful countries. Thus we need to worry – and I hope Liberals in the West will help us to overcome this worry, given their own ideals – as to whether, again to cite the preamble, ‘trade, instead of forging a mutually beneficial partnership between developed and developing countries, has been a mechanism to subject the latter into a dependent relationship.’

The most obvious example of this in recent times is the pressure exercised by the United States to force countries to stop trade with Iran. The excuse for this is suspicions about Iranian nuclear ambitions, but there is little doubt that there are no reasons for these suspicions, given the international mechanisms to deal with these, except intrinsic American hostility to Iran. Given that on the previous occasion on which America acted because of purported suspicions with regard to nuclear weapons, the pretext turned out to be palpably false, a process of induction suggests that now too the world is being dragooned into conflict – and in the process the ideal of free trade is being traduced, with no concern for development as opposed to vindictive dogma.

What I find saddest about such actions is the total silence of our Liberal colleagues around the world about this appalling behavior. It is true that most of Europe refused to be dragged into war in Iraq, and it was a British Labour government that proved President Bush’s staunchest ally. The British Liberal Democrats behaved much better on that occasion than the main Conservative opposition. But their failure now, when in government, to demand accountability, to pursue more carefully the appalling fate of David Kelly, to look into the strong evidence provided by the former ambassador to Uzbekhistan, Craig Murray, now a member of the Liberal Democratic Party, of collusion in human rights violations by the British and American governments, is most disappointing. In such a context, to fail to speak out loud and clear about the current American policy towards Iran seems to me culpable, and I hope our colleagues here will strive to remedy the situation.

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Expanded version of closing remarks at the
Seminar on “Liberalism: It’s All About Freedom”
arranged in Ulaan Baatar by the Civil Will Green Party of Mongolia
together with the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats and the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung
May 24th 2012

I was not expecting to conclude this seminar, but it is a pleasure to do so since the interaction between liberal thought and the situation here in Mongolia has been most stimulating. I suspect that the biding image I will take with me is the comment by Mr Demirel, with his distinguished leadership of your dynamic Chamber of Commerce, that Mongolia is a nomadic country, and the essence of the nomadic life is freedom.

This freedom that we value so much is freedom not only to think and speak and act as each individual wishes, so long as they do not limit the freedom of other individuals; it is also freedom from the restrictions that limit the exercise of that freedom. For this last purpose the State is needed, which is why, though Liberals want a small state, they also require, as perhaps the most important leader of the FNS, Count Otto von Lambsdorff put it, a strong state. In that sense, to expand the sporting metaphor introduced by Rainer Adam, who has done so much through the FNS to promote Liberalism in Asia, we have to make sure that the state as referee is not also a play, but we also need the state to ensure that there is a level playing field. While pursuing equality is a mirage, we need to promote equality of opportunity, though through positive measures that expand opportunities for the deprived, not negative ones that restrict opportunities for the more fortunate.

Promoting both types of freedom can sometimes lead to tensions when different liberal thinkers place different priorities on the various freedoms we need, but perhaps for that very reason one of the freedoms we should value most is freedom from dogma. This freedom to think outside the prevailing box when circumstances require it lies at the heart of the history of liberal thought, which was so ably expounded by Lito Arlegue, Executive Director of CALD, in the first session.

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The National Action Plan for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights 2011 – 2016 as well as the full series of  Sri Lanka Rights Watch are available at the Peace & Reconciliation Website.

Given that May Day was celebrated last week, it occurred to me that I had been rather cursory in my discussion of Labour Rights a few weeks back. This was not entirely arbitrary, for the section on Labour Rights is by far the shortest in the National Human Rights Action Plan.

This in turn is understandable for we really have a very good record as far as Labour Rights go. However we cannot be complacent, for apart from the fact that we can do more, we must note that we have been attacked in this regard by two powerful critics. When we lost GSP+, even though obviously the reasons were political, with a twisting of the knife by the former British government and its representatives, there were nevertheless allegations made against us with regard to our labour laws.

These have also surfaced through the American Labour Movement, ironically one might say because a lot of the objections apply to regulations in the Free Trade Zone, and these were introduced precisely to provide incentives to American investors and others who are used to much more docile labour unions. But the capacity to speak with forked tongue of those determined to screw us should never be underestimated, and we should not therefore allow them any excuse. While it may well be in the interests of Labour itself to remove some of the stipulations about dismissal, so that we can encourage more employment opportunities, the claims of equity and basic security should not be forgotten. Read the rest of this entry »

Rajiva Wijesinha

June 2012
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