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 third subject on which government held consultations last week about implementation of the Human Rights Action Plan was that of the Internally Displaced. I had thought there were no great problems there, given the swift resettlement programme government had implemented, and in fact I think this is an area about which we can be proud. However, as the Plan indicated, we could do more to institutionalize practices and make sure people do not fall through the net.
This section of the Plan begins with the need to adopt a National Policy on Displacement, something we had realized three years ago was lacking. Indeed I have now realized that preparing National Policies is not something we are very good at. Half the problems about land, that it seems now bedevil discussions about devolution, could be resolved easily if we had the National Land Policy that the 13th Amendment introduced, but which has been completely forgotten over a quarter of a century.
Part of the problem is the total lack of responsibility with which Cabinets are constructed and functions allocated. While rethinking is sometimes advisable, very few of the changes that occur are the result of thinking. Thus new Ministers come in, without an institutional memory to rely on, which means that those thus inclined simply use their Ministries as tools of electoral success. Of course there are several who do want to do a good job, but they are not helped by the absence of clear guidelines, or creative understanding in the officials who are shuffled around amongst newly conceived Ministries.
The obvious exceptions indeed prove the rule. There are several of these, but I need only point to the Ministry of Health which has succeeded in providing excellent services to our people for decades, and actually improving the service to take into account advances both in medicine and in health care concepts. Both at our consultations, and in recent visits to the North – as well as through experience of the fantastic job done when hundreds of thousands of suffering IDPs came to Manik Farm – I have been impressed by the professionalism and the commitment of officials of that Ministry. It is sad that they have not been given the credit they deserve, and that their best practices are not replicated.
One area in which constant shifts have done untold damage is that of the provision of legal documents to those who have been deprived. For some reason much work was done in this area by the former Ministry of National Languages and Constitutional Affairs, and I can understand this since aid agencies found it much more efficient and committed when D E W Gunasekara was Minister than any other possibly relevant Ministry. But it turned out at the consultation that no one was sure who was going ahead with the vital task of expediting the issue of certificates. This matter came up again at the Divisional Reconciliation meetings I attended later in the week, and there was much regret about the failure of central government, not to provide the documentation immediately, for it is understood that that may take time, but to provide a schedule of activity and make it clear to the affected people who is responsible.
Apart from identification material, title as to property should also be provided swiftly. In this regard I was told in Mullaitivu that in fact the Land Ministry had been dilatory since the seventies onward, and that people who were given land then in the massive land redistribution programme the then government initiated had never received title. Thus we need to move swiftly not only on providing title to those who had it before, but also giving title to those who have suffered without it for years.
In the latter case all that is needed is efficiency. In the former there is also need of dispute resolution, given the problems caused by vacation of property then occupied by others. Four years ago I remember asking the then Chair of the Law Commission whether they were working on this, on getting over the difficulties that might be caused by our laws of Prescription, and he said they were ready, but unfortunately the proposed legislation did not go ahead.
Still, it should not be difficult to move now, since I believe the principle that those who went away because of terrorism should not be penalized has been generally accepted. Conversely, it is also understood that compensation in the form of land elsewhere should be offered to those who took over unoccupied property. Fortunately there is plenty of land available, the only problem I believe being that those with political clout will want to stay on in places they took over.
The problem is complicated by the desire of government for land to be used for economic development as well as for security. In both instances, the right of government to take land over with due compensation should not be questioned, but the process should be transparent and justiciable. Once again, had we prepared a National Land Policy as the Constitution requires, we could have overcome the problems and resentments acquisition of land often causes.
The principle should be that government should not take over privately owned land unless it is absolutely essential. I believe that this principle is generally followed, but there is often insensitivity about decisions. Thus some time back I was told that about 800 families were to be displaced for a camp, which seemed excessive, but then it seemed that a more healthy approach prevailed and the number was cut down to under 200. This still seems to me too much, though of course judgments about security requirements must be made by professionals. The point is that such judgments must be reviewed, and all alternatives considered before a decision is made to actually acquire land in which people live. Where this is done, there must be adequate compensation.