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.
In some areas this has proceeded apace. The Inspector acting for the officer in charge of the Nanattan Division, knew the area and its problems well, though the post could be helped by having more Tamil speaking officers. It would also make sense for the area it looks after to be coterminous with the Division, instead of its more populated area being the responsibility of Mannar, which already has a massive area to look after.
In Mannar itself our meeting was attended by three very smart young officers, one Tamil and two Sinhala, one male and two female, all bilingual. They had a very good grasp of issues, and could produce statistics when required, which helped with what turned out to be an erroneous assertion about rape. The young lady who made the assertion, who was in fact concerned and intelligent and drew attention to very real problems, defended her claim on the grounds that it had appeared in the newspapers, and citizens had after all to rely on papers for news. Fortunately the Divisional Secretary had the facts of the case at her fingertips, and was able to respond clearly, though I also hope that the Press Complaints Commission will take action to prevent such abuses of trust, which I fear the massive competition our dailies are engaged in renders almost endemic.
The result of our discussions was I hope a determination for much closer coordination. This has been one of the principal thrusts the Task Force I convene to ensure implementation of the National Human Rights Action Plan has made, since it was clear from our initial consultations that sometimes nothing happens because too many agencies are involved and they do not talk to each other.
Thus it was heartening that a couple of weeks back the Ministry of Rehabiliation and Prison Reforms brought together a group that needs to work together to reduce the numbers in remand and thus the propensity to ignore rights and entrench abuse. They were also going to have another meeting last week to go into the excellent suggestions in this regard made by the ICRC which the Minister of Justice shared with me. Government must decide which of these should be implemented, but even to make decisions coordination is required, and I had hoped too that the ICRC would be invited to the meeting to put forward proposals – with I hope offers of assistance for those government wished to advance – since clearly comprehensive discussion is required so that government can then develop its own roadmap with a fair idea of what can be done, as well as what should be done.
Unfortunately the meeting had to be postponed, and I hope it does not fall prey to the usual forgetfulness that overtakes us when action is required. I am the more worried about this since I shall have to be away with only brief intervals back home over the next month, and it would be a pity if the momentum we have generated splutters to a halt. To keep things going we need a stronger office and, though the young ladies who work in the Ministry of Plantation Industries have been superbly supportive, they will have over the next few weeks to concentrate on our Report for the Universal Periodic Review, and the consultations with Civil Society as well as government agencies working to promote Rights.
Most important of these last is the Police, and their ready involvement in consultations has been heartening. At the meeting on education they put forward very clearly the reasons for difficulties in recruiting Tamil speaking personnel to serve in areas which need them urgently. These have to do with deficiencies in basic education in those areas, and I hope therefore that the suggestions we have made about catch up mechanisms specifically for such purposes will be adopted. All this however requires coordination, for which more sustainable instruments than a Task Force are essential.