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.

One problem is a lack of resources, but regrettably there is no move to ensure that resources that are available are used coherently. I am the more acutely aware of this after I was asked by the President to help the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development, under which the Non-Governmental Organizations Secretariat functions, to ensure that assistance was coordinated to maximize benefits. An initial glance at the projects now being implemented in the North however suggested that there is little insistence on working to clear targets and monitoring results.

For instance there are supposed to be 16 projects in Jaffna and Kilinochchi which intended to strengthen Children’s Clubs, but none of these was reported by the protection officers attached to the Divisional Secretariats at which I attended Reconciliation Committee meetings. There is no mention in the record I received of the donors, though the partners are supposed to be the Department of Probation and Child Care. Mechanisms to report to the Divisional Secretaries, who are best placed to monitor the impact of the programme, are not mentioned.

Of course it is possible that, whoever is implementing the programme, the work is going very well. But it seems to me that without coordination and checking of outcomes, there will be little good obtained from the money to be spent. At the same time one wonders what precisely will be achieved by using Rs 1000 each for 250 Children’s Clubs. The effort of drawing up plans for such projects, and gaining permission, would have cost more than the amount designated for project implementation, and I suspect this is yet another example of more money being spent on bureaucrats than on the children supposed to benefit.

Rather what should have happened was a planning meeting headed by the Ministry and / or the Provincial Ministry, to suggest coherent interventions. Instead of projects that would die once financial support ceased, mechanisms to ensure community support structures for children, with provision for special attention to those in need of counseling, should have been put in place. For this purpose Civil Society organizations in the North should have been included in planning, with the establishment of partnerships to take advantage of the strengths of all those willing to assist, government, religious organizations, educational authorities as well as Civil Society.

Sadly I did not see much trace of Counselling Services in the portfolio of Projects I went through. I may be wrong, but it seems that only now has it been realized that we need to do much more in this regard. I was heartened by the commitment of the medical officials in charge to work on this and also the plan of the police to work together with the Germans to train Counselors. But much of this could have been done earlier, if there had been more consultation and better planning.

In one sense however I can understand the reluctance of government to work together with Civil Society. Though my own experience has been that most Non-Governmental Organizations are altruistic and wish to do their best to help, the more prominent ones sometimes took it upon themselves to attack government relentlessly. The impression they created was that somehow it had been wrong of the Sri Lankan people to elect the present government, and it was their duty to get rid of it as soon as possible.

This approach does not help. The problems we face can best be solved by government, and this is a fact that even those who claim to believe only in a Nightwatchman State have to work with. For this reason, while constructive criticism is always welcome, the attribution of motives, which religions deplore, is counter-productive.

I hope then that, in the consultations with  Civil Society that government should enter into soon, and not only for the Universal Periodic Review process, there is a spirit of cooperation rather than confrontation. Unfortunately I will not be part of this, since with much travel in the near future, and all the other work I have undertaken, I have counted myself out. But this is an opportunity that must not be squandered by either side, and I hope those who contributed to my own informal consultations will do their bit to ensure progress.

Daily News 21 May 2012

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