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.
A couple of months back, I wrote in this series about the laws’ delays, but I was talking then of a very different sort of delay. I was referring to delays in the application of laws, the manner in which dates are given ad infinitum (endlessly) for cases, how cases are adjourned sine die (without a date, so that those who suffer have no idea when they can get closer to justice), that individuals are remanded with no idea for how long this might be. I wrote of women committed to custody who are forgotten, of children sent to homes without proper records being kept so they do not come to the attention of the courts again, of cases not taken up because some information the state should provide is not available, but those responsible are not told that they should supply this promptly.
I suggested at the time that the state authorities responsible should have regular coordinating meetings to ensure that everybody knows what is needed, and they prepare or produce as required, and keep each other informed of any delay, with a commitment to act by a fixed date. My view that such meetings should be held weekly – prompted by the horror story of the analyst who travelled to the East only to be told the lawyer was not ready – was shot down, but there was a commitment to meet once a month. I can only hope that this is happening, and that at least the practice of coordination to minimize inconvenience to the public is being implemented.
What I want to address this time however is something quite different, namely the delay in preparing laws. We have a Law Commission which is meant to propose legislation, based not only on the particular requirements of different government agencies, but also in terms of developing perceptions of social needs. Thus in recent years the Law Commission has made recommendations about promoting gender equality, about clarifying conflicting claims with regard to land rights, about resolving conflicts when the judiciary feels that legislation is inappropriate (as with regard to provisions about statutory rape).
In none of these cases, I fear, has the required legislation come before Parliament. It has to go through several stages before this is done, and unfortunately the road to fruition is paved with procrastination. Firstly the suggestions have to go to the Justice Ministry, which then passes them on to relevant Ministries. Given the proliferation of Ministries that has occurred, with no clear hierarchies established, this can cause confusion as well as delay. In addition, with regard to several subjects, Provincial Ministries also need to be consulted. When there is no obvious lead Ministry at the Centre, this also can be a complicated process. And since there are no clear principles established as to responsibility, there is no one to dedicatedly pursue action.
In theory Consultative Committees of Parliament should be consulted, but this does not always happen. Other mandatory players of the game include the Legal Draughtsman’s Department,
which had made a name for itself in recent years for delays. This was, not least, because they did not base their work on drafts that had been provided, but thought it necessary to reinvent wheels, with a sublime confidence in their own capacities that was thoroughly misplaced, given the errors that so often crept in to the work submitted to Parliament.
Finally, Cabinet also needs to be consulted, and unfortunately it can take just one person to suggest that a measure needs to be altered for the whole process to start all over again. Such rethinking rarely takes place with regard to measures that need it, as we have seen with the bills about pensions or electoral reform, but sadly measures that would benefit society at large, such as those mentioned above, are rarely treated as urgent.
What can be done about this? Most obviously, there should be more information about what is done, and what the proposed time schedules are. For this purpose a dedicated website is desirable, but I gather that the Law Commission website, begun with much hope some time back, has collapsed, with funding not being available. In any case I don’t think it specified what would help, which is a tracking process, showing who was required to decide for the next step to be taken in bringing legislation before Parliament. Personally I would also have added a schedule of expectations, with reminders sent out – I presume by the Ministry of Justice, since the Law Commission itself does not have Executive power – to those responsible so as to expedite action.
But even without such systems to promote progress, a website, with parallel sections on the websites of line ministries to show legislation in preparation, would at least help to focus the attention of relevant stakeholders. A regular press conference arranged by the Ministry with input from the Law Commission would also help to raise public awareness and, more importantly, raise awareness amongst those responsible for action that they are responsible to the public, not to themselves.
This would also help with two very important sections of the National Human Rights Action Plan. That draws attention to the need for ‘transparency in the law making process’, and suggests conducting ‘awareness programmes for the public on underlying policy of proposed draft legislation’. It also suggests ensuring ‘Participatory democracy’, for which there should be a standard procedure requiring Government agencies to have consultations in developing national laws and policies.
It would be generally useful then if a system as outlined above, to provide information, promote discussion and above all ensure action, were put in place. The benefits would be enormous, and if it were felt, with regard to national security issues for instance, that confidentiality were vital, this could be observed. But the principle should be openness unless otherwise required, not the opposite.