Grim though the subject can sometimes be, one of the pleasures of convening the Task Force on expediting implementation of the National Human Rights Action Plan has been the excellent cooperation evinced by so many institutions. These include governmental and non-governmental institutions, though involving the latter has had to be through the consultations initiated at the Reconciliation Office at the beginning of this year at the instigation of the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies.
Last week we had two very useful discussions, on the issues of women and of children respectively. Presentations were made by a range of institutions, including the Human Rights Commission, the Probation Department, the National Child Protection Authority and the Consultant on children’s issues to the Attorney General’s Department. Equally helpful however was the analysis of Methsevana done by the Institute of Human Rights.
Much of what will appear here is copied from that, which noted that Methsevana in Gangodawila is the only state owned detention centre for women in Sri Lanka. It is maintained by the Dept. of Social Services, and serves as a prison, vocational training centre and rehabilitation centre.
In 2003 IHR made a complaint to the national Human Rights Commission with regard to the detainees at Methsevana, and the HRC conducted investigations and released a report in 2004. When HRC visited the Centre In March 2004, Methsevana had 278 women and 16 children, while there were 18 children with their mothers. Of the total of 312, 73 women were mentally unsound.
The detainees were of two categories, those sent for protection and care by relevant authorities and also those picked up on the road by police, for various reasons in any part of Sri Lanka, who are detained under the Vagrant Ordinance.
I should note here that, informed some time earlier of the absurdities of this Ordinance, I brought up the matter at the Ministry of Justice Consultative Committee, and received strong support from members of all parties for the suggestion that it be got rid of, or at least amended. Ministry officials also agreed that it was hopelessly outdated, though they noted that this was a means of dealing with prostitution, to which our consensus was that prostitution should be dealt with through specific measures, not through a catch all Ordinance that used completely outdated and inappropriate language, even characterizing people as incorrigible rascals, if my memory serves me right.
Needless to say, nothing has as yet been done, though perhaps this may be my fault, since I was given the Ordinance and asked to suggest amendments. I did note that this was not my field, and surely there were experts in the area (law, I mean, not prostitution) who should be entrusted with the task. I am now assured the matter is being looked into, but with the usual slowness. Meanwhile suffering continues.
Leaving aside the absurdities of the Ordinance, violations arise from what seems incorrigible looseness about the manner or detention. Sometimes Magistrates send women for detention without specifying the date of release. Sometimes, when there is a release date, women are held for longer because they are reluctant to leave the detention centre without a source of income, or because there is no guardian to accept them. To make matters worse, state policy is to refuse to release adult women detainees without the permission of a guardian, which also poses gender‐based human rights concerns. And some women are detained for mental illness, begging or straying, and left in that state.
The HRC made some excellent recommendations. These included the obvious requirement of a proper court mandate, to apply only to those who have committed punishable offences, with specific dates and provisions for release. They wanted resolution of the discrepancy regarding the definition of vagrant in the Vagrant’s Ordinance and the Houses of Detention Ordinance, and recommended a meeting of the Department of Social Services with the Judiciary and local magistrates to formalize a uniform sentencing procedure that requires judges and magistrates to specify a release date upon sentencing, that mandates detention only upon a charge or conviction of a punishable offence and that prohibits a house of detention from detaining adult women simply because they have no guardian. They also wanted at least part of the detention centre to be converted into a shelter for women.
They recommended mechanisms to address the specific needs of children and women with mental illness, and wanted healthy, safe and sanitary living conditions. With commendable initiative, they also wanted the Rehabiliation mission of the Centre to be restored, since it had become simply into a place of custody, with no concern for the future of its inmates.
I was relieved to hear that the Department of Social Services had indeed acted on the recommendations, and the conditions of detention had improved. There were efforts at vocational training, and better attention to psychiatric problems – though shortages of personnel meant that these were still grave. In parenthesis, I should note that government continues to ignore the need for more personnel trained in counseling; the argument that there is not enough money is absurd when 20,000 graduates have been given jobs with little planning as to how they should be used. Obviously my suggestion that some of them be trained in counseling is lost in the system.
But if Social Services has tried to act, and failed only because of a lack of resources, the Judiciary has continued to ignore its responsibilities. IRC has again petitioned the HRC, noting that many of the measures previously recommended have not been carried out. Specifically, magistrates still send women into detention without a date, and do fulfil their duties regarding visits to places to which they commit people. This is not acceptable. The judiciary, whilst guarding its independence regarding decisions, must also follow the laws of the land and ensure that they do not punish people for unspecified periods or without legal provision.