Jaffna Library



Keynote address at the celebration of Human Rights Day in Jaffna, on December 11th 2009.   

Let me begin by thanking all of you for being present here today, and in particular the Government Agent for arranging this gathering. I am sorry too that this event takes place one day late, but I had to be in Vavuniya yesterday to celebrate the day there. That seemed particularly important, given that many discussions of Human Rights this year had centred on the situation in Vavuniya. However I am aware that in Jaffna too this issue is of particular importance, which is why I thought it desirable to get here, checking on my way on the situation of those who have now been resettled in parts of the Wanni that had suffered so much in recent years.   

Both because of what I saw, and because of the opportunity for new beginnings that has now been offered us, I thought I should address the issue of rights conceptually here, and begin by suggesting that discourse on human rights has suffered in Sri Lanka in recent years by being both too selective and too confrontational. I will explain what I mean by selective later, but first let me urge a more collaborative approach in the future to human rights, so that we can better fulfil our common aim of ensuring all rights for everyone as best possible in the future.   

The need for this struck me when I was going through the reports issued by the various agencies that have functioned in what is termed the Protection area in the last year. That area comes under our Ministry but, contrary to promises in the past, projects were not formulated in consultation with us. More worryingly, until I insisted on getting them, we did not get monthly reports as a matter of course. When we did get them, I found that they were not properly studied by those supposed to coordinate, and that remedial action was not taken coherently. Instead there was almost a triumphalist approach to problems, ie people were delighted to assert that problems had occurred, and more often than not to declare that these were the fault of government, with no efforts made to ensure corrective action, through government mechanisms as well as others.   

Correspondingly, there was no effort to highlight positive actions by government, and thus to encourage approaches that would strengthen human rights. So I have had a Swedish diplomat claiming that there was abuse by government forces of women and children in the camps, whereas there has been no concrete allegations of such actions. On the contrary we should celebrate the fact that the record of our armed forces with regard to what is termed Sex and Gender Based Violence, or rather the absence of it, is the best in the world. The failure of critics to register this, or if they believe the contrary to produce evidence, has contributed to the failure by those supposed to coordinate such activities to ensure better mechanisms for protection and the reduction of the incidents that do occur. This, all evidence indicates, is largely in terms of abuse within groups forced into close proximity, a phenomenon that also occurs within extended family structures, but this is ignored in the joy with which some advocacy groups attack government.   

In order to defend against such abuses, we need not only to take action when they occur, but also to develop mechanisms to empower the vulnerable. This relates to the other inadequacy I have noted in our approach to Rights, namely that we concentrate on what are termed Civil and Political Rights, and do not pay enough attention to Economic and Social and Cultural Rights. This in one sense springs from the international discourse on Human Rights, which is dominated by a confrontational approach, but recently the UN Human Rights Council, and indeed Navanetham Pillai, the UN High Commissioner, who comes from a deprived background herself, have stressed the need for equal concern with these latter rights, and in particular the right to development.   

In this regard it should be noted that Sri Lanka does relatively well, with for instance our emphasis on education and health rights being a model for even countries better off economically than we are. These factors too should be celebrated, as also the fact that we managed, in spite of the crowded nature of the Welfare Centres, to ensure that there were no epidemics, and that we overcame the dire situation with regard to long term malnutrition that had affected those in LTTE controlled areas, where the food we sent up was used primarily for fighting cadres, not the ordinary people. We also managed, more swiftly than in any other comparable situation in the world, to restore education facilities, with much better teaching than the poor youngsters had been permitted by the LTTE, in spite of the resources we continued to send the areas they controlled.   

Sadly, except by a few visitors from developing countries, these factors have not been highlighted, not even by our media, which takes universal free health and education for granted. But, while registering the positive achievements of this country in such areas, we must also recognize that women and children continue vulnerable, especially in the context of many single parent families, and that we need to take proactive measures on their behalf.   

In this context we emphatically welcomed the commitment of the new Inspector General of Police to strengthen Women’s and Children’s desks in the police stations that will be opening in the North. We have also suggested formal committees that will ensure cooperation between the police and the Ministries of Social Services and of Child Rights and Women’s Affairs, so as to ensure both prompt remedial measures for abuse and also empowerment to limit the impact of abuse.   

Counselling and Probation Services have a large role to play, but we also need to develop mechanisms to ensure employment opportunities, extra education services and credit schemes that will decrease vulnerability. Setting these up through community structures in which the police, and where relevant the armed forces, play a role will make it clear that security comes not only from appeals to external authorities but through social interactions based on individuals who both exercise their rights and fulfil their responsibilities.   

For this purpose we need to ensure better training opportunities, but training that enhances interaction rather than a compartmentalized approach to interventions. The police need to be aware of the role of Counsellors, Counsellors need to work with Probation Officers, Probation Officers need the cooperation of school Principals and Parent Teacher Associations. The Civil Military Liaison Committees that we hope will be set up shortly should play a role in encouraging appropriate consultation, and also develop small scale projects that will enhance confidence through empowerment in affected areas.   

Finally, let me refer to an area in which I believe we have to do much better with regard to the second layer of rights I mentioned. I am talking about Cultural Rights, and in particular Language Rights, in which we have a long way to go. Though Tamil was made an official language in 1987, implementation of this was slow. It was only in the nineties that we tried to develop this through our education system, and it is only in the last three years that the yeoman efforts of the Ministry of Constitutional Affairs and National Integration have led to public service regulations that will I hope make things easier for all our citizens.   

In this respect we need, as has been mentioned here, to ensure a greater degree of Tamil language communication on the part of the police. This government made a proactive effort to recruit Tamil policemen but, after a very positive start, applications were few because it seems of pressure and even threats from the LTTE. Now that that danger has passed, I am told that applications are many more than required, and soon we will have I hope a truly national police force. But meanwhile we must do all we can to ensure that policemen serving in Tamil speaking areas speak Tamil, and for that purpose, while the force itself is conducting classes, we can fast forward the process by developing projects in which the police and the community work together in contexts that promote socialization.   

We need, in short, to promote cooperation rather than confrontation, proactive empowerment rather than reactive remedies for the vulnerable. This year, in addition to producing drafts of a National Action Plan for Human Rights, plus a draft Bill of Rights as pledged in the Mahinda Chintanaya, we have encouraged local authorities to promote rights themselves through rights based development projects. But in particular in areas that have suffered over the last several years, in areas that we know there have been problems that must be addressed, we must work hard together to strengthen communities together with the officials responsible for serving them. We need to ensure not only Rights, but empowerment for all our citizens so that they can exercise those Rights meaningfully, in a context of fuller and more cohesive social responsibility too.