Intervention by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha  at Plenary Session III of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Regional Conference – 13 February 2011


Sri Lanka has a very good record as far as the present topic of discussion, ‘Mother and Child’, goes. Statistics with regard to infant mortality and maternal healthcare, with regard to education and health facilities, suggest that we are the best in this regard in South Asia.


However, this is an area in which things can always improve. We used to be much better than almost all Asian countries 50 years ago, so in fact we seem to have fallen behind, in comparison with some countries in East Asia. And, in any case, where mothers and children are concerned, we should think in terms of zero tolerance. I know we can do nothing about accidents and sudden tragedies, but what is avoidable should be avoided.


What I want to focus on here is problems that have arisen because of what might be termed carelessness, the continuation of practices that we developed in colonial times, which are no longer appropriate.


When I was Secretary of the Ministry of Human Rights, and involved in the drafting of our Human Rights Action Plan, I realized that, while attention was focused on what might be termed public issues, questions of civil and political rights, the issue of torture, the plight of the displaced, we also needed to pay attention to more private problems too. In particular we found that our judicial system still relied heavily on the old colonial system of remand, that youngsters for instance were sent to prison for trivial offences, that women were taken in on suspicion of what I would term irregular behaviour rather then crime. Some of these, being remanded with no fixed date for subsequent hearings, with no assistance in requesting or obtaining bail, languished for years in remand.


How do we deal with problems like this? I believe we need to move into partnerships, so that the state, while recognizing its responsibility to protect, is able to share the burden of remedial action, to ensure more effective and diverse responses. In this regard let me refer to a recent initiative of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, working together with the National Child Protection Authority, and a Non-Governmental Organization known as the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies. They are currently developing a project to ensure monitoring of all detention facilities, so that action can be expedited when, due to avoidable delays, women or children have been incarcerated for lengthy periods for no good reason.


I hope the practice will be extended too to what are termed Houses of Detention, where women taken into custody under an outdated Vagrancy Act are sometimes held for years with no remedy. Courts give no dates for cases to be taken up, and people are forgotten. I am reminded of the ordinances that used to be used in Victorian England, which Dickens criticized so roundly, that were used simply to remove from society those who pricked the consciences of the rich. Many of those people were packed off to Australia, and have returned now to haunt the English, and the rest of us, on the cricket field. But not even exile to Australia is permitted now to people remanded under archaic laws that we need to amend, or to implement with greater sensitivity. And sometimes children born in prison, or taken in with their mothers at an early age, grow up knowing no other life. Even worse, children who are victims are put away for their safety, or in the course of an inquiry – and when the case is delayed, such children are forgotten.


These are obviously just minor aberrations in a generally good system. But even the most minor of aberrations can affect individuals badly, and we to imagine ourselves in the positions of those individuals when we develop or perpetuate systems. I know that, in the British system we have all inherited, we tend to leave legislation too to the Executive. But I hope that, as Legislators, we will use whatever mechanisms allow us under the Westminster system, Consultative Committees, Parliamentary Questions and even Resolutions, to influence those with executive authority who are concerned with the bigger picture to consider too the small-scale victims of neglect.