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.
Those in authority in Sri Lanka have long known that torture is a problem that needs addressing. This is not unique to Sri Lanka, and indeed our record is comparatively good as compared with what is done in countries that are critical about us. Some of those countries engage in contortions to convince themselves that they are not really evil, as with the American efforts to justify waterboarding – which is not perhaps the worst excess they indulge in. Others simply farm out their dirty work, as we have seen in the blind eyes turned to the programme of secret renditions on which the nastier aspects of the Western War on Terror relied so heavily.
Reading Craig Murray’s ‘Murder in Samarkand’, and his description of the hypocrisy of his colleagues in the British Foreign Office, as well as the then Home Secretary Charles Clarke, who fought to subvert a principle of British justice and allow material obtained under torture to be used in prosecutions, was extremely illuminating. But the fact that others engage in mischief is no excuse whatsoever, and it is important that Sri Lanka address the question and ensure remedial action to prevent any repetitions of aberrations – whilst also dealing through a transparent judicial process with such aberrations.
Both the government consultation, and the informal one I had conducted some weeks earlier, approached the problem in a positive spirit, looking at the difficulties police faced as well as the need to institutionalize safeguards. One problem brought to our attention is the inability to use statements made to the police in evidence. It seems – and I am subject to correction, for the whole area seems obscure – that this was a provision made by the British, but it does not in fact obtain in most jurisdictions. I should have thought this needs to be changed, so that material obtained through skillful interrogation is admissible – while of course there should be provisions for lawyers to be present during such interrogations.
In this regard perhaps the best remedy, which is now being discussed, is a system of duty attorneys attached to each police station, so that anyone brought in is immediately registered with a lawyer. This will allow for any complaint to be investigated, while setting up a nexus with judicial medical officers so that their relationship is not only with the police. A professional safety net, of doctor and lawyer, working in collaboration rather than either collusion or confrontation with the police, will immeasurably increase the protection available to those taken in by the police.
Another problem we face is the paucity of specialist JMOs, and the inadequate training of those who have to do the job without being specialists – as happens to be the case in most parts of the country. One reason for the paucity is that this is not a specialization that is lucrative – obviously private practice is limited, since the subjects of specialization are not in a position to seek further advice. It would therefore make sense for government to develop a scheme of incentives for such specialists – or at least ensure an effective component in general training that will allow non-specialists to do a better job.
One area in which better training is imperative is the psycho-social, since JMOs or those acting as JMOs should be able to see not only the physical signs of torture, but also symptoms of mental stress. This goes back of course to a point I have been making constantly in this series, namely the need for better counseling and psychological support. We need to make sure, and not only in the case of victims of torture, that we see the signs of suffering early, and have systems of relief in place.
In addition to those officially responsible for those taken into custody, the actual police officials and the medical personnel and I hope soon a resident lawyer, we also need to make sure that monitoring mechanisms are effective. There are two principal agencies in this regard, the judiciary and the Human Rights Commission. Both have statutory obligations in this regard, but it seems that, while a few magistrates are very conscientious, the vast majority do not make regular visits to the police stations (nor to the remand homes to which they commit people). This must be remedied, and the Judicial Services Commission should be encouraged to make this a requirement to be regularly reported on for all those appointed to positions of magisterial responsibility.
The problem with the Human Rights Commission, in its admirable current form, is a paucity of personnel and resources. This needs to be swiftly remedied, and a running theme of the entire Human Rights Action Plan is the need to strengthen the HRC. That body has been required to make suggestions, and I hope these are done soon, and taken forward by someone with both responsibility and authority.
Sadly that may be difficult in the current situation where there is no Ministry of Human Rights. As I have noted before, it was a great mistake to have done away with that Ministry – as indeed with the Ministry of Policy and Plan Implementation, as is clear now when government is trying to reintroduce the policy of results based management, which that Ministry had put in place, only to have it forgotten in the last two years.
I believe I have done reasonably well in the current round of coordination, and I am grateful to the officials, many of them Secretaries, with perhaps a sense of fellow feeling to a former colleague, who have expressed appreciation of what we have been able to achieve together. But the next stage requires executive action, and that requires a Ministry with a dedicated Secretary. I hope that will be created soon.