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.
Perhaps the most important thing we have achieved through the Task Force to expedite implementation of the Human Rights Action Plan is to ensure better coordination between the various Ministries that share responsibility for particular concerns. Thus last week the Ministry of Rehabilitation and Prison Reforms, which had participated actively in our consultations through a very committed Additional Secretary, convened its own meeting under the Secretary. In addition to the various Departments under that Ministry, he brought together the Ministry of Justice as well as representatives of the Judiciary.
The discussion was lively and constructive, and the Secretary seems determined to move, not only on the Action Plan, but also on the positive suggestions put forward by the President in the last Budget Speech. The most important of these is to reduce the numbers now committed to jail. Currently, as we were informed during the informal consultations we had with NGOs and relevant government departments at the Reconciliation Office, there are about 130,000 persons in prison, of whom only about 30,000 have actually been sentenced to jail. The rest have simply been remanded, which seems a shocking business.
Former Attorney General Mohan Peiris made several suggestions, citing recent developments in Britain, as to how to get over this problem. Meanwhile the dynamic new Secretary to the Ministry of Justice had sent another letter to establish a Steering Committee on ‘Access to Justice’, which is also intended to ensure that vulnerable groups do not suffer. We can be pleased then that the adoption by Cabinet of the Plan has led to so much activity, much of which was contemplated before but was laid aside until just such a catalyst emerged.
Another area discussed at the meeting chaired by the Ministry of Rehabiliation and Prison Reforms was the use of non-custodial sentencing. Given the tremendous success of the Rehabilitation programme in recent years, the President had suggested in his speech greater use of rehabilitation programmes rather than incarceration in the judicial system. I was pleased therefore to discover that we did in fact have a Community Service agency, but currently it has very little to do. It was decided at the meeting however that, with clear instructions from the Ministry of Justice and the Judicial Services Commission, with appropriate legislation if needed, magistrates would be encouraged to move to such sentences rather than custody.
Given the general lethargy of our system one has of course to hope that this initiative too will not fall by the wayside. But the determination of the Secretary of Justice to consult and ensure coordination with all relevant agencies suggests that things might be different this time. It would be important however to ensure accountability in this regard, and we should also follow one of the fundamental principles enshrined throughout the Action Plan, which is that the public has a right to know what is going on.
In this regard it would be useful if each Magistrate’s Court not only furnished regular statistics but made them available to the public of the number of cases heard, the number that resulted in convictions and acquittals, the number of custodial sentences given out and the number of non-custodial sentences. Equally important is transparency about the number of those remanded, including details as to whether this is done for a specific period or without a date. Unfortunately it seems that remanding now takes place without a clear date for release, and it would make sense for magistrates to ensure when remanding that those responsible for further steps have a deadline they are mandated to meet.
While we must hope that such measures will lead to a reduction in the number of those jailed, it vital that support for those who are jailed is improved. For this purpose we need an effective agency with well trained personnel, as we had with the Bureau of the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation. To this end it is essential that we strengthen the role and the responsibilities of Welfare Officers in Prisons. Currently there are very few of them, and it seems they have requested to become part of the uniformed staff, on the grounds that they are not taken seriously, whereas uniformed staff are.
This was a worrying point. Uniformed staff are of course essential, for we should not, in promoting the welfare of prisoners, forget that crime is dangerous and that continuing criminality within prisons is a great part of the problem we now face. But we must also look after the vast majority of prisoners who can and should be reformed. Instead therefore of getting rid of non-uniformed staff, we should raise their status and their capabilities. They should be under an official like the current Commissioners General of Rehabilitation, who should report direct to the Secretary to the Ministry, not to the Prison authorities. Perhaps the Service could also be combined with the Community Service Agency, and develop an inspiring vision of the contribution first time offenders could make to society.
High level training is essential for this, and in particular training in counseling skills as well as leadership. This may well be a useful task for graduates if government needs to engage in wholesale employment of unemployed graduates. However blanket appointments should be avoided, and instead candidates should be invited to apply, be tested, and selected carefully with training delivered by experts and monitored by others. They should also be given very clear job descriptions – something that does not happen at present, in many government departments I find – and be required to supply regular reports including case studies of the persons in their charge.