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.
One of the most important commitments of the National Human Rights Action Plan, as agreed by Cabinet, is the adoption of legislation to ensure the right to information. Not only is this an obligation to our citizens, on whose behalf government acts, it is also practically desirable. In this modern day and age, when disinformation can be circulated so easily, and not necessarily out of malice, but through carelessness and ignorance, it would be helpful for government to have the facts readily available in clear and comprehensible form.
How useful this would be became even more clear to me when listening to the falsehoods and incomplete information purveyed by those critical of Sri Lanka at the recent discussion based on the Channel 4 documentaries that took place in London at the Frontline Club. Callum McRae, who had made them, declared that over 11,000 former LTTE combatants were still in custody, and could not be visited.
This is nonsense, for almost all combatants have been released, and throughout their stay they were visited regularly by their relatives. I did at one stage suggest to the Bureau of the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation that they maintain a data base of all those still in detention, with dates of visits, since I was told that none had not been visited. I suppose that would have been too complicated, but some sort of information sheet could have been prepared, and shared perhaps with the Human Rights Commission, to make it clear that there was nothing to hide.
One point we suffered from, and which I believe was a mistake, was that the ICRC was not permitted to visit. This decision sprang I believe from the view that the ICRC had been exceeding its mandate. Nevertheless, we should have made it clear that the ICRC had been involved in the registration process of
these youngsters until almost the very end. In wanting to assert our independence in this respect – which is not necessary, for the ICRC functions with scrupulous respect for the independence of those parties that have invited its assistance – we ignored this fact, whereas Wikileaks indicates that the ICRC had told the Americans in Geneva that ‘ICRC has been visiting regularly 11,400 people arrested and interned in 10 camps as suspected LTTE fighters’.
I myself had thought that the ICRC visits to the former combatants had stopped earlier, so I was pleasantly surprised when this particular Wikileaks cable was brought to my notice. What I did know was that throughout this period ICRC had had access to all those held in detention at Boossa and elsewhere, including those former combatants who had been thought hard-core, and who had therefore been transferred to Boossa (though most of them were soon transferred back, when government decided that more rehabilitation was preferable to any punitive action).
Much confusion was caused by the failure to make clear the distinction between, on the one hand, those in rehabilitation and, on the other, those who had been in detention before 2009 and to whose numbers some of those in rehabilitation were added as noted above. With regard to the former there was always total transparency – though unfortunately as mentioned the ICRC was stopped from visiting them – and they were in regular touch with relations who came constantly to visit them.
With regard to those in detention, though the ICRC did have continuous access, and made arrangements for visits by relations, there was less transparency, and lists of names were not available to the public. This led to confusion, as when, before I joined the team negotiating with the TNA, one of its members had promised to have the list available at the Vavuniya Police Station. This was a mistake, since there was no reason for such a list to be sent there, and in time it was kept where it should have been, with the National Human Rights Commission. Unfortunately the TNA was not informed of the reasons for not sticking to the original commitment, which understandably enough led to resentment, and grief for those relations who had gone to the Police Station to seek information.
One problem was the large numbers in custody. As Secretary of the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, I would ask that these either be released or charged, and though I could understand that, while the conflict continued and the danger of LTTE suicide bombing was grave, in fact soon after the war ended the President set up a committee which I chaired to expedite action. In a few months, with full cooperation from the police, the Attorney General’s Department and the Prisons, we had reduced the number considerably, and the AG’s Department was doing its best to go through files rapidly.
Unfortunately, with the abolishing of the Ministry, there was no central agency responsible for this work. It did continue apace, if not as quickly as I would have liked, and when I sought information last year, in terms of my responsibility to monitor progress on the interim recommendations of the LLRC, I found that fewer than a thousand were still in detention, and it seemed to have been decided that most of these too would be released without charge, after rehabilitation as deemed appropriate.
Unfortunately there was no effort to make information about this systematically available. The President had I think wanted such transparency, which is why he had set up an Inter-Ministerial Committee to work on the interim recommendations. However, with the Committee not meeting, the good work that was being done could not be reported.
Much of the criticism that government has had to undergo could have been avoided had there been an obligation to make information readily available. I hope therefore that this provision of the Action Plan is something we move on soon.