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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.

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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.

I was pleasantly surprised at the effectiveness of the consultation organized by the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka with regard to its report for the forthcoming Universal Periodic Review of the Human Rights situation in Sri Lanka. The Chairman, whom I had found both incisive and creative in our earlier discussions, was unable to be present, but the two Commissioners who presided, Jezima Ismail and Prathiba Mahanamahewa, were clearly well aware of the issues that need to be considered.

The Report of the HRC is particularly important

The Report of the HRC is particularly important, because it will be incorporated into the compendium the Office of the High Commissioner prepares for consideration by the Human Rights Council. The other components will be the Reports submitted by other stakeholders, which in the case of Sri Lanka will include a number of Non-Governmental Organizations that are extremely hostile to government.

We can hope that some moderate NGOs will also send in submissions, but sadly Sri Lanka has failed to engage actively with such NGOs so it is unlikely that many will take the time or trouble to present an objective perspective on the situation here. I suspect this failure to develop synergies, instead of simply engaging in hostilities when something negative is said, is why the Secretary of Defence suggested to me that I ask to be appointed Monitoring MP for NGOs.

Earlier I had not known that MPs were supposed to apply for such positions, and indeed the brighter of my fellow MPs had not been made aware of this either. The President was the first to point this out, when I suggested some educational initiatives, in saying I had been remiss in not asking to be appointed to monitor Education. He was evidently under the impression that the instructions to apply had been circulated to all MPs, but this was clearly another example of the dysfunctionality of whichever of his officials was entrusted with the task. Fortunately Education now has an excellent Monitoring MP in the form of Mr Grero, and we have already seen some constructive innovations there.

With regard to NGOs, when I did write in, and then submitted as requested a list of responsibilities, I found that all this was ignored. What I got instead was a suggestion that I be asked to any discussions that were held, something that hardly ever happens. The absurdity of this has become even clearer, now that I have experienced the active cooperation of NGOs in the consultations initiated at the Reconciliation Office with regard to the National Human Rights Action Plan. Active interaction with them, given that many are full of ideals and only seek direction as to how these could be most effectively fulfilled, would be immensely useful. Instead what we do now is react adversely to the few who are totally negative, and refuse to recognize and take advantage actively of the potential for good of all the others.

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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.

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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.

Soon after the New Year, the Human Rights Commission summoned a consultation  with regard to the recommendations made with regard to Sri Lanka at the Universal Periodic Review conducted by the Human tights Council in Geneva in 2008. This was a timely move by the Commission, and brought home to me how grossly we had neglected paying formal attention to the recommendations since their inception. We had after all accepted several of the recommendations made, and we had an obligation therefore to carry out our pledges.

The fault is mine even more I suppose than that of anyone else, since having been appointed  Secretary of the Ministry of Human Rights in the middle of 2008, I continued in that position for well over a year after those pledges had been made. Though I think I did a little bit, and perhaps more than anyone else would have done, I should obviously have been more systematic. In mitigation however I should note that I had a massive problem with regard to one important area with regard to which there were several recommendations, namely the Human Rights Commission itself. We were supposed to get international assistance for this, but our principal collaborator in this, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, refused to recognize its status.

That this involved deceit and sleight of hand had been clear to me earlier, when I discovered that a UNDP sponsored report on the HRC had been suppressed and not shown to the Head of Capacity Building in Geneva. The line being pushed by critics of the government in Colombo was that the HRC was illegal, and this had been swallowed – if indeed he had not been responsible for propagating it in the first place – by an Australian (yet another to add to the serried ranks of David Savage and Gordon Weiss and James Elder and Peter Mackay) called Rory Mungoven who was in charge of the Sri Lanka desk in Geneva. He had previously been the representative of the High Commissioner in Colombo, and had no affection at all for our elected government.

I tried early on to engage with him, but found him a liar, and sanctimonious at that. When I asked him why he had not supported regional activities of the HRC, he told me that donors were not willing to contribute to the HRC as it was constituted, but a Swiss diplomat who was very helpful while also clearsighted about our shortcomings that should be overcome, told me that the Swiss had provided funds for the purpose, and they had not been used. Rory, I should add, had proconsular ambitions, and was one of those who told me the UNOHCHR could do a better job than the Norwegian led Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission at monitoring the ceasefire, on similar lines to Gareth Evans who thought that he would do a better job himself, as head of the International Crisis Group.

Rory’s successor was a much more helpful person but, typically, she was soon taken away and replaced by an American young lady called Cynthia Veliko. Cynthia, like Rory, thought her primary allegiance was to opponents of the government, but she was more gracious, and helped to set up a training session for police trainers, which was I think extremely helpful.

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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.

The third subject on which government held consultations last week about implementation of the Human Rights Action Plan was that of the Internally Displaced. I had thought there were no great problems there, given the swift resettlement programme government had implemented, and in fact I think this is an area about which we can be proud. However, as the Plan indicated, we could do more to institutionalize practices and make sure people do not fall through the net.

This section of the Plan begins with the need to adopt a National Policy on Displacement, something we had realized three years ago was lacking. Indeed I have now realized that preparing National Policies is not something we are very good at. Half the problems about land, that it seems now bedevil discussions about devolution, could be resolved easily if we had the National Land Policy that the 13th Amendment introduced, but which has been completely forgotten over a quarter of a century.

Part of the problem is the total lack of responsibility with which Cabinets are constructed and functions allocated. While rethinking is sometimes advisable, very few of the changes that occur are the result of thinking. Thus new Ministers come in, without an institutional memory to rely on, which means that those thus inclined simply use their Ministries as tools of electoral success. Of course there are several who do want to do a good job, but they are not helped by the absence of clear guidelines, or creative understanding in the officials who are shuffled around amongst newly conceived Ministries.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

June 2012
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