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I discussed recently three of the four problems with regard to women raised in the last round of meetings of Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committee meetings. The fourth I thought had to be looked at separately, because it seemed extremely serious.

This was an issue raised by one of the Women Development Officers, about a complaint made to her by a man whose wife had been offered an overseas job by an employment agency. It seemed that she had been taken to Colombo, after which he had lost contact with her. However he had heard that she was being kept there, the implication being that this was for prostitution.

Similar stories abound, such as of girls from the estate sector being brought to Colombo and moved from one house to another, and then being lost sight of. This however was the first time I had been told such a story from ground level as it were, and I have asked for further details. The Minister of Foreign Employment, to whom I mentioned the matter, has promised to look into the matter carefully if details are supplied.

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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.

A couple of years back, when I was first given some responsibilities with regard to Human Rights, the Police thought I was excessively critical of them. I was, for which I was rebuked on the grounds that the lapses I noticed, as compared with the military, happened because of the reduction of the training period for both officers and men. Having seen how, even in the midst of the conflict, the training period for Army Officer Cadets had been increased from 2 years to 2 ½, and having realized that the much shorter period for the police had been shortened still further, I realized that what the senior officers told me was quite true.

The pressures on the police have been terrific over the last few decades and, with military needs taking precedence, their training had indeed suffered. DIGs bewailed the lack of the detective training courses they themselves had undergone, and though the Swedish government ran what I gathered was an excellent course on Scene of Crime investigation, that was exceptional. The British had done some work on community policing, but that had not been followed up very successfully, and apart from that I believe there was very little. We did manage to run one trainer training course on Human Rights, but though that was well received, with changes in personnel we found that even the Manual that had been prepared was not being finalized.

In fairness to the IGP at the time, he said that he was fully occupied with elections, and would work on what we wanted after the spate of elections was over. That, I should note, is another unnecessary burden on the police, for with all the elections we have at different times, and all the politicians for whom security has to be provided, they are further stretched, to say nothing of the various demands that politicians, not quite understanding the role of the police, make on them.

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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.

When I wrote about the Laws’ Delays last week, I was referring to delays in bringing forward laws or amendments that everyone agreed were essential, but which were held back because of inefficient coordinating mechanisms for all stakeholders. This factor, combined with the lethargy or perhaps diffidence that affects so many government departments, leads to protracted suffering for citizens.

But there is another area too in which the laws’ delays cause problems. This is systemic failure with regard to those in remand or indicted, which results in cases not being settled for years. I have referred to this previously, but now the Human Rights Commission has done some investigation and produced a Preliminary Study which includes some worrying statistics. It seems that 53 persons have been in remand for over 3 years with no prospect of an end to their cases. One has been in remand for over 15 years, having been arrested in 1996, while seven others have been in remand for over 10 years.

I was told about this when I met the Chairman of the Human Rights Commission, in pursuing fulfillment of the policy laid down by the President in last year’s budget speech. There he spoke of the enormous wastage in human and material resources caused by the practices of remanding practically automatically, and of indiscriminate sentencing to jail, and suggested alternative procedures. In addition to greater reliance on non-custodial sentencing, these could include much readier recourse to bail, as well as entrenching systems to ensure swift disposal of cases.

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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.

During the last round of Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committee meetings, held in Mullaitivu, Kilinochchi and Vavuniya Districts, four very different problems were brought up with regard to women. The one that I think needs swift and concerted action is that of women headed households which need support for livelihoods. This is an area in which much assistance has been provided, but it could be more systematic, and should more concertedly move beyond financial support to the development of sustainable employment.

Efforts in this regard could be twinned with another problem that came up, which was the lack of preparation to deal profitably with the abundant harvests that the area is experiencing. One women’s group, at an earlier meeting, had asked for training in marketing, and that should certainly be provided along with training in food processing and other value addition activities which will at least to some extent increase the profits of locals as opposed to middlemen. For this purpose we should be encouraging the establishment of Women’s Cooperatives, and developing systems of credit that, as all experience shows, will prove viable when women are the chief beneficiaries.

Such organizations will also help with the community support systems that we must encourage. I have been urging the establishment of Protection Committees in each Grama Niladhari Division, that will not only settle problems when they arise, but also anticipate problems and prevent them coming to fruition. Initially the Committees were coy about discussing these, but they did note when I asked about sexual problems that there were increasing numbers of unwanted pregnancies. I had been told about this previously, by medical personnel too, who noted that it was not a question of rape, which is what the gossip circles claim, but rather consensual sex amongst minors. In addition, as one would expect in cases of single women, there were instances of pressures, beginning with ordinary social intercourse and offers of support, that eventually took their toll.

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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.

This week saw the launch, by the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs, of two books that provide guidance with regard to women’s rights. One is a Commentary on the provisions of the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, which came into law in 2005. It is written by Dhara Wijayatilake, our most senior Public Servant, who also has a sterling reputation for integrity – which is perhaps why she was removed as Ministry Secretary, when she thought something she had been instructed to do was not quite ethical.

I suspect such questioning will not be common now, and perhaps one can hardly blame the new generation of Public Servants, who have been trained to believe that politics is more important than ethics. But the combination of intelligence and practicality that this Commentary encompasses is perhaps the best indication that, unless we swiftly develop a better system of training, with greater attention to identifying objectives and prioritizing them rather than processes, the best laid plans of governments will get nowhere. Indeed perhaps there will be no such thing as plans, let alone well laid ones, as we replace governance with simply reactions to one crisis after another. Read the rest of this entry »

One of the greatest barriers to Reconciliation, I fear, is the difficulties government has to make its position clear. This springs in part from the systemic failure that will soon overwhelm us if remedial action is not taken swiftly. As it is, I believe we continue to survive only because of the enormous energy of a few, and the general decency of many of our administrators, whom the system however tends to suppress, with no efforts to institutionalize procedures and reporting mechanisms.

Symptomatic of this is the confusion about the guidelines that are issued to Grama Niladharis, the lowest rung of the ladder in the public service, but arguably the most important, for they are the interface between government and the public. Strengthening their administrative capacity would go far towards overcoming many problems government now faces, with more senior decision makers plagued by problems that could so easily – and with much less inconvenience to all concerned, including travel time and money – have been resolved lower down.

When I first realized the wide differences between Grama Niladharis in terms not just of efficiency, but also with regard to understanding of their roles, I asked what instructions were given to them when they were appointed. I was presented then with a Diary, which had in its initial pages a list of responsibilities which seemed to me a regurgitation of what they had been expected to do in the times of the colonial administration. I trust I am wrong, and that amendments have been made over the years, but in general it is clear that a thorough overhaul is essential, not just tinkering. In particular, the ethos should be one of local consultation, with mandatory provisions for this – on the lines of the advisory bodies envisaged in the original Mahinda Chintanaya – rather than the top-down approach that was appropriate for a colonial power co-opting local agents whose responsibilities were to the governors, not the governed.

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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.

A couple of months back, I wrote in this series about the laws’ delays, but I was talking then of a very different sort of delay. I was referring to delays in the application of laws, the manner in which dates are given ad infinitum (endlessly) for cases, how cases are adjourned sine die (without a date, so that those who suffer have no idea when they can get closer to justice), that individuals are remanded with no idea for how long this might be. I wrote of women committed to custody who are forgotten, of children sent to homes without proper records being kept so they do not come to the attention of the courts again, of cases not taken up because some information the state should provide is not available, but those responsible are not told that they should supply this promptly.

I suggested at the time that the state authorities responsible should have regular coordinating meetings to ensure that everybody knows what is needed, and they prepare or produce as required, and keep each other informed of any delay, with a commitment to act by a fixed date. My view that such meetings should be held weekly – prompted by the horror story of the analyst who travelled to the East only to be told the lawyer was not ready – was shot down, but there was a commitment to meet once a month. I can only hope that this is happening, and that at least the practice of coordination to minimize inconvenience to the public is being implemented.

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I had not been in the East for several months, not least because the North seemed to need much more attention in terms of my work as Adviser on Reconciliation. However, with the system of Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committees functioning informatively, if not always effectively, I thought I should pay some attention to the East, since obviously reconciliation had to be taken forward there too, and also better coordination of aid work, in terms of my mandate in that area.

Thikanaveli Tank at Vaharai Division in Batticaloa

I had assumed that the basic government strategy of massive efforts at reconstruction had borne fruit in the East, unlike in the North where it was essential to take other steps too in view of the very different circumstances. My visit confirmed that government had indeed worked wonders in the East, for the developments in communications and irrigation and the basic wherewithal for economic activity were phenomenal.

In 2009, during my last visit as Head of the Peace Secretariat, I was overwhelmed by the changes that had taken place since an earlier visit, when travel was painfully slow and there was still uncertainty about commerce. Subsequently, visiting to inspect some work in English Trainer Training, I felt that the trajectory was steadily upward, but even so I was not prepared for the qualitative leap forward that had occurred between then and now. Read the rest of this entry »

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.

During the first set of consultations on the Human Rights Action Plan arranged by the Task Force of the Inter-Ministerial Committee expediting its implementation, it became clear that one of the most important cross-cutting issues was that of land rights. I realized that this was also important in another respect, since land came up as a central issue when I served on the government delegation that met with representatives of the Tamil National Alliance. LLRC recommendationsalso deal to a significant extent with land issues, though unfortunately these are not treated in general discussion with the same importance as matters of less concern to the people at large. And of course efforts by government to deal swiftly with some problems with regard to land were met with strong resistance which has now brought the matter into the Courts.

Land issues – a matter which should be discussed in a small group of stakeholders able to take action, and we requested the Ministry of Lands to arrange this.

This seemed therefore a matter which should be discussed in a small group of stakeholders able to take action, and we requested the Ministry of Lands to arrange this. While many problems are exacerbated by the range of decision makers involved, and no clear understanding as to which is the lead agency, in this case the situation was simpler, since obviously it was the Ministry of Lands that had to take the lead. Its Secretary however decided initially, very sensibly, that we should have a preliminary meeting to discuss the various issues involved, though I was fortunate to have with me the consultant who had helped finalize the Action Plan, and who has a much better grasp of the issues involved than I do.

So does the Secretary, as we found out, and he had already taken action to resolve some of the problems. A slight one, but complicated, was the Land Development Ordinance, or rather the changes that were required, in particular to ensure gender equality. This had been amended for the purpose a couple of years ago, but abortively, since it was then noticed that Provincial Councils had to be consulted before any such amendment could proceed.

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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.

Another area which does not figure to any great extent in the National Human Rights Action Plan, but which is also of great concern currently, is that of former LTTE combatants. This is understandable for the intial draft of the Plan was prepared in 2009, and concurrently our Ministry was working, with ILO assistance, on a Rehabilitation and Reintegration programme for those combatants. So a field of action which seemed a temporary problem rather than something to be entrenched in a National Plan was omitted, since it should have been dealt with through special provisions.

Unfortunately that necessity too fell prey to the division of responsibilities between various Ministries. There had previously been a civilian Commissioner General of Rehabilitation, and in view of the mandate we had with regard to Human Rights, which seemed to me obviously to apply to those who had been conscripted, I had tried hard to evoke more concerted action. But it soon became clear that, with all his other responsibilities, as well as the difficulties of liasing with the Ministry of Defence when it had other major priorities, he simply could not handle the job.

Understandably too, when moved to action, he concentrated on the child soldiers, whose plight was obvious, but this meant neglect of the adults, who languished without much concerted support in a couple of centres that had been established. I should note that, when I visited the centre at Weli Oya, I found tremendous dedication on the part of the military personnel in charge, but without a clear plan, this did not seem likely to lead anywhere.

Things changed with the appointment of a dedicated Commissioner General of Rehabilitation, a military officer who proved visionary as well as characteristically efficient. He and his successors have done a great job, and my frequent visits to the Rehabilitation Centres, in recent times to check on the Entrepreneurship Workshops I funded through my decentralized budget, have resulted in moving interactions with youngsters who seem appreciative of what has been done for them, and keen to get on with productive lives, making use of what seems an unusually high level of talent. I should note though that the agency that conducted the programmes was highly selective, and would choose just about 30 from a pool of a 100 they were introduced to at the start of the programmes, so perhaps the others would not have been quite so dynamic. But that made it all the more important that we should have encouraged the leaders among them to develop businesses that would also have provided employment for the rest. Read the rest of this entry »

Rajiva Wijesinha

July 2012
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