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 recent occurrences at a Children’s Home in Mawanella have highlighted the need for better systems and better supervision with regard to the care of children. This is something we have been pressing for, with regard to the National Human Rights Action Plan, but I should note that the need for some remedial action has been felt for a long time.

In this and other areas Milinda Moragoda, when he was Minister of Justice, commissioned several reports, though unfortunately not all have been produced. Perhaps for this reason, or whether it is because of the chaos that arises from constant changes of Ministers without adequate briefing mechanisms, action has not been taken on those that were produced. This is particularly sad with regard to children, for Shirani Thilakawardhana produced an excellent and very caring report. Had that been implemented, with proper monitoring, the tragedies we hear of now might have been avoided.

At a recent meeting of the consultations with governmental and non-governmental organizations that have been instituted under the aegis of the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies, we were presented with a very informative report by one of the few professionals at the Department of Probation. Further information was received from Save the Children, which has done yeoman service in this regard, and a UNICEF publication tellingly entitled ‘Out of Sight, Out of Mind: a report on Voluntary Residential Institutions for Children in Sri Lanka’.

UNICEF had not been invited to the meeting, but I have since been asked by one of those from UNDP who worked with me on Human Rights promotion when I was Secretary to the Ministry whether they could come. This seems a good idea since, while the consultations have obviously been based on national cares and concerns, we have had foreign agencies also attending, most notably the Swiss and the German Friedrich Ebert Stiftung with regard to Labour and Migrant Rights. Obviously it would make sense to have international participation too, though I fear that, without a clear coordinating mechanism such as we had when the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights had a mandate for that, we will continue to have worthy initiatives that simply do not cohere.

With regard to children, there are a number of agencies that should work together to ensure proper care, but sadly there is no mechanism to ensure consultation. Following our initial meeting, we got together a list of suggestions, which I have now sent out to the various agencies responsible, but I fear that the meeting I have suggested will not happen soon.

In addition, there is an important role for the judiciary to play, and I am not sure how this can be ensured, given the touchy nature of relations between the judiciary and the executive. I cannot sympathize more with the judiciary when there are attempts to interfere with the decisions it makes, and I hope measures are taken to ensure that this does not happen. However I also feel strongly that the judiciary must act according to the principles laid down in legislation, and also draw up its own rules to ensure that the aims of legislation are not subverted.

At present the norms regarding children are ignored, with the disastrous results we have seen. Children – as sadly happens to others too – are remanded without specific dates by which they should be released or else the case reviewed. The regular inspections of Children’s Homes which magistrates too should engage in, hardly ever occur. These are seen often as repositories for the unwanted, with the concomitant abuse that those deemed unwanted have to face.

There are around 19,000 children in homes at present, but half of them have two parents, while another third have one parent living. Only in 20% of cases are both parents dead, or else deemed unfit because of abuse to have care of the child. Though government has accepted the policy that children should be looked after in a home environment as far as possible, mechanisms to ensure this are not even thought of – though I should note that, in some areas in the North, livelihood projects have this as a principal aim, and it seems there has been some relief provided by such measures.

In the last couple of years the National Child Protection Authority has begun to work energetically, on monitoring as well as advocacy for system change, but vested interests will continue to attack such idealism. The criticism of the NCPA when a nun was arrested shows the lack of proportion in our reactions. The nun certainly should not have been arrested, but that was a fault of the police, whereas the operation she was in charge of, albeit doubtless from good motives, was illegal, and advantage was being taken of her innocence. But that investigation has now been stopped, and the promise of the Church to look into the matter seems to have been forgotten.

Underlying this is the fact that, except where there is actual abuse, we should not engage in finger pointing, but should rather try to develop systems that are in the best interests of the child. Recently I find that the police, which seemed sometimes to turn a blind eye to abuse, is more conscientious, with the much better training given to officers working at Women and Children’s Desks. However this may only be in the North, and there should be more concerted efforts to ensure similar concern and commitment throughout the country.

I can only hope that the horror of what it seems occurred at Mawanella will lead to swift action, to review procedures, to enforce proper application, to ensure regular monitoring, and also to promote training that will sensitize all concerned to the needs of vulnerable children.

Daily News 3 August 2012http://www.dailynews.lk/2012/08/03/fea05.asp



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