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At the last meeting of the Executive Committee of the Liberal Party, it was proposed that the Party needed to comment on two current issues, namely the crisis in education as exemplified by the FUTA strike, and what seems to be conflict between the executive branch of government and the judiciary. It was suggested that issuing statements was made difficult by my being a Member of Parliament on the government side, but I pointed out that I had never stood in the way of comments critical of government action.
The Liberal Party believes it took the right decision in supporting Mahinda Rajapaksa for the Presidency in 2005, and again in 2010, and it continues to believe that a government under his leadership offers the best hope for the country. Indeed, given the current state of politics, it is the only hope. However this does not mean blind acceptance of the work of all elements in government, and indeed my own writings have made clear where I think things could be better. Indeed one of my principal complaints has been the manner in which many government departments continue, through carelessness or incompetence, to ignore the policy outlines given by the President.
Text of a presentation by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha MP at the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats Conference on
Transitions to Democracy – Managing Burma’s Political Transition: The Challenges Ahead
16-19 November 2012, Bangkok, Thailand
The news from many parts of Asia has been full recently of ethnic or rather sectarian conflict. In Thailand and the Philippines, there have been southern insurgencies, with Muslim populations asserting a separate identity from Buddhists and Christians respectively. Indonesia has recently found places of worship being closed by a fundamentalist dispensation in Aceh. In both Bangladhesh and Burma, there have been riots, of Buddhists again Muslims or vice versa. And in Pakistan the struggle between Shias and Sunnis seems to be endless, a phenomenon we see in many countries of West Asia too.
In Sri Lanka we could say we were used to this, as we emerge from a thirty year long civil war, often characterized as being between Sinhalese and Tamils. Yet that would be erroneous, for though the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam presented themselves as the champions of the Tamil people, Tamils were amongst their prominent victims. In setting themselves up as the sole representatives of the Tamil people, they destroyed moderate Tamil forces, killing several leading politicians and browbeating others into submission.
But it would also be misleading to claim that there was no ethnic tension in the country. The Tigers became prominent precisely because there was no harmony and no union within Sri Lanka. Since our democracy was based on a British model, we did not have checks and balances built in, as had occurred with the United States, which had to build up a constitution in the context of conflicting claims, from states with different priorities.
Our democracy was majoritarian, which meant that it could be taken possession of by whoever obtained a majority in Parliamentary elections. Since we had the first past the post system, and since most constituencies were what the British would describe as marginals, on several occasions we had massive majorities in Parliament on the basis of small majorities in the popular vote. And so we had measures that were in theory democratic, ie were based on increasing the power of the people, but which took away power from minorities. Thus we had language policies that made employment more difficult for minorities, we had educational policies that made higher education less accessible, and we had land distribution that favoured the majority.
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 looked last week at the provisions in the LLRC Action Plan for dealing with questions about disappearances, and noted the importance of the recommendation regarding greater transparency and precision as to the actual facts. This is also important regarding detainees, where much confusion has resulted from conflation of two separate issues.
I should note that there is also a third, which is even more serious now, given that we have dealt quite effectively with the first two issues. I refer to those who have nothing to do with the conflict, but should definitely be considered under the Action Plan recommendation to create ‘a special mechanism to examine cases of persons being held in detention (for long periods without charges)’. The recent visit to the Prisons that we undertook with the Human Rights Commission brought home to us graphically what statistics had already indicated, that large numbers are held in remand with no prospect of their cases being heard. At Welikada itself there are over 1000 remandees, some of whom have been in remand for years, while the State continues to ponder as to whether charges can be brought.
I had been astonished at the failure in coordination that sometimes led to this situation. At the consultations the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies persuaded me to commence at the Reconciliation Office even before I was appointed to convene the Task Force on the Human Rights Action Plan, I found the Government Analyst’s Department for instance, which participated actively and helpfully, noting that sometimes reports they sent in were lost, and sometimes they travelled miles for cases only to be told that the prosecution was not ready.
It was finally announced recently that Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe had been asked definitely to lead the team that would represent Sri Lanka at the Universal Periodic Review scheduled for November. This followed a number of news items indicating that the Ministry of External Affairs had claimed the team would consist only of officials, which I suppose was only to be expected, given the particular genius of at least some individuals in that institution – which is the incapacity to do anything, combined with an unwillingness to let anyone else try.
I was pleased that Minister Samarasinghe had been asked, but I told him, when he kindly asked me to be on the delegation, that I could not accede to his request. Two years ago, when he was finally asked to take on responsibility for Human Rights, or at least some aspects of it, he held a meeting at which he tried to recreate the old team that had dealt so successfully with attacks on us in Geneva between 2007 and 2009, while also taking the cause of Human Rights further. We had engaged actively with the Office of the High Commissioner, and hosted two productive visits by holders of special mandates; we had responded immediately to any communication from the High Commissioner’s Office, so much so that the Working Group on Disappearances had mentioned this positively, and our efforts to deal with the backlog of cases they had been maintaining for a couple of decades.
None of that had happened in the intervening period. Though the Ministry had taken over some of our staff, they had not given them any real responsibility, and indeed the only thing they had taken forward, albeit too slowly for my liking, was the Human Rights Action Plan, and that only because the then Attorney General found time in the midst of everything he was loaded with to promote it. I remember at the time the Minister of External Affairs telling me that the Attorney General should not take on more than he could handle – this was after his abortive trip to New York to meet the Secretary General about the Darusman Panel – to which my response was that the same was true of him. I suppose that is one reason why I am said to be disliked too much to be entrusted with formal responsibilities, but I would prefer to say what needs to be said rather than restrain myself in the hope of promotion. Sadly, though, I have to recognize that what is said has as much effect as water off a duck’s back.
Mr Speaker, I welcome this opportunity to speak on an Adjourment Motion that seeks to strengthen the Rule of Law in Sri Lanka. This is an admirable aim, and I will give the mover of this motion the benefit of the doubt, and treat that as his principal aim. It would be a pity then if we allowed ourselves to be distracted, in discussing the matter, by efforts to make petty political points, as he seemed to do in his speech, or rather his performance.
Unfortunately much of the text of the motion brought before this House deals with the aftermath of terrorism, and goes against one of the most important principles in the administration of Justice, graphically expressed by Shakespeare in the lines
Earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.
This was the principle government decided to adopt in dealing with former combatants. In fact, whereas earlier it had thought three of the seven categories into which former LTTE combatants were divided might be prosecuted, it has released almost all of them. Just a few in the category of the most committed remain in custody, but most of them too will soon be released. And while the majority of these were conscripts, forced to fight, so that the sympathy with which we have dealt with them is understandable, government has also decided to send for rehabilitation rather than prosecution many of those who had been detained on suspicion of terrorism before the conflict concluded. So, while I agree with the Hon TNA member, about the need for quicker resolution of those cases, what has already been done should be recognized. That is why the LLRC Action Plan Task Force should have a website to set down what has been achieved, as well as timelines for further action.
In such a context, to go on and on about extradition with regard to a particular case smacks of cynicism. It betrays an unwillingness to move forward, and suggests a very old fashioned approach to justice.
The Budget Speech delivered last week, Mr Speaker, lays down a range of imaginative and constructive policies which it is an honour to support. The hallmark of great Liberal governments at a time of social change was the pursuit of reform that promoted opportunities for all, and this is the basic principle behind the proposals laid down in the budget speech. Amongst those of immense importance are the commitment to promote school enrollment amongst low income families and the determination to improve transport facilities for this purpose. Twinning this with mechanisms to ensure connectivity to market places is symptomatic of the understanding that social services must also aim at empowerment, not simply the provision of handouts.
It is also important that health care services be extended. I have noted the comparative excellence of the Ministry of Health in not just restoring, but also improving, services in areas affected by conflict. The concern the budget speech makes clear for expanding such services to areas in need is most welcome, and also the understanding of the need for people participation in improving conditions, as exemplified in the proposal to intensify knowledge sharing programmes on child nutrition. In this regard the development of the dairy industry is a timely step, and I hope the strides made in this regard over the last couple of years will be taken further. The same applies with regard to poultry farming, and recent emphasis on this, and the concerted efforts made through the Divi Neguma initiative, provide a model of policy innovations that have been carried out with practical efficiency.
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.
Following on the consultation we held with NGOs and government agencies directly concerned with the protection of children, the Task Force appointed by the Inter-Ministerial Committee to expedite implementation of the National Human Rights Action Plan met last week to work out how to take things forward.
I was a bit worried because there was a new Secretary of the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Rights and, given the excellent input and understanding of his predecessor, I was worried that we might have to start from scratch as it were to work out what was needed. But I need not have worried. He was every bit as sensitive as his predecessor, and his sharp comment when we were discussing Children’s Homes, that what was being done amounted to incarceration, made it clear that he will do his best to promote the necessary reforms.
As I have noted previously, the officials who attend are committed to change, and this time too we had the Ministry of Justice and the Attorney General’s Department, as well as the Human Rights Commission and the Probation Department and the National Child Protection Agency, all anxious to move on the legislative changes necessary to minimize abuse. Drafts are ready for the Child Protection Ordinance as well as for safeguarding those who have to appear in Court, and the Secretary will soon have a consultation to agree on finalizing the Protection draft and expediting its presentation to Parliament.
Sri Lankans sometimes tend to feel that foreign forces are trying to destabilize the country, and they may not be altogether wrong, given the concerted efforts of a few individuals, who exercise disproportionate influence in some countries, to upset things. But instead of only reacting angrily to perceived interference, we should also work more coherently to get rid of the reasons for such interference. Even if they are sometimes only pretexts, there is no reason for us to lay ourselves open to attack – especially since getting rid of the causes of complaint is not difficult.
Thus, given that the Action Plan on implementation of the LLRC Recommendations has been accepted by Cabinet, we could easily set up a formal mechanism to ensure action. Such a mechanism should also involve systematic reporting, so that what we are doing is apparent to all, including ourselves – for knowing what has been done is the best way of identifying for ourselves what more needs to be done.
We also need to give teeth to any mechanism that is established, since there is no point simply engaging in platitudes. The Action Plan on Human Rights for instance suffers because there is no clear mechanism to ensure progress. There is an Inter-Ministerial Committee which is supposed to coordinate work, and that Committee set up a Task Force which I convene to expedite action – but even though I have received excellent cooperation from most agencies involved, actually getting action is not easy. Given the range of responsibilities that a few ministries have, and the range of responsible ministries for some areas, coordination is not easy, and swift action impossible.
I was called up by the BBC when they received a leaked copy of the Report to the Secretary General on the work of UN Agencies in Sri Lanka during the conflict period. They wanted me to comment and, though they would not share with me what they had, I agreed since I did not want the debate to go by default.
UN Secretary General
They promised to send me the text of what their correspondent Lyse Doucette was posting on their website at 2 pm GMT. They would not send this to me beforehand, though they said they could give me some time to study it. Since however they were going on the air at 2pm, I thought I should respond straight away, and this proved sensible, for even before the email arrived, I saw the discussion begin on BBC television.
Radio actually gave me a reasonable time, though nothing like as much as had been allowed all those who attacked Sri Lanka. TV, which followed soon afterwards, cut me off after a couple of minutes, though they did ask me to answer another question for a later programme.
They have not confirmed that this was used, and a friend in Britain who accessed the link to the Newsnight programme found that I was not there. Perhaps there was a mistake, but the track record suggests that suppression is the order of the day. Lyse Doucette’s piece had comments from several of the usual suspects, including Benjamin Dix who first surfaced in Geneva in 2008, when the UN in Colombo apologized for his antics.
He is joined now by someone called Edward Mortimer, who is involved in something called the Sri Lankan Campaign. Not one of those she cites on the piece put up on the Web challenged the basis on which the current UN Report has been produced.
We specifically asked, and that letter is available, UNFPA and UNHCR to stay along with the Red Cross. I’m afraid the then UNDP rep was galvanised by some people who wanted almost to blackmail us to say “No no, if we can’t all stay them we are going to leave”. So the Sec Defence said then leave. But the ICRC stayed right through and we have got all the details of the ICRC interventions during that period. We also have the UN interventions …
RI: We’re not talking about the ICRC Sir, if I, if you wouldn’t mind …
RW: Hold on let me finish. The UN was there through convoys right through January(2009), and its nonsense to say the UNDP rep didn’t bother – they were very concerned. I remember my Minister (Mahinda Samarasinghe) being rung up one morning and told that the people in the No-Fire Zone were being fired on, but in the evening they sent us an sms saying their information was that the firing came from the Tigers – I don’t think they were lying, but unfortunately junior members of the UN have complained about their bosses and lied about them
RI: Sir, this internal report of the UN says that under intense pressure from the Sri Lankan Govt the UN did not make clear that a large majority of deaths were caused by govt shelling, and that you put the UN under that pressure
RW: The panels of inquiries have not been transparent. We have got the letters through which the UN dealt with us and I think this is an attempt to undermine senior members of the UN. I am sorry you can’t share the leaked report with me, but recently I saw something by a Britisher Julian Vigo which quoted young people in the UN – they are liers – for instance I checked with IOM about the person called Suzanne – they said there was no such person called Suzanne …. I’m afraid these people are not only determined to push a political agenda, but they are not truthful – I mean I don’t mind people being anonymous but don’t claim to have a name which turns out to be false. Why don’t you check with the senior leadership of the UN? I have to say that the Sri Lankan govt has failed because when the Darusman report came out I personally checked – Sir John Holmes had not been contacted, except very briefly initially, Neil Buhne was the UNDP head and worked very well with the Sri Lankans, was not contacted. He can testify that the Tigers did not allow something like 600 Sri Lankan (UN) workers to leave, but at the end of the war all of them were safe – so this is hardly indiscriminate attacks.