The National Action Plan for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights 2011 – 2016 ( sinhala & tamil) as well as the full series of  Sri Lanka Rights Watch are available at the Peace & Reconciliation Website.

I was privileged last week to attend the 5th South Asia Economic Summit that was held in Islamabad, with active participation by South Asian academics, politicians, government officials and think tanks. The theme was ‘Making Growth Inclusive and Sustainable in South Asia’, and almost all participants stressed the need for equity in the developmental process. The one exception, according to the Chairman of the Bangladesh Centre for Policy Dialogue, one of the cooperating partners for the event, was my old friend Nadeem Ul Haque, former IMF Representative in Sri Lanka, now Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission of Pakistan.

Nadeem’s point, made in his usual combative but convincing fashion, was that we had to ensure growth first, before thinking of inclusivity. However I think Rehman Sobhan was wrong to suggest that Nadeem was practically neo-liberal in his approach, believing that the trickle down effect of growth would suffice to fulfil the social aspirations of countries wedded, at least now, to the democratic process. Nadeem had after all shown himself deeply committed while in Sri Lanka to reform of the education system, so as to enhance opportunities, which is after all one of the best ways of promoting equity.

That had been the theme of my inaugural speech. I had been somewhat diffident when I was first asked to address the gathering at its opening session, given my relative ignorance of economics (the dismal science as the Victorians termed it, to my mind based on the same epistemic principles as astrology, as opposed to the accessible certainties of the hard sciences). However it turned out that the points I made recurred in several of the presentations that followed, and the Pakistan papers highlighted some of the general points I made, including the  need for attitudinal change as well as better technical skills.

The general feeling was that Asia was poised to dominate the world economy over the next decades, but South Asia might let slip the opportunities available if we did not upgrade our work force, and ensure more coherent planning. Listening to the input of thinkers as well as decision makers from some of the other SAARC countries, I realized how deficient we were in the planning and administration of public policy, and I hope we will be able to develop systems that can ensure more inclusive formulation of plans and more effective implementation – and also better monitoring.

I was deeply upset for instance, at a Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committee meeting in the East, when the assembled village representatives, from Grama Niladharis to officials of Rural Development Societies, noted that all the suggestions they had made, in two planning cycles, had been ignored. While I grant that final decisions have to be made at a level that takes the suggestions of other areas also into account, what was lacking was a feedback mechanism that made clear the basis of the decisions made, and how the particular problems of each area would be addressed, if not always as requested by area representatives.

Unfortunately we have not as yet internalized the importance of the Rights to Development, and the need to develop mechanisms to ensure that people are seen as partners in the Development process, not merely beneficiaries of governmental largesse. Typical I think of the approach of our bureaucratic mandarins was the short shrift given to the leading position Sri Lanka had been selected for, in the UN Working Group on the Right to Development. Our former Representative in Geneva had been selected for the position by the Non Aligned Group, but instead of letting her continue in the position – as other distinguished diplomats have done, even when they were transferred to other places – we informed the Secretariat that the Representative had been transferred and could no longer fulfil the required functions.

I was reminded then of how Sri Lanka had lost out badly in the late seventies, when President Jayewardene had refused to allow Shirley Amerasinghe, perhaps our most distinguished diplomat, to function as Chair of the UN Law of the Sea Conference. Having sacked him from his position as our Representative to the UN in New York, President Jayewardene refused the requests of other third world countries, which had found Shirley a doughty fighter for their rights, that he be allowed to continue as Chair.

Jayewardene could not have been ignorant of the importance of the Law of the Sea, and given that he refused to make use of Shirley’s talents in any other way, it is clear that he was motivated simply by spite. In the current case however I believe it is simply ignorance of the importance of the Right to Development, since we too seem to be taken in by the neo-liberal characterization of Human Rights as involving only Political Rights and not the Economic and Social Rights that are so important a part of the UN Declaration.

Our National Human Rights Action Plan covers all aspects, and we cannot ignore those aspects of Rights that are the most important to the vast majority of our populace. Though certainly it is with regard to Political Rights that we have much work to do, we cannot rest complacent about e
other areas. Though our record is comparatively good with regard to Health and Education, for instance, we are in danger of losing that status as far as the latter is concerned, in terms of what is needed to ensure equitable development. Given that we have managed by and large to maintain our impressive status with regard to Health, it is regrettable that we have not ensured similar progress with regard to both quality and quantity of Educational Supply.   

Daily News 21 Sept 2012