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.

Inextricably bound up with the Right to Development is the right to participation, and to knowledge. Sadly, though consultation has been a pillar of the President’s approach to politics, and has found expression in the manifesto, this has not been institutionalized as intended. Local advisory committees are not in place, and though occasionally the views of local communities are sought, as they have mentioned to me in Divisional level Reconciliation meetings, their ideas more often than not do not find realization in development plans.

More galling perhaps, for no one expects all their ideas to be taken on board, there is no system to explain the reasons for the decisions that are made. So those who have taken the trouble to express themselves feel doubly left out. While obviously they do not have a right to have their ideas implemented, they do have a right to know what is happening, and how the problems they have identified are being addressed. It is up to the elected government and the administration it has put in place to make decisions, but it must remain accountable, and explaining how concerns are being addressed should be an essential component of governance.

While in Islamabad I was delighted to discover that, through a Civil Society initiative, some elements of accountability have been introduced. The project was warmly supported by my old friend Cashian Herath, a quiet but extremely effective public servant as I found when he swiftly implemented the idea of the Secretary of Defence to recruit youngsters of all communities as English Teacher Cadet Officers (when the Ministry of Education was being recalcitrant). As Secretary to the Ministry of Provincial Councils, Cashian had supported an initiative called Participatory Budgeting, whereby communities were involved in the budgeting process at local government level, and could hold their elected representatives accountable.

The presentation that was made at the South Asia Economic Summit attracted a lot of attention, and was advanced to the beginning of the session since it was thought a dynamic initiative that could be replicated elsewhere. I thus missed the presentation, since I was rushing about between various sessions to try to catch all the Sri Lankan participants. But I got a copy of the text and was able to discuss the process. Hearteningly, it seemed that most of the elected local officials who had participated in the project had been enthusiastic, and sympathetic to the needs of their constituents, and had helped to ensure palpable successes for the process.

I suppose in one sense this is understandable, because our system does not allow for the planning that would help elected officials to prioritize their actions during their term of office. In the absence of a mandatory consultative process, the participatory budgeting project enables them to take the pulse of those they represent in an apolitical and hence non-threatening environment. This does not mean there are no strong views expressed, for I was told of heated arguments and a determination on the part of those who made their needs felt to see results. But the outcomes seemed to have satisfied all, and developed an understanding that politics and development could incorporate win-win situations rather than entrenching the zero sum mentality (if you benefit, then I must be losing) that characterizes our political perspectives.

Crucial to participation of course is information, and this is an area in which government must move swiftly to introducing the Right to Information which it has pledged to do. Because of the inordinate slowness to act of government institutions, in a context in which no one feels a sense of responsibility to ensure that government policies are implemented, we have been slow to introduce legislation, and thus the opposition has been able to introduce similar ideas but with elements incorporated that might not be acceptable. I found an instance of this myself, when I suggested to the President a couple of years back that we set up Oversight Committees, and he seemed positive. But nothing happened when I sent in the draft I had got from the Inter-Partliamentary Union, and a few months later I found elements of that draft in the proposal put forward by the opposition. Of course this need not have been derived from mine, since obviously the ideas were in general circulation through the IPU, but I feel government missed a chance to innovate.

The process has been sadder with regard to the Right to Information, for a very simple bill which makes clear the right of the citizen to know what is happening in matters that concern him should not seem disruptive to anyone. If government introduces such a Bill, it could of course have provision for confidentiality to be maintained when security or other concerns demand it, but the rule should be disclosure unless there is good reason, rather than the other way about.

If however such basic ideals seem unattainable now, perhaps we could proceed incrementally, but introducing the Right to Information first for local government activities. Given the commitment of government to participatory procedures, the need for transparency, and making accounts available to the citizens, could be incorporated in the Local Government Bill that has now hung fire for so long, because of drafting inadequacies when it was first brought. Given that each successive election makes more and more obvious the need for electoral reform, perhaps that too could be included – certainly having single representatives for particular areas will also contribute to the accountability that is essential for good governance.

I can only hope therefore that, instead of continuing to allow the opposition to mock at a government that has engaged in obituaries more than legislation for the last few months, we move soon on a legislative programme in line with the manifesto on which government was elected.