The LLRC Action Plan gives great weight to land questions, which makes a lot of sense. Solving problems relating to land ownership and usage would go a long way towards satisfying personal needs with regard to what we have described as Recovery in the Draft National Policy on Reconciliation. While government has done well with regard to the public aspects of Recovery, through large scale infrastructure projects and livelihood programmes, ensuring a sense of dignity requires affirmation of property rights.
Certainly in the several meetings of Reconciliation Committees I have participated in at Divisional Secretariats, it is questions of land that are brought up most frequently. Indeed, other aspects of the LLRC Action Plan are barely touched on, but this is of crucial importance if we are to achieve levels of contentment that will lead to healing.
But while swift satisfaction of these material needs is of the essence, there is another element in the Action Plan which I believe requires attention, since it is the key to resolving several other problems. I refer to the recommendation of the LLRC that legislation should be enacted to ensure the right to information. Unfortunately there is no time frame for this, and the Action Plan simply asks the Cabinet to decide on a suitable time frame for drafting legislation. The Media Ministry is cited as the key responsible agency and there are no Key Performance Indicators, simply a comment that the Cabinet Office will be the interface for the interaction with the Cabinet of Ministers on the acceptance of such legislation by the legislature.
Conversely the National Human Rights Action Plan, adopted by Cabinet about a year before the LLRC Action Plan, noted that the required activity was the adoption of legislation to ensure the right to information, and the Key Performance Indicator was that such legislation was adopted. A period of 1 year was given for this, with the Key Responsible Agency being the Ministry of Justice.
I can see why the Ministry of Justice thinks that this is not its business, and it should rather be dealt with by the Media Ministry. However, since the Right to Information was one of the important new elements in the draft Bill of Rights that had been prepared in accordance with the Mahinda Chintanaya of 2005, and since the Justice Ministry was supposed to review that draft in a period of one month, I feel they should have consulted all relevant Ministries, including the Media Ministry, and set out a plan of action. As it is, the delay has allowed a much less forthright approach in the LLRC Action Plan.
This is unfortunate, because it is clear that other elements in that Plan would also be facilitated by better public access to information. The need for better data with regard to the dead, the disappeared and the detained is matched by the need to create awareness about government policies. More importantly, a requirement that information should be available to the public is perhaps the only way to ensure that authorities maintain systematic records.
The best evidence for this contention is the fact that no one now knows to what extent the LLRC Action Plan has been implemented. There is uncertainty about who is responsible for its implementation, and while references are made to a Task Force, which presumably is the same as the body that formulated the Plan, records are not available of progress. This parallels what happened a couple of years back, when the LLRC made interim recommendations in good faith, but as it has noted, found that little had been done to implement these.
This was not I believe deliberate. The President appointed an Inter-Ministerial Committee to implement the recommendations and believed that it was taking action. He was astonished when he realized that it did not meet and kept no records. This does not mean that action was not taken. But because there was no need to keep other elements in government, let alone the public, informed, implementation was not systematic, and there were many gaps as the LLRC noted.
The problem is that Sri Lanka is still stuck in a colonial mindset, whereby government is the preserve of an elite, with no requirement to communicate their actions to the governed. Such an approach, though I find it reprehensible, made sense in long ago days when communication was comparatively limited. Now however, in actual practice, given both the propensity for leaks in Sri Lanka, and the speed with which information travels as a consequence of modern methods of communication, government is in danger of being threatened by campaigns of disinformation based on half-truths.
The best defence against this is total transparency, with regular and coherent briefing of the media. As I noted a few months ago in a paper on Emerging Challenges of Governance in South Asia, ‘The key principle should be that all the business of government should be known to the governed, unless there are compelling reasons to maintain confidentiality.’ And this is obviously the more vital when there is a trust deficiency which has to be bridged. This can only be done through transparency, and regular communication between decision makers and the community at large.
In addition, there is acute need of systematic communication between the various agencies entrusted with action. If records are kept, instead of reliance on the informal assurances we now have, we would also be aware of what falls through the gaps. For instance I was surprised at a Divisional meeting in the East when the entire Muslim community present claimed that they had been neglected in the recommendations of the LLRC. When I went through the Action Plan however I found they were correct, and the recommendation cited referred only to Muslim IDPs displaced from the North. The less dramatic but more sustained displacement of Muslims in the East seemed to have been forgotten.
The Action Plan itself however made up for that, in allocating the task of formulating a policy on the issue of Muslim IDPs to the Presidential Task Force for the North and East. The problem is that there is no such Task Force, because the one that now operates confines its attentions to the North. I was not sure whether I had got this wrong, but that is how it describes itself in the impressive publication it has recently produced recording its achievements.
Of course it is conceivable that there exists yet another Task Force for the North and East, but several months have passed of the nine allocated for the task of formulating and implementing a policy, and the Muslims of the East still have no idea what is going on in this regard.
Another instance of a lack of precision allowing matters to lie dormant is apparent with regard to the question of land, where the Action Plan specifies that awareness programmes should be conducted with regard to a circular. Unfortunately that circular has been challenged in the Courts and lies in abeyance.
This too seems to be yet another instance of the spirit being willing though the flesh is weak. I was assured some months back at a meeting at the Ministry of Lands that broad agreement had been reached on a circular to replace the one that had been challenged, and that action could be taken on that. However no draft has been produced as yet and, though officials have been asked to proceed in terms of earlier instructions, on the ground there is much confusion, and progress if any is slow.
It seems essential therefore that government should allocate responsibility for implementation of the Action Plan to an agency that works full time on this task. A Ministry for the purpose is the obvious answer and, given the overlap with the Human Rights Action Plan, it could be entrusted to the Special Envoy of the President on Human Rights who chairs the Inter-Ministerial Committee to oversee that Plan. An alternative would be a Senior Minister who commands general confidence.
If it is felt that this task should remain officially within the purview of the President, as is formally the case with Human Rights, then a Ministry should be constituted with the President as Minister, and a senior figure as Deputy. Fortunately there is precedent for that in the recent appointment of the Senior Minister Sarath Amunugama as Junior Minister of Finance.
In either case there is also need of an efficient Secretary, with understanding of plan implementation and the maintenance of records as a management tool. Records should be maintained online and be available for public scrutiny, as the most effective means of ensuring close attention to expeditious fulfilment of the Plan.