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.
At one of the discussions on the promotion of Human Rights that the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies has been arranging together with the Reconciliation Office, it was decided to set up a more structured consultation, to look into conceptual questions as well as make practical recommendations. Given that clarity of conceptualization is largely lacking in the world of politics – or even recognition of the need for conceptualization – I was deeply impressed by the presentation at that discussion of the Consultant on Children to the Attorney General’s Department. What he presented seemed a good basis for further analysis so as to promote more helpful state interventions.
His argument, if I understood it correct, was that social policy in Sri Lanka continues to be based on the colonial legacy of Poor Law with emphasis on Criminal Law, on institutionalization of social rejects, and on very generalized administrative approaches without a positive social agenda. I am not sure that I agree with this completely, but he certainly presented a convincing contrast between our administrative framework for social services and that which we have in education and health. The latter promotes equity and inclusivity, whereas the former entrenches the dichotomizing view of society that Victorian England seemed to embody – but which was fought against and changed by advanced social thinkers and, perhaps most prominently, by Charles Dickens, who had suffered himself from the prevailing patronizing philosophy.
Coincidentally I happened, during the time our discussion took place, to have been reading one of his early works, entitled ‘The Mudfog Papers’, which satirized the practice of putting people in workhouses. In that Dickens produced a mock scientific paper on how to treat fleas, which was clearly meant to suggest that this was how the dominant sections of society regarded their less fortunate brethren – ‘He suggested that measures should be immediately taken to employ the labour of these fleas as part and parcel of the productive power of the country, which might easily be done by the establishment among them of infant schools and houses of industry, in which a system of virtuous education, based upon sound principles, should be observed, and moral precepts strictly inculcated. He proposed that every flea who presumed to exhibit, for hire, music, or dancing, or any species of theatrical entertainment, without a licence, should be considered a vagabond, and treated accordingly, in which respect he only placed him upon a level with the rest of mankind’.
The word vagabond of course recalled the Vagrants’ Ordinance which we still have on our statue books. Everyone agrees that it should be got rid of, or at least amended, but no one seems concerned enough to proceed with this. So we still continue to hear horror stories of how it is applied, most recently of a woman who went out shopping, and was taken in under the Ordinance.
The callousness with which the Ordinance is administered is obvious from the manner in which the Ministry of Justice has dodged, for over a year now, the Parliamentary Question I had raised on the subject. They will not provide me with statistics, I presume because they are not maintained, which is how people arrested under the Ordinance languish in jail for years.
I have written often to the Speaker about proceeding with amendment of the Standing Orders to ensure that Ministers who dodge Parliamentary Questions are upbraided, but two years have now passed since the Committee appointed for the purpose last met. More recently the Leader of the Opposition has raised the problem, and received a positive response from the Speaker, who I am aware is deeply concerned about the decline in Parliamentary standards. Unfortunately he simply does not have staff who will advise him practically or ensure action.
So I suppose Parliament too is complicit in the continuing violations of basic rights that our outdated laws encourage. And though there is agreement about the need for change, and because we have so many institutions involved in each area, we find no one takes a lead in promoting action. Even if they do, since they have to consult many others, and since no one will push, all it takes is for one concerned agency to fail to respond – and they all have excellent training in not responding – and action is postponed.
However, given two very active new Secretaries now at Social Services and at Child Development and Women Empowerment, I hope we will be able to move. One of the aims of the consultation is to promote coordination between the various agencies involved in social service. Since the Ministry of Public Administration seems now to have endorsed the suggestion of the Children’s Ministry to set up Women and Children’s Units in all Divisional Secretariats, I hope very much that these will provide space also to other officials concerned with social service, and that all of them will be given clear job descriptions to ensure effectiveness.
The consultation was planned to lead towards the following outputs –
Policy consensus between M/SS and M/W&C on social goals;
Better conceptualization of the Sri Lankan family and family vulnerabilities in the 21st century;
Recommendations for guidelines for all officials concerned with social work;
Recommendations for resolving issues of institutional separation and conflicts;
Recommendations for reducing and controlling the influence of poor law approaches to children and families;
Recommendations for developing a Sri Lankan praxis for child and family social work;
Recommendations for strengthening the nexus between work and life for the poor so that they support each other; or in more technical language recommendations for strengthening links between social and economic policy
Recommendations for gaining a better understanding of social sector negotiation of budget allocations.
Not all these might be possible, but even moving towards the achievement of a couple will be a great step forward.