15 Oct 2012

At the last meeting of the Inter-Ministerial Committee on implementation of the National Human Rights Action Plan, there was much emphasis on the forthcoming Universal Periodic Review which Sri Lanka will undergo in Geneva in November. I would have preferred direct concentration on the Action Plan, since I believe we should be committed to progress in this area for our own people, rather than because there is an External Review. I am pleased that Mahinda Samarasinghe is in charge of the delegation, notwithstanding the various leaks from the Ministry of External Affairs to suggest that only officials would be on the delegation, and I was glad that he was taking a forthright approach to the process. However I continue to believe that we are not being practical enough in our pursuit of Rights for our people, and we really must ensure clearcut responsibilities and reporting mechanisms.

After all sincerity – which Minister Samarasinghe has in abundance, along with his principal aide in the process, the former Attorney General Mohan Pieris – is not enough, as compared to statistics. I recall some months back the withering reply of Ambassador Patricia Butenis, when she was complaining that Sri Lanka was coming out with various contradictory positions about the LLRC, and I told her that she should not take seriously what others said, but should concentrate on the official position as expressed by the Ministry of External Affairs and by Mr Pieris. Her comment was that they no longer had credibility in her eyes.

I have referred previously to how the Americans, by their own disparate approaches, contributed to the erosion of trust that we have witnessed in recent years, but for the moment I shall concentrate on what we need to do, not just to make our commitment clear, but to ensure too that that commitment leads to positive results. In simple terms, the reason for collecting and collating statistics is not only to affirm the good work that has been done, but also to register for ourselves what more needs to be done, and to plan to do it expeditiously.

I have dealt already in these columns with the good work we have done in resettlement and rehabilitation, and mentioned some figures, but there is much more to describe. Our failure to do this systematically came home to me when, as part of my responsibility to monitor programmes of assistance, I found the records that were being kept singularly unhelpful. OCHA has maintained something called a 3W database, which is supposed to make the position clear, but the information was not only confused, there was also much duplication. No one however seemed to have studied the document, except for the Governor, which is yet another reason for using military skills, though of course under civilian command whenever the sphere of action is civilian in scope. incidentally, I cannot understand why former military men being Governors, a system that we see all over the world, including in Israel which is never subject to Western criticism for this reason, is considered militarization. But I suppose interpretations are always dependent upon prejudice, and not only with regard to Sri Lanka.

OCHA, I was delighted to find, were extremely helpful when I approached them, and in fact said they too were waiting to be told how the database could be used as a management tool. We decided then to divide it up by Division, and indeed the Presidential Task Force had suggested training in the use of the database for Divisional Secretaries, to which should obviously be added other officials at that level.

But this must be done soon, and information collated, because that will make it clear that, while some areas have received a lot of support from NGOs, others have had hardly any. Once the input of government – and I should add the excellent work done by the Army Civil Liaison branch, for instance in assisting schools and temples with buildings– is included, we will be able to see more clearly where attention should be concentrated in the next few months.

Similarly, there should be swift collation of the position with regard to land title, given the different complications that bedevil the issue. In the first place, many people have lost their title deeds. Secondly, there are conflicting claims to many places, given that people left many years ago and others have been in long-term occupation since. Our laws after all then create rights, which is why five years ago we discussed amendments to the laws on prescription, amendments which I gather will finally be made law. Thirdly, we also have the problem that, perhaps given the ethos of the seventies when much land was redistributed, title deeds were not given, but only permits. Since many changes have taken place since then, deciding who should now have title is not easy. Fourthly there is the problem of land that was occupied by government, where decisions have not yet been made about restoring it or else providing compensation if it is to be acquired.

Resolving all these problems will be complicated, but it must be done soon, and that will not be difficult if there is sufficient will to proceed. Government did make a stab at this through the Bim Saviya programme, and it is a pity that that was halted because of some inappropriate aspects in the system that was proposed. Given however that government has accepted that changes should be made, these should be done soon, and the very able Secretary to the Ministry of Lands asked to proceed swiftly with the necessary decisions, through the consultative process involving communities that the programme enjoined.

I should add though that, while Ministries need to act, coordination needs to be precise. I continue to believe a Ministry is essential for this purpose, and that the mess we got into with the interim recommendations of the LLRC should not be repeated through carelessness as to responsibilities.

Daily News 15 Oct 2012http://www.dailynews.lk/2012/10/15/fea05.asp

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